(Washington, D.C.) – Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and United States President Barack Obama should make human rights issues a key agenda item during meetings the week of March 23, 2015, Human Rights Watch said today. Both the US and Afghan governments have a legacy of human rights violations to address, from abusive militias in Afghanistan to the mistreatment of detainees at Bagram and Guantanamo.
Over the last decade, the US government has provided billions of dollars to arm and equip Afghan military, militia, and police forces. Many of those forces – in particular militia forces – have engaged in human rights abuses, alienating local communities and fueling the insurgency. Security forces have also engaged in the systematic use of torture, a practice that remains unchecked. Ghani, who came to office in 2014, vowed to address abuses by the security forces.
“For more than 13 years, the US and Afghan governments have attempted to achieve security at the expense of human rights, and the effort has failed,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director. “The evidence is in: arming powerful strongmen at the cost of good governance and the rule of law doesn’t work.”
Since 2001, Human Rights Watch has repeatedly warned of the shortcomings of US security strategy in Afghanistan and called on US and Afghan authorities to sideline abusive strongmen. Years of abuses by security forces have undermined security and generated new recruits for insurgent forces.
Ghani has signaled a readiness to reform Afghanistan’s corrupt judiciary and rein in abusive security forces whose targets have included journalists and human rights activists. The US needs to support this effort by tailoring aid commitments to motivate Afghan security bureaucracies to hold perpetrators accountable. The US should tie security assistance to demonstrated improvements in security forces’ accountability, and explore other options for encouraging Afghanistan to improve its human rights record.
Violence against women remains endemic in Afghanistan, with an estimated 87 percent of women experiencing abuse in their lifetime. Obama should urge Ghani to take steps to enforce the 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW Law), which has provided new protections for women, but has been poorly enforced by the previous Afghan government. The March 19, 2015 murder of a 27-year-old woman by a mob in the middle of Kabul called into question the government’s ability and commitment to protect women from violence. Violence against women is seldom prosecuted.
A key barrier to enforcing the EVAW Law is a lack of women officers in the Afghanistan National Police. The salaries of Afghanistan’s police are paid by foreign donors, with the US playing a major role in this support. The US should link its continued support to the police with achievement of benchmarks on recruitment and retention of female police officers and personnel, and action taken to enforce the EVAW Law.
Human Rights Watch also called on Ghani to press Obama on closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and reopening investigations into torture and other ill-treatment of detainees by the CIA and US military personnel during the Bush administration, including in Afghanistan, abuses which were extensively documented by Human Rights Watch. Impunity for those abuses has damaged US credibility on human rights and served as a motivational force for insurgent and terrorist groups worldwide.
“US personnel tortured and killed detainees in Afghanistan,” Sifton said. “Ghani should use his meeting with Obama to ask him to order or reopen criminal investigations.”
The Taliban’s terrible human rights record also should be addressed. Over the past 20 years, Taliban forces have engaged in extensive war crimes, including deliberate attacks on civilians and indiscriminate bombings. The US and Afghan government should support efforts by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate abuses by all parties. Afghanistan ratified the ICC Statute in 2003.
As the Afghan government seeks to revive talks with the Taliban, Ghani has stated that his administration “will not surrender” achievements in Afghan media, civil society, and women’s rights. Ghani should uphold that promise by including women on the negotiating team in any peace talks with the Taliban, as set out in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325.
“President Ghani and President Obama should publicly commit to making human rights and accountability priorities in their new joint security strategy,” Sifton said. “It’s time to reject the temptation of expediency over respect for human rights.”