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(Kabul) – Afghanistan’s new national unity government failed to make significant gains in achieving human rights reforms in 2015, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2016. Little progress was made in reining in abusive militias, reducing corruption, promoting women’s rights, and reforming the courts.

Afghan journalists seek cover in Kabul on Jan. 18, 2010 during a series of co-ordinated attacks by Taliban militants in the Afghan capital that killed at least 10 people and injured 32. © 2010 Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.

“Afghanistan’s national unity government squandered important opportunities to tackle serious human rights problems,” said Patricia Gossman, senior Afghanistan researcher. “As reforms have slipped, so have essential human rights protections for detainees, women, and the media. Donors will need to work more closely with the Afghan government to ensure that the fragile gains of the past 14 years aren’t lost.”

During the past year, the government struggled to overcome internal divisions and conflicts with local strongmen and power brokers, while infighting among government institutions jeopardized the broader reform agenda. Abuses by government security forces and advances by the Taliban further undermined public confidence in the government.

As fighting between the Taliban and Afghan government forces escalated in 2015, the government took steps that jeopardized fundamental rights protections, notably by expanding the Afghan Local Police, a militia with a record of rape, extortion, and unlawful killings.

In September, President Ashraf Ghani issued a decree providing for indefinite preventive detention, reversing a long-standing rejection of the abusive practice, which puts detainees at increased risk of torture. The government also announced some measures to reduce civilian casualties during military operations and disarm abusive militias, but the failure to hold security force personnel accountable for violations undermined those efforts.

With the Taliban appearing fractured, splinter groups and other insurgents increasingly carried out indiscriminate attacks against civilians. These included armed groups affiliating themselves with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), which were responsible for kidnappings and attacks that killed several hundred civilians.

The Taliban seized a number of district centers and threatened provincial capitals, including Kunduz, which it captured and held for nearly two weeks in September and October before Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), with United States air and ground support, regained control. During that time, nearly 300 civilians were killed, many as a result of indiscriminate fire by both sides. Taliban forces also threatened women’s rights activists and deliberately killed some civilians they accused of working for the government. Afghan government forces reportedly killed a number of Taliban detainees.

On October 3, a US warplane supporting Afghan and US ground forces repeatedly fired upon a hospital in Kunduz run by the aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières, killing at least 42 people and wounding dozens more. Preliminary results from a US military inquiry found “human, procedural and technical” errors behind the airstrike; however, the findings left unanswered many questions about why and how the facility was targeted, and whether Afghan forces had requested the attack, indicating the need for a criminal investigation outside the chain of command to ensure genuine accountability.

The Afghan government took some positive steps to address longstanding human rights concerns, launching an action plan to curb torture and enacting legislation criminalizing the recruitment of child soldiers. However, the action plan remained stalled at year’s end, and impunity for both torture and recruiting underage soldiers continued.

President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah both affirmed the government’s commitment to preserving and expanding protections for women’s rights, but they failed to take steps to improve enforcement of the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) and to stop prosecutions of so-called moral crimes. On July 8, the Afghan parliament rejected Ghani’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Anisa Rasouli, the nation’s first-ever female nominee.

The flawed trial of those responsible for the murder of Farkhunda Malikzada, a women beaten and killed by a Kabul mob on March 19, and the minimal sentences handed down for the police who stood by, reveal the government’s failure to protect women from violence and tackle deficiencies in the justice system.

“Atrocities by the Taliban and other insurgents are no excuse for the government to deploy abusive militias or fail to hold the security forces accountable for violations,” Gossman said. “Donors have been all too willing to ignore abuses taking place rather than using their influence with the government to end them.” 

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