Governments around the world have gathered in Brussels to show political and financial support for the Afghan government’s efforts at democratic reforms and to promote economic development. The meeting couldn’t have come a more crucial time. European countries worried about the global refugee crisis have turned a blind eye to Afghanistan’s looming humanitarian crisis, assuring themselves that much of the country is safe enough.
But as the conflict has escalated, civilian casualties have risen dramatically, and insecurity is driving thousands to flee the country or join more than one million people internally displaced. If donor states are serious about their commitments to Afghanistan’s security, they should press the Afghan government to take urgent steps to promote fundamental human rights and protection for civilians.
While the Taliban and other insurgent groups have been responsible for the vast majority of attacks that have caused significant civilian casualties, Afghan forces are also increasingly endangering civilians. The military use of schools, attacks on healthcare facilities, and threats to media freedom are of particular concern.
Human Rights Watch documented the devastating effects when schools are used for military purposes. Last year, Taliban forces occupied a new Swedish government-financed school for 350 boys and girls in Baghlan province. In early 2016, government forces attacked the Taliban there, leaving the school in ruins.
Afghan military forces are also increasingly putting civilians in harm’s way by occupying schools, using them as military bases during offensives into Taliban-held areas. This turns these schools into targets and interrupts children’s education. Families are especially hesitant to let girls attend schools being used by soldiers.
Over the last decade, millions of Afghan children have had significantly greater access to education as a result of donor support. However, these impressive but fragile gains are at serious risk, with girls hit hardest. Military use of schools may run counter to the commitments Afghanistan made when endorsing the international Safe Schools Declaration. It also imperils the development goals Afghanistan’s donors have long pledged to uphold, tarnishing the government’s reputation while fueling support for insurgents.
Sweden should work closely with the Afghan government to discourage the military use of schools, monitor schools built or rebuilt with donor funds, urge the government to press occupying forces to leave, and promote security force policies and practices that better protect schools.
Sweden should also press the Afghan government to address corruption in education, particularly the sale of teaching positions, which affect education quality and recruitment of female teachers. Sweden should also urge the Afghan government to move toward making primary school compulsory in accordance with international law, ensure that all children attend school, and consider extending the school day.
Throughout 2016 both the Afghan military and insurgents have attacked clinics and hospitals. In February, Afghan police special forces raided a medical clinic run by the humanitarian Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, assaulted staff, and executed two patients, one of them 16, and a 15-year-old caregiver. The government has not made public the findings of any investigation or steps taken to hold those responsible to account.
Afghanistan’s media are also increasingly under threat. The horrific shooting of the journalist Nils Horner in Kabul in April 2014 was one of many attacks on journalists that has never been fully investigated. President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah have repeatedly expressed support for a free media. However, as recently as August 29, Afghan security forces assaulted journalists in Bamiyan as they attempted to cover a protest. These abuses continue in large part because those responsible are not held to account.
Impunity has long been identified as a key problem in Afghanistan’s development and a continued impediment to protecting civilians. At this crucial moment in donor countries’ commitment to Afghanistan, ensuring better protection of civilians and genuine respect for a free and open media are crucial components.
Sweden should encourage Afghanistan to protect journalists and media organizations, including by rigorously investigating and prosecuting threats and attacks on journalists. Sweden should also continue to provide long-term institutional support to assist independent news media organizations to become self-sustaining.
At the previous conference on Afghanistan in London in 2014, Afghanistan’s donors pledged to “support Afghanistan to become a secure and stable nation,” and reaffirmed their commitment “to promote the government’s role in public service, good governance, the rule of law, and human rights all citizens.” For the future of the people of Afghanistan, Sweden and other governments should live up to these commitments.