The slaughter of as many as 85 people in Kabul on May 8, most of them schoolgirls between ages 11 and 17, and most of them Hazara Shia, has set a new low for depravity in Afghanistan, where decades of war have featured frequent atrocities. The outpouring of grief and anger has been enormous and eclipsed reports of even more attacks. The bombing at the Sayed ul-Shuhada school—timed as students were leaving for home, apparently to maximize the carnage—prompted condemnations from officials in Kabul and around the world and calls for parties to the conflict to stop targeting civilians. But real action needs to be taken to bring such atrocities to an end.
Anyone who carried out this heinous crime is most likely beyond the reach of condemnation. But they might be made wary about criminal liability for their unlawful acts if there were credible reasons to believe justice might be done. The Taliban have denied responsibility but have targeted civilians—including Hazara Shias—in the past. The Islamic State of Khorasan Province, a group affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS) has explicitly targeted the Shia Hazara community more recently, including in the Dasht-e Barchi neighborhood where this attack occurred. A more effective response to this attack would be to focus on seriously investigating these crimes so that the perpetrators are identified with the aim of preventing future attacks.
In a statement released after the attack, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) called on concerned countries to support its demand for a credible and transparent investigation under UN auspices, and has also asked the UN to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate the increased number of attacks on civilian facilities, including schools and mosques. The AIHRC has said that the authorities should ensure that in affected neighborhoods like Dasht-e Barchi, “the community’s grief, questions and demands…be heard. Most of the families are amongst the poorest.” The Sayed ul-Shuhada school served a largely impoverished Hazara community, and community leaders point to longstanding discrimination and neglect of their neighborhoods, including lack of security for schools that have so often been targeted.
Donor countries, which have long supported efforts to increase access to justice in Afghanistan, should heed these calls, offer assistance, and demand that the Afghan government pursue genuine accountability. But the Afghan government has largely failed to carry out credible and thorough investigations of attacks like these—and there are already signs that it will fail again in this case.
This is, in fact, one of the reasons why the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has kept investigations open into crimes in Afghanistan. Ironically, the attack took place just as an Afghan government delegation was in the Hague to meet the ICC prosecutor to discuss how well the government was meeting its obligations to investigate atrocity crimes. The meeting was organized in the context of the government’s March 2020 request to defer an ICC investigation on the grounds that it was adequately investigating and prosecuting such crimes on its own.
This claim is unsupported by the facts. The Afghan government has a poor record of investigating probable war crimes like the Sayed ul-Shuhada school attack. There have been many such attacks just in this neighborhood—and many, many more across the country. Few are actually criminally investigated, and those responsible go unpunished in most cases. The Afghan leadership’s repeated failures reflect poorly on their commitments to justice, and on donors that have funded the government’s efforts to support the justice system over two decades.
Take the shockingly inadequate investigation of the May 2020 attack on the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)-supported maternity wing of the Dasht-e Barchi hospital. Investigators didn’t even interview medical staff to try to determine who was behind the attack, which ultimately compelled MSF to withdraw its support from the hospital.
Or the September 2018 “double-tap” bombing at a wrestling club in Dasht-e Barchi that killed 20 people, including two journalists. The government said it would carry out an investigation but failed to do so. In 2019, I met with the war crimes unit at the Afghanistan Attorney General’s Office, who told me they were investigating the incident, but they have released no information in the two years since about any investigation.
Under international humanitarian law, governments have an obligation to investigate alleged war crimes committed on their territory and appropriately prosecute those responsible, including insurgent attacks in areas under government control. The Afghan government has largely failed to meet these obligations, and also repeatedly failed to hold its own forces accountable for alleged abuses.
But at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Afghan Foreign Minister Hanif Atmar stated that the government had reaffirmed to the ICC prosecutors its “continued cooperation and commitment for addressing international crimes in Afghanistan and serving justice for Afghans by holding perpetrators of crimes accountable.”
Such assurances have proven hollow. Afghans have not seen any evidence of this “commitment.” And in the absence of serious fact-finding, impunity abounds, and finger-pointing for political purposes fuels more grievances and a cycle of atrocities and revenge. Already in Dasht-e Barchi, rumors and accusations have inflamed mistrust and calls for arming for self-protection. In the context of Afghanistan’s larger deteriorating security situation, more atrocities can only be expected.
More than condemnations, what the UN and concerned countries need to do is assist Afghanistan in its accountability efforts and investigations, support ICC jurisdiction, and send the message to all armed groups that the international community is serious about liability for war crimes. Only accountability for current abuses can deter future ones.