Human Rights Developments
Prospects for peace in the thirteen-year-old conflict in Afghanistan, which appeared dismal by the close of 1990, gained new momentum in late 1991. However, despite the decision by the United States and the Soviet Union to cut off arms to the warring parties, the conflict appears unlikely to be over soon. Human rights abuses continued, including indiscriminate attacks against civilians by both government forces and elements of the Afghan resistance, the mujahedin, resulting in the loss of hundreds of lives.
Despite hopes for a U.S.-Soviet statement agreeing to a political settlement at the December 1990 meeting between U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, the talks remained stalemated over the timetable for an arms cutoff. The December 20 resignation of Shevardnadze, prompted in part by the Soviet army's insistence on a greater role in foreign policy _ including continued military support for Afghan President Najibullah _ further set back the negotiations. As the two powers were distracted by the Persian Gulf war, U.S.-Soviet negotiations over a transition process leading to elections in Afghanistan remained stalemated. The deadlock centered on the interim role to be played by Najibullah. The Soviet Union continued to insist that Najibullah remain in power and that the powers of a transitional body be limited to organizing elections. The United States argued that Najibullah's command of communications and the security forces gave him an unfair advantage, so the transitional body should have control over these institutions during the election period.
Although the anti-Iraq alliance built during the Gulf crisis included most of the countries that had been at odds over Afghanistan, their cooperation in the Gulf war did not immediately bring them any closer to agreement about Afghanistan. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia remained committed to supporting a military victory by the mujahedin. The Saudi government moved toward public support for a political settlement in Afghanistan, spurred by the decision of some mujahedin parties, notably the Hezb-e Islami (Islamic Party) of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Ittehad-e Islami Bara-ye Azad-e Afghanistan (Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan) of Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf, to denounce the Saudi position in the Gulf war. However, Saudi private and government sources continued to fund radical mujahedin elements, even though these groups had opposed the Gulf war and expressed support for Saddam Hussein.
The stalemate on the Afghan battlefield was broken briefly at the end of March when the eastern city of Khost fell to the mujahedin. Despite initial statements by the U.S. Administration that the fall of Khost signaled a new unity among the rebels, the military success was in fact more a result of Pakistani intervention than coordination among mujahedin commanders. However, the battle did exhibit some improvements in the mujahedin's respect for international humanitarian law. For the first time, captured government soldiers were seen promptly by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and there were no confirmed reports of summary executions. However, the city, or what was left of it, was rapidly looted by mujahedin and allied tribal militia, and the victory changed little in the political arena.
On May 21, U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar issued a public statement outlining in broad terms the framework for a political settlement of the Afghan conflict. The statement reportedly reflected a consensus among the five external powers involved in aiding various groups in Afghanistan: the United States, the Soviet Union, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The plan called for a settlement based on an internationally assisted "transitional mechanism" which would enable the Afghans to hold "free and fair elections, in accord with Afghan traditions," accompanied by a cessation of hostilities and an end to military assistance to all Afghan parties by all external parties. The statement did not specify a role for Najibullah. Following further negotiations later in the year, Najibullah did express his willingness to step aside so long as his retirement was part of a peace package and his Watan Party was permitted to participate in the transitional government.
Meanwhile, abuses continued by both the Afghan government and mujahedin forces. Journalists reported that following the battle for Khost, and later during an assault on Gardez, a city sixty miles south of Kabul, the Afghan government launched Scud missiles into populated areas in the east and northeast of the country and also around Herat in the west, causing heavy casualties. The mujahedin also continued to fire rockets indiscriminately into Kabul and other cities, killing civilians. In one such attack, rockets that landed in residential areas of Kabul on January 19 killed eleven people, five of them children, according to press reports. On August 14, rockets struck a crowded bus in Kabul, killing thirty passengers.2
Throughout 1991, the Afghan government continued to make pronouncements about democratic reform. In October, Najibullah called for provincial and local elections to be held in both government- and mujahedin-controlled territory, before the conduct of the national elections currently being negotiated through the U.N. Special Representative. He also called for the formation of an interim government to include the mujahedin, and for U.N. mechanisms to control the flow of arms to both sides.
The relaxation of strict press controls permitted some criticism of the government, but officials continued to demonstrate an unwillingness to allow government critics in Kabul genuine freedom of speech or the press when it came to discussion of the war or of fundamentalist mujahedin leaders. On August 12, Ghulam Sakhi Ghairat, the editor of a new and reportedly outspoken biweekly newspaper Azadi (Freedom), was arrested and charged with "war propaganda" under Section 138 of the Constitution, which is frequently invoked to censor the press. Ghairat reportedly had published an article quoting the radical fundamentalist mujahedin leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Ghairat was tried, given a suspended sentence and released on August 26. Almost immediately he became the co-founder, along with thirteen other intellectuals, of a new political organization called the Movement for the Freedom, Democracy and Unity of Afghanistan. In its first statement on September 17, the group demanded, among other things, the abolition of the Ministry of State Security which President Najibullah formerly headed. Ghairat's arrest attracted international criticism, which may have prompted officials in Kabul not to interfere with his new organization so long as it limited itself to criticisms of the current government and was not seen to advocate radical alternatives. This reflects a tendency of the government to permit criticism when it supports the government's general message of reform.
By the end of 1991, the ICRC, which has access to sentenced prisoners held by the Afghan government, had still not been granted access to government detainees under interrogation. Most of those under interrogation are captured mujahedin, or those suspected of supporting the mujahedin or of being involved in the March 1990 coup attempt. Most arrests are carried out by the Ministry of State Security, and there are few safeguards against arbitrary arrest and torture. In his 1991 report on human rights in Afghanistan, U.N. Special Rapporteur Felix Ermacora stated:
persons suspected of having acted against State security have been tortured during the process of interrogation by security personnel with a view to obtaining information about a presumed network engaging in anti-constitutional and terrorist activities....[T]he means of torture were described as electric shock, beating...cigarette burns and continuous deprivation of sleep.
Disappearance and murder of Afghan relief workers and political figures by mujahedin groups in Pakistan also continued in 1991. Some of these include:
o In June, a prominent member of Afghan Mellat, a political organization which has been the target of attacks by the more fundamentalist mujahedin, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen as he left his home in Karachi.
o Three Afghan workers with the Swedish Committee on Afghanistan were assassinated during the year, and in early July, two Afghan Red Cross workers were shot while traveling in an ambulance.
o On July 9, Abdul Rahim Chinzai, a journalist and former government official under the deposed Afghan monarch Zaher Shah, was kidnapped by armed gunmen while on his way to Friday prayers in Peshawar. The abductors were reported by reliable Afghan sources to be members of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e Islami party. Chinzai's whereabouts remain unknown, but he is believed to be held in a Hezb-e Islami prison near the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
o On October 31, Abdul Rehman Zamani, the Afghan head of the Austrian Relief Committee, was injured along with two co-workers when unidentified gunmen sprayed his car with bullets while he was traveling in Peshawar.
o Foreign relief workers also continue to come under attack. Four ICRC officials were kidnapped by mujahedin forces in February and held for seventy-five days _ leading to the suspension of ICRC activities in some provinces.
While many of these incidents as well as scores of earlier kidnappings and murders occurred in Pakistan, the Pakistani authorities have made little if any effort to investigate or prosecute those responsible.
On September 13, a week after the failed coup in Moscow, the United States and the Soviet Union finally agreed to a mutual arms cutoff, to begin January 1, 1992. At about the same time, however, a number of mujahedin commanders supported by the Pakistani military intelligence agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) launched an offensive against the city of Gardez. The assault coincided with reports that the ISI was providing the most abusive of the rebels with Iraqi weaponry captured during the Gulf war. By mid-October, the fighting had moved on to Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, only to be called off abruptly before the end of the month. In the course of the Gardez and Jalalabad offensives, indiscriminate rocket attacks and bombardments by both sides resulted in many civilian casualties and an influx of new refugees into Pakistan.3
In November, mujahedin representatives led by Jamiat-e Islami (Islamic Society) leader Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani met with the Soviet foreign minister in Moscow to discuss the U.N. peace plan and other matters, including war reparations and Soviet prisoners-of-war. The visit was fraught with controversy among Afghans in Pakistan, as various mujahedin leaders alternately denounced and endorsed aspects of the discussions. The delegation of mujahedin leaders agreed to national elections to be held under the supervision of the Islamic Conference and the United Nations, but radical mujahedin leaders have continued to reject the plan.
The Right to Monitor
Even with the promulgation of reforms under Najibullah's government in Kabul, the right to freedom of expression remained too circumscribed to permit genuine human rights monitors to function. The arrest of editor Ghairat on August 12 suggests that while certain kinds of criticisms on human rights issues may be tolerated, human rights monitoring by domestic groups investigating issues related to the war, such as the treatment of political detainees, clearly is not. The few quasi-independent groups able to function, notably the National Salvation Society, have limited their recommendations to subjects which already fall within the government's promised reforms: national reconciliation, elections and pluralism. The Afghan government has cooperated with international human rights organizations, including Asia Watch. Its failure to grant full access to the ICRC, however, remains an obstacle to human rights improvements.
In Peshawar, and in other areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan where Afghan mujahedin groups have support, human rights monitoring is a dangerous profession. Afghan exiles and refugees engaged in any activity perceived as inappropriate by the more radical mujahedin groups, especially those led by Hekmatyar, Sayyaf, and Yunis Khales, head of a second party called Hezb-e Islami (Islamic Party), have been imprisoned or killed. The victims of these abuses have generally been representatives of moderate or secular Afghan political groups, Afghans employed by Western and particularly Christian relief organizations, and Afghan or Pakistani journalists or others who have attempted to document mujahedin abuses.
The most important development in U.S. policy toward Afghanistan in 1991 was the agreement with the Soviet Union on an arms cutoff, to take effect at the beginning of 1992. The agreement promises to sever the supply line that has provided the resistance with two to three billion dollars in covert assistance over the past decade.
Throughout 1991, the State Department expressed support for a political settlement to the conflict that would lead to free and fair elections in Afghanistan. This sentiment was reflected in written testimony on June 20 by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs John Kelly before the House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, in which he stated, "We...do not believe that the fall of Khost has shown that military victory is the path to a settlement, by either side." He went on to note that "many Afghans believe that, even were a military victory possible, the price in greater destruction of property and human suffering is too high to pay."
With momentum building toward agreement on a political settlement, the Administration presented a more balanced assessment of human rights and humanitarian law violations than it had in previous years. The State Department's Country Report for Human Rights Practices in 1990, published in February 1991, was considerably more accurate and balanced in its description of human rights in Afghanistan than has been the case previously. For the first time, the report included abuses by the mujahedin, notably disappearances, torture and political killings. The report also blamed both the government and resistance forces for violations of the laws of war, particularly indiscriminate attacks that resulted in heavy civilian casualties. However, the report also tried to excuse the mujahedin by noting that they "assert that they strive to minimize civilian casualties" when, in fact, the rockets that have caused these casualties are incapable of being aimed accurately and should not be used at all in populated areas.4
Similarly, in his June 20 testimony, Secretary Kelly observed that while "the behavior of combatants on both sides leaves much to be desired," increased cooperation with the ICRC in both government- and resistance-controlled areas marked a significant improvement. He appropriately used the occasion to express the Administration's concern that the mujahedin abide by international norms.
However, the State Department's verbal and diplomatic support for the peace process appears not to have been shared by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its Pakistani ally, the ISI, which continued to support a military approach fraught with abuse. The rift in U.S. policy was reported by The New York Times in January in an interview with Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Robert Kimmitt who was reported as having "battled with [CIA] officials who would like to unleash the guerrillas in Afghanistan in one last effort," while Secretary Baker worked to "coax the rebels and the Najibullah regime into democratic elections." In the interview, Kimmitt complained that agency officials were "just bucking policy."5 In February, as negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union remained stalled, The New York Times reported that "the [CIA], in a long policy dispute with the State Department that it now appears to be winning, has been arguing that negotiations cannot end the war and that Washington should step up its efforts to help the guerrillas win a military victory."6
Since the early 1980s, the ISI, in collaboration with the CIA, has used its control over the arms pipeline to run the war and favor abusive mujahedin parties, particularly Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's faction, which used U.S.- and Saudi-financed weapons to launch indiscriminate attacks on Afghan cities, killing countless civilians. Even after Pakistan's civilian government agreed in June to join the other parties in endorsing the U.N. peace process, ISI commanders continued to encourage military offensives by the most radical and abusive of the mujahedin. The indiscriminate assaults on Gardez and Jalalabad in late 1991, both of which were backed by the ISI, brought about no political change but did induce retaliatory strikes by Afghan government forces and caused a large number of civilian casualties. According to a report in The Washington Post, the weapons used in these offensives included captured Iraqi artillery, tanks, machine guns and mortars. This weaponry was supplied to the mujahedin by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the months following the Gulf war when "the United States and other supporters of the mujahedin were pursuing a two-track policy of backing diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful solution to the...war while at the same time maintaining military pressure on the Kabul government."7 The supply of captured Iraqi and other weapons by the United States to mujahedin groups that have engaged in violations of the laws of war makes the U.S. a party to these abuses.
These ISI activities underscore how little the U.S.-Soviet agreement on ending arms supplies will mean so long as the other parties to the conflict have access to arms and exhibit little interest in peace. Moreover, all sides in the conflict have stockpiled enough weapons to keep the war going for years to come. Among these weapons are land mines, which all parties continue to use, frequently without mapping or marking the sites in violation of the laws of war, adding to the millions of such devices scattered all over the country. Continuing hostilities prevent any systematic effort at mine removal.
The Work of Asia Watch
In February 1991, Asia Watch published a report, The Forgotten War, which documented human rights and humanitarian violations by the Afghan government and the mujahedin since the Soviet withdrawal. The report was based on a mission to Pakistan and Afghanistan between June and August 1990. Throughout 1991, Asia Watch engaged in discussions with U.S. officials and Afghan government representatives about human rights concerns in the report.
In July, Asia Watch issued a statement condemning the disappearance in Peshawar of Abdul Rahim Chinzai, apparently at the hands of mujahedin leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and urging the Pakistani authorities to take steps to ensure his release. In August, Asia Watch intervened to protest the detention of editor Ghairat, who was arrested in Kabul on charges of disseminating "war propaganda."
In August, Asia Watch published a newsletter, "Toward a Political Settlement in Afghanistan: The Need to Protect Human Rights," which outlined different human rights safeguards that might be included in a settlement of the Afghan conflict. The document was based on an analysis of peace accords in Cambodia, Namibia, El Salvador and Angola. It was presented to senior U.N. officials and circulated among the major parties negotiating the peace process. It was also translated into Russian.
See "Eleven Reported Slain in Kabul, The New York Times, January 20, 1991; "Rebel Raid Reportedly Kills 30 on Bus in Afghan Capital," The New York Times, August 15, 1991.
Ahmed Rashid, "Mujahideen Muddle," Far Eastern Economic Review, October 31, 1991.
See Human Rights Watch, World Report 1990, p. 257.
Clifford Krauss, "In Hot Spots Like the Gulf, He's Baker's Cool Hand, The New York Times, January 3, 1991.
Clifford Krauss, "Afghanistan, the Place Where the Cold War Didn't Go Out of Style," The New York Times, February 17, 1991.
Steve Coll, "Afghan Rebels Said to Use Iraqi Tanks," The Washington Post, October 1, 1991.