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2009 World Report: Obama Should Emphasize Human Rights

Human Rights Watch

Thursday 15 January 2009

Afghanistan is experiencing its worst violence since the fall of the Taliban government. Widespread human rights abuses, warlordism, and impunity persist, with a government that lacks the strength or will to institute necessary reforms. Corruption and an escalating cost of living are affecting millions.

The Taliban and other militants have extended their control into parts of the country previously considered relatively stable, such as Logar and Wardak which border Kabul province, and parts of Herat province in the west. Kabul was a target of several audacious militant attacks in 2008, with several major roads out of the capital becoming dangerous to travel. Civilians continue to bear the brunt of militants’ bomb attacks. Civilian deaths resulting from international military actions also remain high, with hundreds of preventable deaths occurring in 2007 and 2008.

Violence and Insecurity

As the violence spirals, each year that passes is declared bloodier than the last. 2008 was no exception. Insurgent groups have been responsible for approximately two-thirds of civilian deaths. In the first seven months of 2008, the UN estimates that improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks killed almost 500 civilians. Antigovernment forces routinely violate the laws of war by launching attacks from civilian areas or retreating to such areas, knowingly drawing return fire.

The targeting of individuals associated with the government is also on the rise, from school teachers to human rights defenders, with the United Nations recording over a hundred assassinations in 2008. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the September killing of Afghanistan’s highest-ranking female police officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Malalai Kakar.

Despite operational improvements, significant numbers of civilians also continue to be killed by US and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) airstrikes, inflaming public opinion and undermining the government. In July 2008, a mistaken US bombing of a wedding party in Deh Bala, Nangahar province, killed 47 civilians. Denials and lack of transparency have made the situation worse. In August, US forces bombed the village of Azizabad; the UN, the government, and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission said more than 90 civilians were killed. The US initially denied that any more than seven civilians had been killed, but weeks later raised the figure to 33.

Increasingly under joint command, the US and ISAF have now agreed to hold joint investigations with the Afghanistan government. Too often a faulty condolence-payment system has not provided timely and adequate compensation to assist civilians harmed by US and ISAF actions.

Outside the conflict areas, organized crime and warlords terrorize Afghans with impunity. Kidnapping of Afghans for ransom is common, but the police seem largely incapable or unwilling to tackle it.

Governance and Impunity

The Afghan government continues to lose public legitimacy because of widespread corruption, failure to improve living standards, and lack of progress in establishing the rule of law even in areas under its control. Afghans frequently cite police corruption as a problem, with internationally funded police reform efforts showing limited impact. The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Philip Alston, visited Afghanistan in May 2008 and drew attention to the impunity police generally enjoy after they have been accused of killing civilians.

President Hamid Karzai’s government has done little to implement the Action Plan for Peace, Reconciliation and Justice, a five-year plan for implementing transitional justice in Afghanistan, part of the Afghanistan Compact which the government officially initiated on December 12, 2006. The legal status of an amnesty for war criminals, passed by parliament in 2007, is still unclear. But the tone of the debate on transitional justice is still being dominated by the influential group of parliamentarians that pushed the resolution through, including Abdul Rabb al Rasul Sayyaf, Burhanuddin Rabbani, and Taj Mohammad, all of whom have been implicated in war crimes and other serious human rights abuses. The Karzai administration appears powerless to challenge them.

Women and Girls

Afghan women and girls rank among the world’s worst-off by most indicators, including maternal mortality, life expectancy, and literacy.

Insecurity prevents the vast majority of girls from attending school in the south and southeast. In Kandahar in November 2008, several schoolgirls had acid thrown at their faces on their way to school. Even in conflict-free areas, Afghan girls continue to face immense obstacles to education such as lack of girls’ schools, sexual harassment en route to school, and early marriage which tends to prematurely end schooling. According to Ministry of Education data, 46 percent of primary school-aged girls were enrolled in primary school, compared with 74 percent of boys. At the secondary level only 8 percent of girls and 18 percent of boys were enrolled.

Women still confront widespread discrimination, significant barriers to working outside the home, and restrictions on their mobility; many still cannot travel without an accompanying male relative and a burqa.

Children

As part of their campaign of terrorizing the civilian population, the Taliban and other insurgent groups continue to target schools, and in particular girls’ schools. According to the Ministry of Education, over one hundred schools were attacked between March and October 2008, with the Afghanistan NGO Security Office recording more than 30 teachers and students killed in the first 10 months of 2008.

According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, child labor is prevalent throughout the country and is another reason children do not attend school.

The UN special representative for children and armed conflict drew attention in 2008 to the largely taboo practice of bacha bazi (the keeping of boys as sex slaves by wealthy or powerful patrons). The government of Afghanistan has done little to tackle this abusive cultural tradition.

Human Rights Defenders

Freedom of expression for those who criticize government officials, insurgents, or powerful local figures remains limited. Threats, violence, and intimidation are regularly used to silence opposition politicians, critical journalists, and civil society activists.

In January 2008, 23-year-old student Sayed Parviz Kambakhsh was sentenced to death on blasphemy charges, accused of downloading, doctoring, and distributing among friends an article about the role of women in Islam. In October, the death sentence was commuted to 20 years in prison—still an excessive punishment. Kambakhsh’s detention and trial were marred by denials of justice including confessions extracted under duress, excessive periods in detention, limited access to lawyers, a closed and abbreviated trial, the use of inappropriate evidence, and severe delays during the appeal process.

Media Freedom

The blossoming of an independent media sector was once seen as a rare success of the post-Taliban government. But the increasingly authoritarian government has repressed critical journalism, leading to self-censorship. Dozens of journalists have been detained, some held without charge for days, weeks, or months.

In July 2008 a private TV program airing accusations of government corruption was pulled off the air on the orders of the president’s office. The intelligence services detained the presenter, Mohammad Nasir Fayaz, for two days.

Journalists are also attacked by warlords, insurgents, parliamentarians, and the security forces. The body of 25-year-old journalist Abdul Samad Rohani, a BBC correspondent, was found with multiple knife and bullet wounds in June 2008. The government’s response to such crimes remains weak.

The most dangerous areas for journalists are in the south and east of the country where the armed conflict and the resulting propaganda war are most fierce. Insurgent groups have used murder, arson, and intimidation to try to stop reporting they see as unsympathetic. The government also exerts undue pressure on reporters in conflict areas who have legitimate journalistic contacts with insurgent groups.

Key International Actors

In the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of the Taliban in 2002-2003, the international community’s stated aim was to extend the reach of central government, in order to avoid the vacuum of weak or absent government being exploited by the insurgency. Foreign military powers, donors, and the UN have since failed to prioritize governance and the rule of law, contributing to the growth of insurgency in Afghanistan and the diminution of central government control.

The Paris donor conference in June 2008 offered donors a chance to address fundamental problems of impunity, women’s rights, freedom of expression, transitional justice, and judicial reform. Instead, donors largely offered more of the same, with few conditions attached to aid.

The UN operation in Afghanistan remains understaffed, with the human rights and rule of law office well below capacity. The UN special representative for Afghanistan, Kai Eide, who took charge in April 2008, has not prioritized human rights.

International security forces, in particular US forces, have focused much of their efforts on killing or capturing al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, rather than providing a safer environment for Afghans to enjoy their basic rights.

The US military operates in Afghanistan without an adequate legal framework, such as a status-of-forces agreement, and continues to detain hundreds of Afghans without adequate legal process. The expanding US-run Bagram detention facility holds over 600 prisoners, including children, who are given negligible legal rights. Unlike at Guantanamo, prisoners at Bagram are not allowed to see lawyers. Administrative review of detainees’ cases is cursory. The detainees have no right to a personal advocate, no opportunity to review the evidence against them, and very little means of contesting the grounds for their detention.

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