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Afghanistan: Human Rights Abuses Threaten Peace Process

  • Askold Krushelnycky

A human rights organization has published a report that details ethnic persecution in Afghanistan and warns that such abuses could undermine the peace process in the country. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky examines the human rights situation in Afghanistan.

Kabul, 11 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S.-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch has published a report focusing on violence and looting committed by ethnic militias against Pashtun communities across northern Afghanistan.

The Pashtuns are Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, but in the north of the country they constitute a minority. Human Rights Watch says in a report released on 9 April that Pashtuns -- who mostly live in the south and east of the country -- have been targeted for persecution by gunmen linked to the non-Pashtun former Northern Alliance forces, which today form the most powerful component of the interim Afghan government.

The extremist Islamic Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan was predominantly Pashtun, but not all Pashtuns were Taliban supporters. However, some of the former Northern Alliance forces have been wreaking vengeance on the Pashtun minority community in the north for Taliban atrocities committed against non-Pashtun communities there between 1997 and 2001.

Human Rights Watch lists cases of summary executions, beatings, sexual violence, abductions, and looting committed since November, when Northern Alliance forces regained power in the north.

Human Rights Watch researcher Peter Bouckaert warns that the persecutions could undermine efforts to organize a national conference that both Afghans and the international community hope will lead to the selection of a new government for a two-year transitional period, which will solidify peace and democracy in the country.

The traditional conference, called a loya jirga, consists of politicians as well as local tribal, ethnic, and religious leaders and other distinguished figures. It is due to take place in June but elections of delegates to the loya jirga begin at the district level on 13 April.

Another human rights organization, Amnesty International, has also drawn attention to the persecution of Pashtuns in the north, especially around the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

The head of Amnesty International's Swedish section, Carl Soderbergh, visited Afghanistan to prepare the opening of a permanent office in the country. Soderbergh said that those who committed atrocities, such as those alleged in the north of Afghanistan, felt they would never be held accountable for their actions. He said it is necessary to undermine these feelings of invulnerability in order to help stop the cycle of ethnic violence in the country.

"I think one of the key dilemmas to rebuilding Afghanistan is the current climate of impunity, where those who have perpetrated grave violations of human rights are never brought to justice. And so I think it will be very important for organizations such as Amnesty [International] and Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations to catalog, to document, to support Afghan non-governmental organizations so that they can also do this work -- research and document what has happened before," Soderbergh said. "What we would like to see is the perpetrators [of human rights abuses] brought to justice, and we would like to support that through providing this sort of documentation."

Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International advocate the creation of an Afghan national army whose soldiers would respect human rights and that would exclude commanders and troops who participated in previous human rights violations in the country.

Soderbergh said Amnesty International also hopes to coordinate with the ISAF, the multinational peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, to wean the Afghan police and military away from their often brutal methods toward something resembling Western standards.

He said Amnesty International believes that reforming Afghanistan's judiciary is essential to the protection of human rights in the country.

"We are also looking at training judges and lawyers. We see a need to train and support Afghan human rights non-governmental organizations now that they're starting up here or moving across the border from Peshawar [in Pakistan]. So there are any number of areas where Amnesty [International] is clearly and urgently needed, and other organizations such as us," Soderbergh said.

Kristina Hedlund Thulin is the adviser on human rights to the European Union delegation in Kabul. In March, she organized a human rights conference attended by members of the Afghan interim government, including its leader, Hamid Karzai, and helped the government set up a national commission for human rights.

She said many in the Afghan interim government seem genuinely concerned about human rights and want to incorporate such guarantees in a future Afghan constitution. She said some Afghan lawyers and politicians are well-versed in Western concepts of human rights, but that many Afghans do not understand the concept or view the issue with suspicion.

"It might well be that the term human rights is something that is seen as positive or something that the West wants. But actually do people know what we [the European Union] mean by human rights? Do people understand that? I don't really know. But honestly, if you go and speak to people in the street in Europe, they wouldn't know either. So I'm not sure that has to do with culture. It might well have to do with just not understanding," Thulin said.

She acknowledged that there is not an absence of regulations governing the way people should behave toward one another in Afghanistan, but that Afghan ideas of such behavior often clash with Western concepts of human rights.

For instance, Pashtun life is governed by a code of behavior that fuses tribal traditions with those of Islam, called Pashtun Wali. Disputes and crimes are often resolved by local elders rather than judges working within a national judiciary system, as in the West.

"At the moment, I think these perceptions are far apart. There are common areas, if you like, like two circles that actually go into each other, and there are common areas where it is possible to work. There are areas which are far outside on the human rights side or the Pashtun Wali side. I would think it will take a very long time to make the two go together," Thulin said.

Thalin agreed with Amnesty International that attempts by the Afghan government to introduce a code of human rights will only work if there is a fair and efficient judicial system to guarantee human rights. The interim government has chosen to use the country's 1964 constitution as the basis on which to build a reformed legal system.

"Based on the 1964 constitution, there have been drafted and implemented a criminal law, a criminal code, a civil code, several other laws and codes, so there is something to build on. At the same time, many courts have been destroyed, many judges are gone, either fled or dead. You need attorneys general. You need a police system. But there is clearly a big job ahead to build a full legal system with security on the basis of the rule of law," Thulin said.

Human Rights Watch also acknowledged that Karzai wants to improve human rights in Afghanistan, but said his capacity to do so is limited because much power remains in the hands of regional warlords and local commanders, some of whom hold important positions in the interim government and provincial administrations.

The organization said that only an expanded international security force in the country will allow Afghans to choose an accountable government and allow national institutions a chance to rebuild. That is a controversial proposition because the international community has found it difficult to assemble the 5,000 men needed for ISAF's operations in Kabul.

(The Human Rights Watch report on Afghanistan can be found on the Internet at