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Afghanistan: Despite Advances, Rights Expert Raises Alarm At Insecurity

Women still face vast difficulties in Afghanistan The UN's human rights expert for Afghanistan says lack of security continues to pose the most serious threat to the rights of Afghans and the reconstruction of their society. Cherif Bassiouni told a General Assembly rights committee that warlords, local commanders, and drug traffickers are committing the most violations and that international security forces are not doing enough to restrain them. But he also stressed there are numerous abuses of women and children that are solvable by local authorities.

United Nations, 29 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The first report of the UN's rights expert for Afghanistan to the General Assembly highlights concerns about the power of local militia leaders and the growth of the opium trade.

The expert, Cherif Bassiouni, told the assembly that Afghanistan needs a major increase in international forces to counter the influence of local commanders. In comments at a news conference yesterday, he said warlords in some regions dominate all aspects of life.

"It's more than just intimidation. [Local commanders] are in control. They are in control of who gets the land and they are in control of who gets the water and who cultivates what and who gets back to his old house and who gets back his old plot. With one reservation, which is very important -- it's not uniform across the country," Bassiouni said.

A UN-mandated security force of about 9,000 troops, currently commanded by NATO, has barely expanded beyond the capital, Kabul. The United States leads a separate coalition of about 18,000 troops that concentrates on fighting remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

The United States has sought a merger of all the international forces in Afghanistan under NATO command, but France and Germany have opposed this.

Bassiouni is a law professor at DePaul University in Chicago who was appointed in April to be the UN's independent expert on human rights in Afghanistan.

In a 30-page report issued earlier this week to the Assembly, he credited the international community -- the United States, in particular -- for the country's many achievements since the fall of the Taliban.

But Bassiouni told reporters that human rights violations persist -- in part because of poorly coordinated international efforts at strengthening rule of law. He said the United States should lend its expertise to a comprehensive plan to link reforms of key aspects of Afghanistan's fledgling justice system.

"What you have is individual efforts, totally disjointed, not part of a comprehensive plan, in which at least in the justice sector in the broader sense -- from police, law enforcement to prisons -- the United States is absent. And yet the United States can have a very significant role in it," Bassiouni said.

Bassiouni also cited problems he said the government of Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai can solve in the short term. In particular, he raised concern about abuses of women and children. Women continue to be bartered like property, he said, and detained unlawfully under traditional practices.

Karzai has promised to pass a law prohibiting the practice of turning over young girls as payment of blood money.

Bassiouni reported that kidnapping and trafficking of young children is a growing problem. He said it will require a nationwide campaign to raise public awareness and prosecute offenders.

"This is a rampant practice. It's off the radar screen of the police. Police don't even record these occurrences. It's something I've brought to the attention of the government and urged them to sensitize the police and to make that a priority, to engage in a public education campaign on television and radio to inform the public of it," Bassiouni said.

Bassiouni's briefing of reporters and the General Assembly's human rights committee took place on the same day the UN Security Council was reviewing a resolution aimed at improving justice for women in conflict zones.

UN officials acknowledge the difficulties still facing women in Afghanistan. But they say UN agencies have helped improve health and education considerably for women in some parts of the country.

UN peacekeeping chief Jean-Marie Guehenno told reporters yesterday that the public role of women in Afghanistan has clearly improved since the fall of the Taliban.

"Am I satisfied with the present role of women in Afghanistan? Obviously not. We want that role to increase. Am I happy with the progress made since we deployed there after the war? I think honestly yes. I think the change is amazing, although obviously if you compare it to standards of more open societies, there's a big obvious difference," Guehenno said.

"The Washington Post" yesterday reported on the continuing problem of women who try to commit suicide through self-immolation in response to domestic violence and other abuses.

Afghanistan's Human Rights Commission recorded 300 suspected cases of women and girls setting themselves on fire last year. "The Washington Post" reports that so far this year about 180 women and girls have been taken to the burns ward in the hospital of the western city of Herat.