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Analysis: Afghans Demand Reckoning With Past Abuses

A new report on human rights issued by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) presents Afghanistan's leadership with a dilemma. The report, released on 29 January, asserts that the majority of Afghans want people who have violated human rights in the past declared ineligible for public office. However, the leaders of postconflict Afghanistan are inclined to try to forget, if not forgive, the grave violations of human rights committed by successive regimes, warlords, gangs, and their foreign backers. They want to secure quickly the country's future as a stable and secure society based on law -- without a reckoning with the past.

Afghanistan's recent misfortunes began on April 1978, when the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) took power in a bloody coup d'etat and continued through a decade-long Soviet-led occupation, four years of civil war, and five years of Taliban rule that ended in December 2001. Throughout these 23 years, Afghans suffered a variety of abuses on a massive scale. So far, no one in Afghanistan has ever been indicted for human rights violations. Not even a symbolic effort has been made in the country to address the grievances of the Afghan people.

The AIHRC, established by the Bonn agreement of 2001 that charted Afghanistan's transitional period after the defeat of the Taliban regime, was mandated specifically to consider the issue of justice during Afghanistan's transitional period. According to the 29 January press release announcing the report, from January to August 2004 the AIHRC conducted its National Consultation on Transitional Justice by interviewing around 6,000 Afghans on past human rights abuses and by making recommendations on how to deal with the perpetrators of these crimes.

Discussing the report, AIHRC Chairwoman Sima Samar said that "unfortunately, proper attention has not been paid to a fundamental element of peace and stability since the beginning of Afghanistan's transition process. That element is the realization of justice [for past misdeeds] in Afghanistan." The AIHRC believes that realization of peace without examining past abuses is an impossible task. Samar added that "the issue of deciding how and when the justice is to be accomplished is up to the people" of Afghanistan.
The survey indicated that the majority of people interviewed identified themselves as victims of human rights violations during the 23 years of conflict.

According to the AIHRC report, 69 percent of survey respondents identified themselves as victims of crimes against humanity and war crimes; 40 percent desire the prosecution of notorious perpetrators; and 90 percent requested the removal of human rights violators from public offices.

The survey indicated that the majority of people interviewed identified themselves as victims of human rights violations during the 23 years of conflict, and said they believe that such crimes continue today. "The people are of the opinion that continued impunity has given the perpetrators the opportunity to commit further abuses with no fear of prosecution," the AIHRC press release indicated.

In its report, the AIHRC calls on President Hamid Karzai to "articulate a political commitment to justice," initially by implementing "a series of symbolic acts that could serve to acknowledge victims." As overall policy, the report urges Karzai and his team to commit "publicly to redressing the crimes of the past though a long-term and integrated strategy, encompassing vetting, criminal justice, truth-seeking, and reparations."

According to Karzai's spokesman, the Afghan president has "noted the recommendations" in the AIHRC report, and has responded that some "of these can be implemented, while others may need to be discussed further." UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour and the European Union welcomed the report's findings and have called on Kabul to take heed of the commission's recommendations.

The recommendations put forth by AIHRC are an articulation of the wishes of ordinary and voiceless Afghans. If acted upon with diligence and foresight, they could be the most effective and, indeed just, method of disenfranchising those warlords and others who are trying to secure a part of Afghanistan's political future through violating the law and abusing the rights of the country's citizens. Unless human rights violators are identified and brought to justice -- albeit even if only symbolically -- Afghanistan faces the grim prospect of having one of its main democratic institutions -- the soon-to-be elected National Assembly -- filled with people who have records of abuse against the very people they are suppose to represent. After all, the danger exists that those who have used violence and abuse in the past to intimidate Afghans will try to do again to gain votes.