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Afghanistan: Human Rights Commission Strives For Justice

Since 2002, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) has worked to define a human rights agenda in a country long plagued by abuses. The commission has instigated a nationwide debate on transitional justice, promoted the rights of women and children, and investigated reports of human rights abuses. In addition to its headquarters in Kabul, the commission has also set up offices in several provinces, where citizens can register their concerns and complaints.

Kabul, 14 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In Afghanistan, those working to protect human rights and prosecute offenders are often themselves under threat.

The country has suffered more than three decades of war, during which serious rights abuses were committed by warlords, local militia commanders, and their supporters. Some are still in power.

“There have been cases of threats against our spokesperson, our commissioner in charge of transitional justice, and those who are dealing with the land mafia," Hossain Ramoz, the executive director of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, told RFE/RL. "Their security has been of concern. But I think the time has come to open a new chapter in Afghanistan by [taking risks].”

The commission -- created by the December 2001 Bonn Agreement -- has investigated thousands of cases of human rights violations. It has provided training and workshops on women and children’s rights and has monitored conditions in the country’s prisons. It also deployed hundreds of observers to help monitor the 18 September parliamentary elections.

Sam Zia-Zarifi, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), last year called the commission "brave, but beleaguered." He said the commission has listened to ordinary Afghans and voiced their concerns, "even as each report it issues on abuses by members of the current government is followed by threats to AIHRC members."

In Ramoz's opinion, the commission's greatest achievement has simply been to introduce Afghans to the concept and culture of human rights.

“A human rights discourse never existed in Afghanistan during the years of war," Ramoz said. "And before, the word justice was very rarely used by the rulers and those in power or by different social groups.”

Praise For The Commission

The commission has been particularly praised for its January report titled “A Cry For Justice," in which it called for the prosecution of war crimes and urged Afghanistan to confront the horrors of its past.

“The courageous publishing of the 'A Cry For Justice' report -- which without doubt has put the commission under serious threats from inside the country and also from the opposition in the government and even today we are facing many challenges because of it -- was the first time in the history of Afghanistan that a call was made publicly for [transitional] justice," Ramoz said. "The report brought the issue of war crimes to the attention of Afghan politicians and also the international community.”

He says the commission contributed significantly to the adoption of a national plan against child trafficking and the enshrinement of women's rights in the Afghan Constitution. The organization has also received and addressed citizens’ complaints regarding issues such as forced marriage, torture, illegal detention, murder, and rape.

In a June interview with RFE/RL, the UN's special rapporteur on violence against women, Yakin Erturk, praised the commission's work.

“The constitution also places a responsibility on the government to comply with international human rights law, and there is also a quota system for women in the electoral process," she said. "In addition to this, they have created the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, which is doing considerable work, but it needs to be strengthened. Another very positive sign I found was the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, which is doing really invaluable work in defending human rights and providing options for people who are searching for help.”

Mohammad, who asked to be identified only by his first name, is a member of the commission's complaint unit. He says the majority of the cases he deals with are related to the confiscation of land and property.

“The properties and lands have been grabbed by people who are in power -- in the government or by commanders. In most cases, the property of people who live outside Afghanistan -- for example, immigrants -- has been confiscated," he said.

He says there have also been several complaints regarding alleged torture by police forces in order to extort confessions from detainees. The organization has also heard accusations of rights violations by U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. They include alleged beatings, the detention of innocent people, damage to houses, and a lack of respect for Afghan culture during coalition raids.

The Government's Commitment

While the commission says it has been able to deal with many of the country’s problems, there is still a long way to go. Ramoz says the future of human rights in Afghanistan depends on a commitment by the Afghan government to strengthen the rule of law.

“I hope that the government will reconsider its interpretation of stability and does not believe that justice contradicts stability in Afghanistan," he told RFE/RL. "Today, the government cannot make people happy just by building a road or doing some reconstruction. Afghans -- who have lost millions [of their loved ones] -- also want issues such as justice, freedom, and human rights to be addressed, not just reconstruction. People who have elected this government expect their voices to be heard, just as the voices of those who have money and power are being heard.”

Human Rights Watch has complained that while the Afghan constitution contains several provisions enunciating basic political, civil, economic, and social rights, there is little strong language empowering institutions to uphold them. HRW noted that the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission -- while given a mandate -- lacks many of the powers necessary for it to credibly protect basic rights.

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