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Afghanistan: Amnesty Chief Sees Little Improvement In Human Rights

By J.M. Ledgard

The secretary-general of Amnesty International has strongly condemned the lack of progress in human rights in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. Irene Khan, the head of the London-based international human rights advocacy group, says the transitional Afghan government has failed to impose a rights-based agenda on the reconstruction of the country.

Kabul, 10 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Irene Khan says that "a lot of promises" were made about a new Afghanistan and an improved human rights situation for all of its citizens.

The secretary-general of Amnesty International recalls that the Bonn agreement was negotiated in the midst of "a lot of hope and expectations." But 18 months later, she told RFE/RL, progress has been slow, limited and very fragile.

"We wouldn't expect a lot in 18 months in a country that has gone through the history and conflict and that has always had a system where human rights is almost unknown. But, nevertheless, the failure to address any of the issues really outside Kabul is a real disappointment," she said.

Khan spoke to RFE/RL in Kabul this week at the end of a fact-finding tour of Afghanistan. She singled out judicial reform and women's rights as key issues the government must urgently address. "The face of insecurity in Afghanistan is feminine," she said. "Women have always had a hard time here. They had a very tough time under the Taliban. Now, we hear stories of rape, abduction, forced marriages."

According to Amnesty, 90 percent of the women in Kabul's prisons are there for so-called sexual crimes. Many have deserted abusive husbands or forced marriages and have been threatened with death by family members. One woman freed by Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai last November was subsequently killed by a family member.

"In many societies like this one -- rural, conservative, Islamic -- the issue of culture is very important, particularly when it comes to women," Khan said. "One has to approach that sensitively. Amnesty and other human rights groups are very clear on the principles of equality for women, but how we implement that is the big question."

Real progress will only come, human rights groups say, with a movement from the security of the state to the security of the individual. That means painstaking work in improving the police and judicial systems, overhauling prisons, and promoting a rights-based dialogue in rural areas that gives a voice to women and minorities.

Underlying the question of human rights is security, however. A lack of security, especially in southern and eastern parts of the country, has led to conditions where torture, killings, land confiscations, and kidnappings are commonplace.

"Ordinary Afghans are not putting abuses in terms of human rights," Khan said. "What they are talking about is plain old security."

That raises questions about more effective regional leaders -- such as Governor Ismail Khan in the western province of Herat -- who may restrict freedom of speech but whose security forces maintain order and allow aid workers to better deliver services.

"Ismail Khan has got Herat under very tight control, and he's reintroducing some of the restrictions of the Taliban with respect to women," Khan said. The problem in Afghanistan, she noted, is that there has always been a dilemma over whether to choose security or freedom. "The truth is," Khan said, "you can have both."

Amnesty wants a commission of inquiry in Afghanistan to look at past and present human rights abuses. Kahn said the government and international donors have shown little interest, however.

"Impunity breeds more human rights abuse, and part of the problem of the human rights abuses that you see now around are precisely because those who are controlling the provinces are people who have committed human rights abuses in the past and who are going to go on committing that until they are brought to justice," Kahn said.

For now, she said, the focus is on long-term development and curbing the worst crimes. "The extreme forms of human rights abuse have to stop -- torture, arbitrary detention, private prisons, and all that goes on inside of them, the abuse of women," Khan said. "These are some things which cannot be tolerated. There are other things which may take much longer to overcome."