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Afghanistan: HRW Urges Karzai To Enshrine Rights Protections In Draft Constitution

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has sent a private letter to Afghanistan's Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai, asking him to incorporate strong human rights protections into the country's draft constitution. In an interview with RFE/RL, HRW's main Afghan researcher, John Sifton, talks about his organization's concerns.

Prague, 24 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In a private letter sent this week to Hamid Karzai, Human Watch Rights asks the president of Afghanistan's Transitional Administration to work with his cabinet and the country's Constitutional Commission to ensure that key human rights provisions are incorporated into the country's draft constitution.

HRW also calls on Karzai to include language giving the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) a meaningful mandate.

The long-delayed draft constitution, which is expected to be made public in the coming days, is due to be debated and voted on by a Constitutional Loya Jirga, or Grand Council, in December.

John Sifton is a U.S.-based researcher on Afghanistan at Human Rights Watch (HRW). Sifton told RFE/RL that, according to several preliminary drafts of the constitution that have been circulating, several key provisions suggested by the AIHRC have been left out.

Sifton said HRW wants Karzai to make sure these suggestions are included in the final draft constitution. "There are several [provisions] that the Afghan Human Rights Commission has suggested, several provisions protecting specific human rights, including due process rights, the right to challenge your detention [in a court of law, that is] 'habeas corpus,' rights about discrimination against women and ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities, and more specific protections for asylum seekers. Things like that," he said. "And these suggestions have not been incorporated. Without them, I don't think we're going to have a constitution that adequately protects human rights for the future."

But Sifton stressed that the most important thing Karzai himself can do at this point is to make sure the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission is given an "adequate" role, as required by the Bonn agreement, which set up the current Afghan government.

"The draft constitution does maintain the [Afghan Independent Human Rights] Commission, but it's not given adequate powers to do its job. We believe a human rights commission should have the power to investigate all human rights abuses, and specifically issue subpoenas to bring witnesses before it, and to initiate court cases in any Afghan courts to remedy [human rights] abuses," he said. "Right now, the constitution doesn't give the commission that power."

Sifton said this is what he calls the "last moment" for this issue to be meaningfully debated and for human right provisions to be included. "When this draft goes before the public, we believe the debates are going to be about more symbolic and more large-scale issues, like how big the parliament is, how many powers it has, [or] the official language of Afghanistan," he said. "Those are going to be debated in the convention that takes place -- the Loya Jirga. We don't think that [the human rights] issue will be dealt with then. So it has to be dealt with now."

Sifton deplored that Loya Jirga candidates who are interested in debating these issues are being threatened. The current climate of intimidation and fear around the country, he insisted, may have indirectly affected the overall drafting process. "That does not allow an open debate. That just allows one side -- the side with the guns, the side with the power -- to write the constitution, literally."

The Constitutional Commission, Sifton noted, is very reluctant to support provisions that are opposed in Kabul by powerful leaders, such as radical Islamist leader Abdur-Rab Rasul Sayaf, or groups like the Shura-yi Nezar. The former Northern Alliance faction is the military wing of Jamiat-e Islami -- a political party that includes Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim, Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, and Education Minister Yunus Qanuni.