02.07.2020

Human rights in the Afghan peace process

The Afghan peace process is at a crossroads. Violence is escalating, human rights workers and civilians are targeted, and rights abuses are widespread. Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, which continues to work under enormously difficult conditions, has a strong popular mandate and plays a key role in ensuring that any peace agreement will be worthy of the name.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) was established on 6 June  2002 under the Bonn Agreement and President’s Decree. The commission is recognized in the Afghan Constitution under Article 58 as an independent and impartial body and has sub-national offices in 14 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Today, the AIHRC represents Afghanistan in the Global Alliance for National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) and is in full compliance with the 1993 Paris Principles.

 

The AIHRC’s mission since 2002: making human rights a reality for all Afghans

For the reconstruction of the Afghan society after decades of dehumanizing war and suffering, the commission played a pivotal role in raising awareness of human rights. Gradually, these rights were integrated into school curriculums, a significant development in the institutionalization of these principles in Afghanistan. Today, more than 7,000 people contact the commission annually to register complaints and ask for support – a great achievement signalling the trust that AIHRC has gained among the Afghan population.

Under the leadership of Sima Samar, a long-time member of the FES Afghanistan Policy Group, and, since 2019, Shaharzad Akbar, a FES Young Leaders Forum alumna, the commission has become the primary source of reliable information and studies on the human rights situation in the country. The AIHRC addresses violence against women, protecting the rights of children and people with disabilities as well as prison inmates and migrants.

Moreover, the AIHRC has the authority to monitor laws and government policies to ensure they comply with international human rights standards, and that citizens’ freedoms are duly taken into account. Since 2001, Afghans have enjoyed much greater freedom of expression than before. They are now able to actively use their rights in a free media and platforms like Facebook and Twitter to speak and criticize their leaders freely and independently. At the same time, women have become a relatively active force in social and political spheres. The constitution protects equal rights for men and women, and Afghanistan has also signed international conventions to protect women’s rights.

 

How to protect human rights in the middle of a war?

Despite these efforts, the reality of human rights in Afghanistan is much darker these days. 2019 was the sixth consecutive year with more than 10,000 Afghan civilians killed or injured by the war, bombings, and terrorist attacks. About one third of the civilian casualties had been children and women casualties comprised more than ten percent of the overall casualties, with a significant increase in comparison to 2018. In June 2020, the international organization Doctors Without Borders chose to end its operations after a vicious assault on a maternity ward in Western Kabul killed more than 20 mothers and babies. Later that month, two employees of the AIHRC were killed in a car bombing which drew widespread national and international condemnation.

While Afghans have the right to vote, hundreds have lost their lives trying to exercise it: On election day on 28 September 2019, nearly 30 people died in attacks by armed insurgents on polling stations. How to enjoy a free press, when journalists are regularly exposed to violence,  including more than a dozen times in the first two months of 2020?

Finally, women’s achievements still have to be seen in a problematic context for the female half of Afghanistan’s population. Two-thirds of the 3.7 million Afghan children out of school are girls, a situation likely to worsen in the current COVID-19 pandemic. Girls are still often expected or even forced to enter marriages, 17 percent of them before their 15th birthday. Incidents of domestic violence brought to the attention of the government frequently exceed 6,000 cases per year, and yet are most likely dramatically underreported.

Human rights in the peace process: red line or bargaining chip?

While many Afghans see human rights as an essential component of peace, there are concerns, especially among civil society activists, that those rights could be among the compromises made in the anticipated negotiations between the Kabul government and the Taliban. In a statement on 29 May, the Council of the European Union emphasized the need for a peace settlement to be built on the human rights achievements of the past two decades, particularly regarding “women, children, all persons belonging to minorities and groups at risk.” The United Nations former Special Representative in Afghanistan Tadamichi Yamamoto reiterated the UN’s commitment to cooperation in the field of human rights, stating: “It is vital for us to protect the victims’ rights, and, most importantly, to include them in the peace process.”

As it is the public face of human rights advocacy in Afghanistan, people look to the AIHRC for guidance on how to ensure that in a post-settlement future, the rights and freedoms of all Afghans are further expanded, not compromised. To achieve lasting peace, Chairwoman Akbar recently demanded that “compliance with human rights standards should be considered a serious concern of the Afghan people and our international partners at all levels of the dialogue.” She also underlined that “the peace talks should lead to the increased access of the Afghan people to their human rights, not to the denial of their human rights.”

Although the AIHRC is independent and does not see itself as a party in the talks, it has repeatedly engaged the Islamic Republic’s negotiation team formed last March. It submitted proposal to all parties to engage victims, experts, and the broader public in the intra-Afghan peace negotiations. Trying to raise awareness for human rights in a process heavily focused on national security and power-sharing, the commission has, for instance, sent individual letters to all members of the negotiating team. These notes explain what the AIHRC stands for, what expertise it can offer, what needs to be considered from a human rights perspective, and, last but not least, make clear that negotiators should see themselves as accountable to the AIHRC and the Afghan people. To also enhance public trust in a peace process that will undoubtedly experience moments of failure, the commission itself will closely monitor every stage of negotiations and inform the public openly and independently on progress and setbacks.

 

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