- Human rights
“A pervasive culture of impunity prevailed for perpetrators of human rights violations and abuses, in particular, attacks against the civilian population, violence against women, and torture and ill-treatment, killings and other forms of harm” – report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation in Afghanistan, February 2016
The human rights agenda in Afghanistan is at a critical juncture. Whilst progress has been made since the 2001 international intervention, these remain fragile. Though Afghans now have increased awareness of their various human rights, they require the means by which they can enact them.
Protection of civilians
Protection of civilians is a cornerstone of International Humanitarian Law. However, many non-state armed actors, such as the Taliban, do not abide by these international conventions, and there continue to be infractions by international forces too. The government of Afghanistan has a responsibility to protect its citizens – yet, in October 2016 UNAMA (the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) documented a total of 8,397 civilian casualties (2,562 deaths and 5,835 injured) for the year to date. Maintaining the high numbers seen since 2014, there was also a deeply worrying 42% increase in the number of ‘collateral damage’ casualties attributed to pro-government forces in comparison to the same period in 2015. Other victims are civilians targeted by the insurgents: local government workers, teachers, medical professionals, journalists. Often seen by the Taliban as instruments of the Western intervention and a pro-West Afghan government, these groups must be protected to carry out their work.
Another protection requirement is that afforded to human rights defenders. Those individuals and organisations striving to uphold human rights, including women’s rights, often find themselves the target of abuse. This was seen all too clearly during the Taliban attack on Kunduz in late 2015, when lists of local women's rights defenders were used by the insurgents to hunt down such people. Human rights defenders suffer degrading treatment, are denied their freedom of expression, and in severe cases, are killed. According to the 2014 EU+ Local Strategy for Human Rights Defenders in Afghanistan, ‘The impediments arising from the political and cultural reality of the country make the work of the HRDs a truly difficult and often dangerous challenge all over Afghanistan, where the theoretical legal protection is of limited help.’
Afghan children suffer both as a result of the conflict and despite it. Children are disproportionately killed or injured by the conflict, and these figures continue to rise - UNAMA has documented a substantial year-on-year increase in child casualties from conflict since 2013. Efforts to prevent recruitment of child soldiers by both sides to the conflict have failed; 116 cases were reported in 2015, more than doubling the figure from 2014.
But children’s rights are also violated outside of the conflict. Many children are denied their right to education, as enshrined in the Convention of the Rights of the Child. Faced with poverty, many families require their children to work, whilst girls are frequently pulled out of school due to shortages of female teachers, security concerns travelling to and from school or the practice of early marriage.
For some children, their ultimate right to life is threatened by so-called ‘honour killings’. In 2014 the Afghan and international media reported that a 10 year old girl, raped by her village mullah, was in danger of being killed by her family for the dishonour brought upon them and the burden she would place upon them now that her prospects of marriage were ruined. Although public awareness and sentiment against such practices has increased in recent years, such crimes continue at an alarming rate, often away from the public eye.
With Afghan women facing both gender inequalities and more serious violations of their human rights, women’s rights programmes are an essential part of Afghanistan’s development. See our Women & Girls page for more details.
Access to justice
There has been much improvement to the formal Afghan judicial system in recent years, following its near complete collapse during the civil war and Taliban regime. New laws have been passed, more courts are in operation. But there remain many issues, forming a complex web of needs to be addressed by the Government of Afghanistan, international community and the Afghan people themselves. Afghan women are less likely to report a crime to a male police officer. With women currently only making up 1.5% of the police force, many crimes therefore go unreported. Many crimes are ‘resolved’ in villages and towns by mediation through the elders – the laws of the land are ignored in many cases. Powerful local leaders enjoy impunity due to the weak influence of the central governance system, and this leaves many Afghans unable or unwilling to seek justice.
Until Afghans feel confident in a central governance system that is fair, consistent, untainted by corruption and which delivers justice to all, these problems will not go away.
Freedom of expression
The rise and acceptance of the Afghan media industry since the start of this century has been one of the country’s success stories. Afghanistan enjoys one of the most liberal and active broadcast and press journalism industries in the region. Programmes like “The Mask”, which gave voice to women suffering domestic violence, have been applauded by Afghans and internationals alike.
However, not all Afghans are comfortable with the levels of access expected by today’s journalists.
Violence against journalists is increasing. 2016 has been named the deadliest year for journalists in the history of Afghanistan, with 10 journalists murdered and 54 incidents of harassment and assault recorded in the first six months alone. The majority of perpetrators have links to the government, although increased insecurity has meant that journalists have also been targeted by Taliban or other opposition forces.
The Ministry for Information and Culture has at times insisted on “apologies” from journalists when they write stories critical of the government or of powerful interests who enjoy government protection, whilst regularly ignoring cases of threats, intimidation, or physical attacks on members of the press.
Additionally, it was only in late June 2014 that the Law on Access to Information was passed. Whilst that is seen as a step forward, other issues remain: there are provisions in the 2009 Mass Media Law that restrict news, editorials or entertainment on ‘moral’ or cultural grounds; journalists and their employers risk falling foul of the broadly and ambiguously worded blasphemy provisions in Afghan laws
In addition to the above, Afghanistan continues to struggle with other human rights issues. These include a poor level of accountability amongst members of the Afghan National Security Forces (military and police), arbitrary detention of individuals and the general treatment of detainees, the right to a fair trial, freedom of religion and minority rights.
What BAAG is doing
BAAG prioritises the needs and rights of the Afghan people in all of its work. We understand that a secure and prosperous Afghanistan is only possible when all of its people can live safely, in dignity and to their full potential – and that without these basic rights, the root causes of conflict cannot be overcome.
BAAG campaigns for human rights in our policy and advocacy activities. We bring together international and Afghan human rights organisations and activists, to lobby collectively and to share information and expertise. We bring this expertise to policy and decision makers, such as the teams of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office working on protection mechanisms for human rights defenders.
What our Members are doing
A number of BAAG’s members, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International UK, are tackling human rights issues in Afghanistan. They are working on programmes which not only support victims of human rights violations, but also on monitoring these violations. They lobby the Afghan government and international community to hold to account the perpetrators of rights violations, to eradicate the culture of impunity that protects them and to develop laws and mechanisms that uphold human rights.
BAAG’s Recommendations to the UK Government:
1. Welcome the commitments made by the Afghan Government to respect human rights, to continue to stress the importance of observing the Conventions signed and ratified, and to work to ensure that the rights of the population of Afghanistan are realized, with the protection of human rights remaining a core principle at the Senior Officials and subsequent meetings.
2. Work in collaboration with and supportive of Afghan civil society in developing its capacity to hold the Afghan Government, and others, to account for their actions, policies and programmes and to ensure the independent monitoring of the government’s action.
3. Support existing and new mechanisms for protecting human rights (and the men and women defenders of them) by consistently urging the Afghan government to undertake legislative reform, establish and strengthen procedures to investigate civilian complaints against the ANSF and those of detainees and prisoners, and strengthen the independence and technical capacity of the AIHRC.
4. Urge the Afghan Government to preserve freedom of expression and ensure the protection of journalists and media organizations by implementing the Access to Information Law and the 2009 Mass Media Law and holding police accountable for their duty to protect journalists.
5. Implement the EU and national strategies for protecting human rights defenders in collaboration with national and international partners.
6. Promote children’s rights by calling for laws and processes which are in keeping with the international convention on the rights of the child, including providing education across the country, protecting of children from abuses associated with conflict, preventing child marriage, and assisting children in emergency situations.
7. Promote the rights of women including by ensuring their full involvement in every aspects of the peace process, their appointment to senior positions locally and nationally, and the provision of citizenship identity cards, and access to safe houses across the country.
8. Provide funding and technical support for the promotion of human rights as necessary.
We urge the Afghan government to meet its human rights obligations; these include harmonising the national laws with the Geneva Conventions on Human Rights. (Civil society statement to the October 2016 Brussels Conference on Afghanistan)
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