The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) presented its first report to President Hamid Karzai in a ceremony in Kabul on Saturday, January 29. The report, entitled “A Call for Justice,” is a grim reminder of the abuses once committed by the country’s so-called warlords and militia commanders. The report is based on surveys and interviews with more than 6,000 people conducted over the course of eight months.
The report was presented by Dr. Sima Samar, AIHRC chairperson, and Louise Arbor, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR). The report is a first step in choosing “a method of transitional justice, such as a tribunal, a truth and reconciliation commission, reparations, or amnesty.” As Dr. Samar explained, “It is the duty of the government to bring human rights abuses to justice” without such an accounting it would not be possible to have peace and national unity (AIHRC Statement, January 29).
Ms. Arbor, who was in Kabul for the release of the report, asked the government and its associates to heed the wishes of those who were interviewed for the report. She said the people of Afghanistan have expressed very clearly that nobody is “above the law.” She called on the government of Afghanistan to “respect that position . . . and the international community should support it.”
In accepting the report, President Karzai briefly noted that there have been violations of human rights in Afghanistan and they probably still persist. But his administration is determined to do everything it can to address the problem (Kabul TV, January 29).
President Karzai also welcomed the report and said his government was obliged to “treat the wounds of the Afghan people.” He said some portions of the report “need to be studied very deeply.” He proclaimed the report “acceptable” and promised to work on it in order to “maintain social justice” (Associated Press, January 30).
The European Union issued a statement welcoming the report and praising the AIHRC for its work on transitional justice. The EU statement expressed support for the AIHRC commission and called on Karzai’s administration to take the recommendations of the commission “into account and develop a strategy in keeping with the wishes of the Afghan people (EU Statement, January 29).
Over the course of more than two decades of war, first with the Soviet Union and then a civil war, the Afghan people have endured horrific abuse at the hands of the fighting factions as well their own government’s forces. Their only hope in redressing the violations is the AIHRC and its staff of 330 people. The Commission, which was established by the Bonn Agreements, started its work in June 6, 2002. It covers practically every portion of the country from north to south and west to east.
The Commission’s work has not been easy. There have been threats against the lives of Dr. Samar as well as her staff. She has so far dismissed the intimidation and refused to match violence with violence saying, “If we were to protect ourselves with armed guards, who will protect the ordinary people in our country? (Cheragh, January 30).
To the chagrin of one of the leading publications in Kabul, the report has not been distributed adequately. Emroze believes that the report should be circulated as widely as possible, so that all Afghans know its content and so that the perpetrators of the crimes will be held accountable (Emroze, January 31).
The responses to the report have not all been positive. At least one state-owned newspaper, Eslah, has faulted the Commission for failing “to identify those suspected of human rights abuses and take action against them.” The newspaper, in effect, regards investigations into past violations to be futile exercises and says the country should “let bygones be bygones” (Eslah, January 31).
President Karzai’s government does not seem to have the power to prosecute the alleged perpetrators of the crimes against humanity. However, if it does attempt to prosecute for human-rights violations, it will have the full support of the majority of the people of Afghanistan, especially those who have been victims of abuse. It also has the blessings of the UNHCHR and the EU, as the latter expressed its support for the findings of the report.
Some Afghans believe that an international court, such as the ones for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone should be established because the crimes and abuses committed during Afghanistan’s twenty-plus years of war are no less heinous. Some of the alleged perpetrators of the atrocities in Afghanistan, like the former People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and the Taliban, are beyond the reach of the Afghan government. Others, such as the former factional leaders and their commanders, remain inside the country but still too powerful or influential for the government to arrest or prosecute. However, if a crackdown does take place, they would probably flee the country and, like the other fugitives of the Afghan war, hide in the mountainous regions on the border with Pakistan.
For Karzai’s government to gain the confidence of the people, it needs to do more to face the country’s ugly past.