Afghan rights report stalled by warlord fears

Government report on 30 years of violence may not see the light of day because it names politically-connected warlords.

Hamid Karzai at Kabul press conference
Rights activists say the current draft of the report has retracted names of prominent warlords [Reuters]

A recent report detailing atrocities committed over three decades of conflict in Afghanistan was supposed to provide answers to the families of one million people killed and 1.3 million left disabled by the violence, but now some fear that a focus on naming politically-connected perpetrators could prevent the document’s release. 

The report, “Conflict Mapping in Afghanistan Since 1978”, based on six years of research by a team of 40 researchers and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), has not been released to the public, apparently because it implicates prominent warlords in various abuses. 

News of the report’s stalling was first covered by the New York Times on July 22. It is set to be the first officiallly sanctioned, Afghan-produced account of human rights abuses over the past three decades. 

The findings of the 800-page document including evidence of 180 mass graves, killings of civilians and prisoners, arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, and destruction of towns and villages – quickly angered powerful men within the Afghan government. First vice president Marshal Fahim, for example, was livid that his name was among the 500 linked to the mass killings of fighters and civilians from 1992 to 1996.

Faustian bargain

This has left human rights activists and civil society organisations in a perplexing situation. They want justice, but political realities on the ground mean the report will likely stay buried if it fingers prominent figures like Abdul Rashid Dostum, Abdul Karim Khalili, Gulbuddin Hekmetyar, and even Ahmad Shah Massoud – the mujhaideen leader who has been lionised in Afghanistan and Western media.

Holding warlords to account seems necessary to outside observers. But many in Afghanistan believe these men stoke long-standing ethnic tensions to increase their power and as justification for atrocities contained within the report.

“Even a watered down report with no names in it is more important than no report,” says Josh Shahryar, an Afghan reporter for EA WorldView, an online publication focusing on human rights.

Foreign rights activists too, tend to agree with the Faustian bargain of redacting names of key warlords because of Afghanistan’s contentious ethnic and tribal politics. 

John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, who has seen several drafts of the report, says the document in its current form has stripped out the names of those responsible for atrocities. 

“Most Afghans can fill in the blanks,” Sifton told Al Jazeera. The warlords and their crimes, he said, are well known among people in the country. 

Some rights defenders are unhappy with coverage from the New York Times, including an accounting of a December meeting between senior officials in the Afghan government and President Hamid Karzai, where first vice president Fahim advises shooting “30 holes”  in the “face” of one of the report’s chief authors. 

Former AIHRC commissioner Nader Nadery was the subject of Fahim’s alleged threats. The report is seen by some as the beginning of a larger change, allowing for an unprecedented society-wide discussion of past suffering. 

Stretching political muscle

Targeting specific warlords, despite their apparent crimes, will be ineffective, critics say, because of an amnesty law passed in 2007. 

But it is not the blanket amnesty alone that troubles Afghans and rights activists. 

The bill’s passage, in itself, is seen as an example of how much political muscle many of the people implicated in the report still wield.

They enjoy “more power and more money today than they did during the civil war itself”, says Mirwais Wardak, director of the Peace Training and Research Organisation (PTRO), a Kabul-based NGO.

Ahmad Shah Massoud is also implicated in the report [GALLO/GETTY]

The tranformation of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf – who went from being the former leader of the Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan party, believed to be one of the first to invite Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan, to a prominent lawmaker, underscores the climate of fear.

Sayyaf and other high profile men implicated in the report played a large role in the passage of the 2007 amnesty bill, despite protests from local and international groups. Activists worry these politicallly-connected warlords are likely to stop the latest human rights report from seeing the light of day if they are mentioned. 

The warlords have repeatedly “taken cover behind ethnic walls and fueled strife to protect themselves from accountability”, says Abbas Daiyar, a Kabul-based journalist. If the report is released without redacting the names, warlords are likely to inflame ethnic violence, critics fear. This is the reason why senior US officials are sceptical of the benefits of releasing a report which mentions names, the New York Times reported. 

If the report is released without names it could be a step towards national unity and reconciliaton, according to some. 

“The urgency of [the report’s] release … is to tell our people what civil war does, and that, more or less, everyone suffered,” said Daiyar.

Historical document

Detailing the abuses suffered by all ethnic groups at the hands of militias could change “the Afghan perceptions of who they believe suffered”, says Shahryar.

Past reports have documented abuses. What would make the release of this document different, however, is that it serves as “a sign to the people that ‘your suffering has been officially accepted and publicly acknowledged’ by the state – no matter who committed [the crimes] and when”, says Shahryar.

In a 2004 AIHRC national consultation which sought people’s advice on how best to address atrocities of the past, Nadery said 75 per cent of respondents said they had suffered from human rights abuses.

A year later, the findings of that consultation were published in a report entitled “a call for justice”, in which Nadery said 92 per cent of respondents wanted some sort of accountability.

Two days after the publication of The New York Times piece, a group of 18 human rights and civil society organisations in the nation demanded the release of the “conflict mapping” report saying “peace is not possible without justice and if it were to take place, our country would be thrown into a worse crisis that would threaten the country’s existence in the future”.

The impacts of a watered down report withholding the names of specific human rights violators, names which Afghans have grown up hearing about, as opposed to no report at all, remains to be seen. But to Afghans, what is most important, is having the suffering they faced for 30 years finally acknowledged publicly by the government. 

Follow Ali M Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye

Source: Al Jazeera