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Rights Commissioner visits Afghanistan: Calls for free civil space and unfreeze assets to jumpstart the economy

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet visits Kabul, Afghanistan 

11 March 2022

I was able to conduct a brief visit to Kabul yesterday – at a time when Afghans are toiling through desperate, intersecting crises and grappling with great uncertainty. Uncertainty about the future of their country but also about where their next meal will come from. Basic human needs like food and health are severely under-served, and basic human rights like education, the right to work and the right to participate in decision-making processes are largely unfulfilled.

During my short visit, I had meetings with representatives of the de facto authorities and was able to meet civil society representatives – including some remarkable women teachers, doctors, journalists, civil servants and NGO workers. The women powerfully conveyed the urgency of the situation on the ground. And they pleaded for a seat at the table with the de facto authorities, as partners to help chart a way out of this economic, humanitarian and human rights crisis in Afghanistan. When I asked them what messages they wished for me to convey to the de facto authorities, they sought not to rely on my voice but on their own: “We want to speak to the Taliban ourselves. We know what our people need, not only in the city but also in the countryside, and we have authoritative information and solutions to raise with the Taliban ourselves.”

The women expressed the hope that “as we emerge from the ashes of war, one day, social justice will be maintained in Afghanistan.” They pledged to continue to struggle against injustice but stressed that they needed their rights back – their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, to freedom from fear of reprisals for themselves and their families, the right to work, to participation. They asked to “separate politics and health”, to train and use female healthcare workers and invest in healthcare infrastructure. They asked for the de facto authorities to ensure the protection of women activists and journalists from violence and reprisals, and the re-establishment of mechanisms to prevent and address gender-based violence. And they asked for the continued support and advocacy of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and specifically its Human Rights Service.

I strongly, unequivocally, support their calls.

While I was only able to spend a day in Kabul, our UNAMA Human Rights Service has been in the country for 20 years now doing essential human rights work and accompanying the people of Afghanistan as they have weathered numerous crises and tumults.

Over the years, we have been doing the grim work of counting the civilian toll of the armed conflict, monitoring and reporting on its impact on women, men, girls and boys. We have engaged in dialogue with various parties, including the Taliban, on the protection of civilians, on international humanitarian law and human rights law.

We have worked with relevant State authorities, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and civil society on combatting violence against women, advised on laws, visited detention facilities and spoken with detainees. We have documented, reported on and advocated against human rights violations and abuses by the State and by non-state armed groups. We have advocated for the rights of all Afghans, no matter their backgrounds or convictions.

We have vigorously raised cases of torture and ill-treatment – including against Taliban and other anti-Government detainees whom we interviewed in detention facilities over the years – across the country, insisting always that the use of torture against anyone, in any circumstance, is absolutely prohibited by international human rights law, is wrong and is counterproductive.

And we have been listening to and working with civil society actors and human rights defenders – men and women – advocating for various economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights, including through law reform, institution-building and human rights training.

Since 15 August 2021, following the Taliban’s takeover, there have clearly been some drastic changes in the country. With the decline in hostilities since that date, conflict-related casualties have reduced dramatically. But we fear that the humanitarian and economic crises may claim far more lives. Today, one in three people in Afghanistan face emergency or crisis levels of food security and there is limited access to cash, high levels of unemployment and displacement. Furthermore, there remains an unfortunately high risk of attacks by the ISKP and others.

I am sure we can all agree: it is unacceptable and unconscionable that the people of Afghanistan have had to live with the prospects of either bombing or starvation – or both.

Accounts of mothers selling a child to feed the rest of the family are heartbreaking. It is particularly heartbreaking because even in my brief interactions with civil society, I could see the capacity, experience and gumption that is there and that is being squandered while the country sinks into deeper levels of despair. There needs to be rapid progress on a number of key fronts.

In my meetings with the de facto authorities, including the de facto deputy prime minister and minister of interior, I emphasized the importance of inclusivity in navigating the way out of this crisis.

I recognize the significance of the general amnesty granted to officials of the former Government and members of the security forces for having participated in the conflict. This was an important step towards reconciliation after so many years of war. However, reports suggest that door-to-door searches are continuing and we have publicly documented extrajudicial killings of former officials.

Attacks against these former officials, including judges, as well as human rights defenders and journalists, do continue. While the women protesters and their family members who were arbitrarily arrested and detained in January have now been released, their treatment has meant that there are no longer public demonstrations on women’s rights in Afghanistan. We have, in recent weeks, been able to raise cases of individual human rights violations with the de facto authorities and I have urged them to ensure that it is made clear that these are not to be tolerated, that they are promptly investigated and those responsible properly held to account. All those detained for exercising their human rights need to be promptly released.

Civil society activists and leaders, former government employees including judges and prosecutors, and journalists can play a critical role in building a new Afghanistan, and in ensuring justice for human rights violations and abuses – but only if they can continue their work without fear of arrest, harassment, threats and violence.

Every society is more sustainable and peaceful if human rights are respected and all the people of the nation are represented, including religious and ethnic minorities and in particular those who have historically faced discrimination, marginalization and violence. It is central for them to embraced as part of the solution rather than suppressed as part of the problem.

In this time of relative peace in the country, it is crucial to establish inclusive alliances. Inclusivity is an important precondition for reconciliation and the prevention of future conflict. This is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do. The failure to do so may risk leading to instability in Afghanistan and beyond its borders. Those most vulnerable need to be able to participate in discussions and decisions to address and mitigate the risks.

I urge the de facto authorities to allow the maximum space for freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, to respect the role of the independent media, and to refrain from using any violence or imposing penalties on those who may be critical. People need channels to express their frustrations but also to help craft solutions.

I urged the re-establishment of an independent human rights mechanism – as existed before with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission – that can receive complaints from the public and bring problems to the attention of the de facto authorities.

With schools due to reopen on 22 March, I look forward to seeing that the commitments made for all girls and boys to have access to education be fulfilled. Girls and women need to have access to primary, secondary and tertiary education. Such significant steps will go a long way in securing the future of the country.

It is also crucial to urgently address what have rightly been termed as the catastrophic effects of economic sanctions and asset freezes. I urge the international community to go beyond the steps already taken and to ease sanctions and unfreeze assets to jumpstart the economy, support development and relieve needless human suffering. Unless further funds are immediately made available, millions of Afghans will continue to suffer needlessly. National and international decision-makers need to support building up of basic social services at the community level to ensure sustainable fulfillment of basic human needs and the economic and social rights of the people.

Next week, when the UNAMA mandate is up for renewal in the UN Security Council in New York, it will be essential to ensure a strong human rights presence is retained so we can continue to accompany the people of Afghanistan, to provide advice on how to apply international human rights standards in many areas, including on economic and social development, women’s rights and the justice system, to promote successful models of recovery and to rebuild institutions. It is essential for us, with full objectivity, to continue to bring to the attention of the de facto authorities areas of serious human rights concerns, and to continue monitoring and reporting on human rights on the ground. I call on States to support the continuation of UNAMA’s work in Afghanistan with a strong human rights mandate.

The spirit, tenacity and unquenchable desire of Afghans for their human rights to be protected – and for their children to inherit a peaceful law-abiding land – is palpable. Afghans will decide their future and it is for us in the United Nations and for the international community to support all efforts to promote all human rights for all the people of Afghanistan.

ENDS

Please see also the recent report on Afghanistan by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Human Rights Council.

Read the UN Secretary General report, here

OHCHR.

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