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Comment: Afghan election outcome unclear, except for demand for human rights

Millions of Afghans voted despite serious insecurity and tremendous logistical challenges, registering their commitment to a better life and to replacing bullets with ballots. But as Afghan officials and the international community grapple with an ongoing election crisis amid allegations of fraud, Afghans face a rising tide of violence and violations of their human rights. The August 20 poll was held amid an escalation in attacks by the Taleban and other insurgent groups, and violence involving NATO forces and the US military, leading to in the highest civilian casualties since the fall of the Taleban in 2002. The Taleban and other insurgent groups are responsible for the majority (about 60%) of conflict-related civilian deaths in Afghanistan. On August 26, an explosion ripped through the centre of Kandahar city just after nightfall, killing at least 43 people and wounding 65. A few days later, Taleban fighters burned down a girls' secondary school in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. Attacks in Kabul and in the relatively quiet north have also increased. Three people were killed on September 6 when rockets, believed to have been launched by insurgent groups, slammed into a home in northwestern Kabul. Increased insurgent activity also means more responses by NATO and the US military, putting more and more civilians at risk . NATO and US forces have recently restated their commitment to minimising civilian casualties, but there is still no coherent, credible, clear system of investigation and accountability for violations of the laws of war and the rules of engagement. The election also highlighted ongoing rights challenges and opportunities for Afghan women. Two women entered the presidential race this year and 333 entered the provincial council elections, accounting for roughly 10% of council candidates. Election officials say hundreds of polling stations for women did not even open in some areas where insurgents threatened women against exercising their right to vote. According to a report by the European Union, there was a small increase in women’s participation as candidates, but in nearly 50% of provinces, women’s participation decreased. But in what appears to be part of post election efforts at conciliation, Hamid Karzai, the incumbent president, has signed a long-awaited law criminalising violence and various forms of discrimination against women. And earlier this week, he pardoned Parwiz Kambaksh, a university student who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison for reportedly downloading an article about women’s rights in Islam. These moves have raised hopes for Afghans that the next Afghan administration —whether it is Karzai or his chief rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah—will do more to meet the demand of Afghans for a better life and better government, at least in government-controlled areas.   Afghans around the country have repeatedly told Amnesty International of their disappointment about the failure of the Afghan government to build on the human rights improvements delivered after the fall of the Taleban. A student at Kabul University’s law school told Amnesty staff, “I can see more division based on ethnicity amongst my class mates already. This is not a good situation, one side will have to lose and that group could cause a lot of problems.” The government, as well as NATO and US military strategists, now recognise that the Taleban have been able to use this failure to argue that they will at least provide basic security, even if they do not respect human rights.   One of the most criticised aspects of the government’s performance has been the involvement of figures facing serious allegations of human rights violations over the past two decades of conflict in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, both Karzai and Abdullah have surrounded themselves with some of those accused of these violations. As we await the final outcome of the Afghan elections, one message is absolutely clear: that the Afghan people want to have a voice in their future and that they seek a responsible, responsive, representative government. They seek international support to assist them in this struggle, but neither they, nor the international community, will put up with the current political impasse indefinitely. Whoever the next president of Afghanistan is, he, and his international supporters, have to place the rights of the Afghan people at the heart of their Afghanistan strategy. By Sam Zarif, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific director and Halima Kazem, Amnesty International's consultant on Afghanistan