Defending Afghanistan’s defenders: from commitments to action

Wherever there is injustice in Afghanistan, you will find some of the bravest people fighting against it. They are lawyers and activists supporting women who have suffered violence and discrimination. They are teachers who are supporting the right to education of girls and boys. They are journalists who advance the right to freedom of expression. They are whistleblowers who expose allegations of corruption and other abuses of government and its officials. They are all human rights defenders, as they work to contribute to the protection and promotion of human rights in the country

Human rights defenders in Afghanistan have played a crucial role in bridging the gap between the government and the people. They have been key actors in protecting and promoting human rights and strengthening the rule of law, often at great risk to themselves, their families and communities, and to the organizations and movements they represent. For decades, they have advocated humanity’s core values of equality, justice, fairness and non-discrimination. They have not only contributed to the development and progress of communities and the country but have also paid a high price for the work they do.

Despite the positive contributions they make, human rights defenders face hostility from different state and non- state actors. They have been subjected to threats, intimidation, harassment, violence and even death. The human rights defenders and women human rights defenders are questioned for their human rights work, labeled as ‘anti-religion’ and ‘anti-culture’ and are targeted for challenging injustices. There have been systematic attacks on human rights defenders in Afghanistan in the last couple of years, which notably increased in 2019.

In May last year, a female journalist and activist, Mena Mangal was shot dead in Kabul. In July, Saeed Karim Musawi a well-known human rights defender and civil society activist was shot and killed by two gunmen who were riding on a motorbike and escaped the scene in Kunduz province. In September, the Taliban attacked Kunduz and Baghlan provinces, laying siege to the cities. Human rights defenders were trapped for days without access to communication, internet and any kind of protection support from the government or other actors. Their fear was being found and targeted for their human rights work. In the same month, Abdul Samad Amiri, a human rights defender and head of the Ghor provincial office for Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission was kidnapped and killed on his way to Ghor province. In November, two prominent human rights defenders from Logar province were forcibly disappeared and then detained for exposing alleged sexual abuse against children.

Despite the positive contributions they make, human rights defenders face hostility from different state and non- state actors. They have been subjected to threats, intimidation, harassment, violence and even death

Samira Hamidi

These attacks on human rights defenders, and many more that are yet to be documented, have not been investigated. While the government has the obligations to respect, protect, promote and fulfill the human rights of human rights defenders, there have been no concrete steps to identify the suspected perpetrators and bring them to justice, or provide immediate protection support to human rights defenders at risk. In many incidents, human rights defenders have been accused of fabricating the threats in order to ‘seek asylum’ abroad. There are also examples where human rights defenders were advised to silence themselves, claiming officials are not capable enough to provide them protection. In certain cases, human rights defenders were even told to acquire weapons to protect themselves.

The widespread threats to human rights defenders necessitates the establishment of a robust and independent protection mechanism. Without this, they cannot safely carry out their crucial work. There are several small ad-hoc initiatives to provide support to human rights defenders, but these are severely limited in terms of their resources and geographic scope. For example, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, despite having an action plan for protection of human rights defenders, has not been able to provide immediate support for human rights defenders due to budget constraints.

Similarly, the Human Rights Defenders Committee does not have authority to investigate and provide immediate support to human rights defenders under threat.

Over recent months, the human rights community with support of Amnesty International collaborated in devising a protection strategy for human rights defenders in Afghanistan. This unprecedented effort addresses the protection of human rights defenders, the need for investigations of threats, calls for bringing suspected perpetrators to justice and encourages collaboration between the government and international community specifically for protection of human rights defenders.

The Afghanistan human rights defenders protection strategy must be seen as an important first step for the Afghan government, whose job now is putting the strategy into implementation by bringing relevant government and non-governmental actors together and demonstrate its commitment to the protection of human rights defenders and promotion of human rights in Afghanistan. As Sarwar Danish, the Second Vice President of Afghanistan stated during the launch of the Afghanistan human rights defenders protection strategy, “Until now, there has been a lot of focus on awareness of human rights, but for the protection of human rights defenders there has not been enough attention.” AIHRC and Afghanistan’s newly created position of State Minister on Human Rights and International Affairs can play a major role in contributing towards effective implementation of protection mechanism for human rights defenders. 

The international community has a key role to play here as well. For years, human rights defenders have worked with these actors to provide first-hand information about violations taking place in Afghanistan. The international community has encouraged them to speak out against human rights violations and abuses and to promote human rights values. When these same human rights defenders are at risk, the international community has a responsibility to stand up for them – as the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders demands.

The European Union member states, the United Kingdom and Canada are some of the countries that have made explicit commitments to protect human rights defenders. It is now for them, and others, to put their commitments into action to both protect human rights defenders and ensure a safe and enabling environment. This will require a long-term commitment from the Afghan government, funding from the international community, and, most importantly, sustained advocacy and monitoring by Afghanistan’s human rights community to ensure these commitments are effectively realized. As human rights defenders emphasized during the launch of the human rights defenders protection strategy, it is time for Afghan government and international community to put their commitments to action.