Afghanistan: Authorities must deliver on pledge to protect activists amid surge of attacks

With Afghanistan’s human rights defenders facing a renewed surge of threats and attacks, the authorities must urgently deliver on their pledge to establish a functional body dedicated to the protection of human rights defenders at risk, said Amnesty International.

More than three months since a Presidential Decree nominally created the Joint Commission for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, no practical steps have been taken to make it an effective protection mechanism, with a lack of information forthcoming on any plan or strategy to address the escalating threat faced by members of Afghan civil society.

An already dire situation for Afghanistan’s human rights community has significantly worsened over recent months, with no fewer than 11 human rights defenders and media workers killed in targeted attacks between the start of peace negotiations on 12 September 2020 and 31 January 2021, according to figures from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

This delay has already cost lives and there is no sign of the violence abating
Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director

“The announcement of the Joint Commission was a vital step towards providing human rights defenders across the country with the support and security they so desperately need. But it’s a body that currently exists in name only. In more than three months, during which we have witnessed a frenzied escalation of killings, attacks and threats against activists, the Commission has made no tangible progress or taken any meaningful action,” said Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director.

“This delay has already cost lives and there is no sign of the violence abating. The Joint Commission must urgently expedite its work and prioritize the immediate security needs of human rights defenders, investigate all cases of threats, attacks and other forms of intimidation, and hold those responsible to account.”

Amnesty International is also calling on the Joint Commission to ensure that, where necessary, human rights defenders are provided with adequate protection measures including relocation, relief and psychosocial support.

According to UNAMA figures, 14 human rights defenders were killed in Afghanistan in 2020. This includes Mohammad Yousuf Rasheed, CEO of Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, who was shot dead on 23 December 2020 in morning rush-hour traffic in Kabul along with his driver, days after the Joint Commission was established.

The Joint Commission must be provided with the necessary human and financial resources
Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director

The following day, women’s rights activist Freshta Kohistani and her brother were killed in Kapisa province by unknown gunmen travelling on a motorbike. Days before her death, Kohistani had posted on Facebook that she had asked the authorities for protection due to the threats she was receiving.

According to its mandate, the Joint Commission has been established ‘for the purpose of strengthening human rights advocacy and addressing the national and international concerns of human rights related issues in Afghanistan’.

“To achieve its goals and become worthy of its name, the Joint Commission must be provided with the necessary human and financial resources, and be fully supported by both the Afghan government and the international community,” said Yamini Mishra.

Background

According to UNAMA, 32 human rights defenders were killed in Afghanistan between 1 January 2018 and 31 January 2021.

See Amnesty International’s response to the announcement of the Joint Commission for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders here. The Decree and an accompanying statement from Second Vice President Sarwar Danish, chair of the Commission, are available here.

On 19 January 2020, in close collaboration with 32 human rights organizations, Amnesty International presented the “Afghanistan Human Rights Defenders Protection Strategy”. Intended as a roadmap for the government to adopt an independent, effective and implementable protection mechanism for human rights defenders at risk in the country, the strategy won a public commitment from the Afghan government to establish an effective protection mechanism.

In August 2019, Amnesty International published a briefing, Defenceless defenders: Afghanistan’s human rights community under attackdetailing the threats, harassment, intimidation, attacks and even killings that human rights defenders have faced for their work. For more information about human rights defenders in Afghanistan, see here.