Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission’s Activities on Peace and Victim Centered Justice
As a national human rights institution established in Afghanistan’s Constitution and with “A’” status under the Paris Principles, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) has advocated for peace with justice and respect for human rights for almost two decades.
AIHRC was mandated specifically to consider the issue of transitional justice at the first National Human Rights Workshop in the country, organized by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights on 9th March 2002. AIHRC has continuously played an integral role in raising people’s voices for justice, documenting cases of human rights violations and advocating for peace, reconciliation, justice and truth-seeking. The Commission’s past achievements regarding transitional justice (hereafter “victim-centered justice”) are set out in more detail below.
AIHRC continues to be a leading advocate for and protector of conflict victims’ rights and it systematically monitors, investigates, and reports on civilian casualties and other violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. Through its monitoring, advocacy and training programs, the Commission also protects the rights of conflict-related detainees and it takes steps to hold officials and the government to account in case of violations of domestic laws and international norms.
With intra-Afghan peace talks likely to commence soon, AIHRC has announced that it will stand on the side of victims, facilitating their inclusion and amplifying their voices in the process. The Commission has offered its services to the parties as an expert on human rights, an advocate for rights holders and as a coordinator with civil society, including victims. AIHRC is not and does not want to be included among the negotiating teams. However, it has offered to be an observer at the talks, playing a constructive role by offering expert advice on human rights and ensuring that the voices of victims and civil society are heard.
The role of the AIHRC is critical during the transition from war to peace, both on human rights and on victim centered justice. AIHRC enjoys the trust of victims and the broader population of Afghanistan. As noted above, the Commission has played a leading role as an advocate for victims for many years. Its victim centered justice activities waned for several years but are now being revitalized. The Commission wishes to become a recognized center of expertise on victim centered justice whose advice is sought by the parties to the talks and others, including civil society and victims’ groups.
The following is an outline of current, recent and past peace related actions, programs, and stances that AIHRC has undertaken, with a focus on victim-centered justice.
AIHRC’s recent programs and statements on the peace process (July 2019-present)
1. National inquiry: Women, Peace and Security
In July 2019, AIHRC published the “National Inquiry on Women, Peace and Security” to assess women’s views, concerns and demands of the peace process. More than 5000 Afghans from across the country responded to questionnaires or participated in public hearings or focus groups. The Inquiry concluded that without the direct and effective participation of women and war victims, sustainable peace cannot be achieved; victims’ rights and women’s rights should be a core part of the peace process without undermining justice and healing; progress in human rights, including equality for women, and democratic structures must be preserved; and the international community should remain engaged in Afghanistan after a peace agreement.
2. AIHRC’s stance on releasing three prominent members of the Haqqani Network
On November 14, 2019, AIHRC issued a statement expressing its concerns regarding the release of three prominent members of the Haqqani Network that perpetuated the culture of impunity and once again disregarded victims’ demands for justice.
3. The process of releasing prisoners
On March 3, 2020, following the agreement between the US and the Taliban on 29 February, AIHRC wrote to the Governments of Afghanistan and the US and to the Taliban with a number of questions about the agreement to release 5000 Taliban detainees in exchange for 1000 Government detainees, as a precondition for the commencement of intra-Afghan talks. The questions covered three issues: i) victims’ access to justice; ii) due process for prisoners and verification of prisoners’ identities; and iii) monitoring and post-release plans. Observing that access to information is critical to the legitimacy of the peace process, and the durability of peace, the letters said that these preliminary questions are aimed at giving all Afghans, including civil society, youth and human rights institutions like AIHRC, access to basic information regarding prisoner release. On 18th July 2020, AIHRC published a follow-up note on prisoner release asking for clarity and consistency from all parties on rights and interests of victims and the due process rights of those in detention.
4. AIHRC’s Role in the Intra-Afghan Peace Talks
On March 11, 2020, AIHRC announced in a statement that finalizing the membership of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s negotiating team was an important step towards facilitating Intra-Afghan peace talks and that the final list of negotiators must be publicized.
AIHRC stated that the Commission would not be part of the Republic of Afghanistan’s negotiating team; rather, the AIHRC would monitor the Intra-Afghan peace talks as an impartial and independent national human rights institution and protect the human rights of the citizens. AIHRC indicated that it would share its expertise and recommendations on human rights and peace related issues (like reduction in violence, prisoner exchange, victim-centered justice, Afghanistan’s national and international commitments to human rights, and other relevant human rights matters) with both negotiating teams.
5. Welcoming International Criminal Court’s decision of Afghanistan Investigations
In March 2020, AIHRC, in a statement, welcomed the decision by the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to authorize the Prosecutor to proceed with an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes involving Afghanistan from 1 May 2003. This followed a long preliminary examination by the ICC from 2011 – 2017 and an initial refusal in 2019 by the Pre-trial Chamber to authorize a full investigation.
In a statement on June 12, 2020, AIHRC reiterated its support for ICC opening an investigation in Afghanistan and also announced its support for creating an effective domestic justice system that serves to ensure judicial accountability for international crimes according to international standards. To this end, AIHRC welcomes all the support and practical actions necessary for ensuring justice by the government.
6. The #Put_the_Gun_Down Campaign
On April 1, 2020, AIHRC launched the #Put_the_Gun_Down Campaign. The purpose of this campaign is to provide a channel for the victims of war to raise their voices and express their opinions on peace in Afghanistan. So far, 53 short videos of women and men from 20 provinces of Afghanistan and also featuring Afghan diaspora have been released. Some of the videos have been viewed more than 7,000 times on social media. In all videos, the interviewees ask for an immediate end to the war and a nationwide ceasefire. AIHRC will continue the #Put_the_Gun_Down campaign and its efforts to advocate for justice for victims and their participation in peace talks.
7. Letters to the members of the Intra-Afghan peace talks negotiating teams
On May 6, 2020, AIHRC sent a letter to the members of the Intra-Afghan peace talks negotiating teams regarding the position of human rights issues in the peace talks. The letter congratulated the team members’ selection, briefly explained the mandate of AIHRC and our impartial position in the peace process, offered expertise and advice on human rights, asked for a strong and clear stance among the delegates on human rights and requested face-to-face discussion and exchange. Following this, the AIHRC leadership has met with Islamic Republic’s negotiating team several times and has agreed on a mechanism of continuous engagement, particularly with the Committee on Human Rights, led by Dr. Habiba Sarabi.
8. The Peace Process Beyond the Negotiating Table: A proposal to engage victims, experts, and the broader public in the Intra-Afghan peace negotiations
On June 2, 2020, AIHRC proposed four mechanisms to improve war victims’ and people’s participation in the peace talks. The Commission stated that the peace negotiations should take advantage of Afghanistan’s strong tradition of public input and consultation by formally engaging victims, experts, civil society organizations and the broader public. This would help deepen public support for the negotiations and the outcome.
The four proposed mechanisms by AIHRC for increasing people’s and victims’ role in in the peace are: 1) A number of victims, selected through a process agreed by the parties, will share their experience of the conflict directly with both negotiating teams; 2) A sub-committee of the negotiating teams be appointed to meet at regular intervals with a select reference group comprised of civil society and human rights activists which could receive and respond to questions and make proposals; 3) Specific proposals and expertise should be encouraged on identified issues, in writing or in person, from civil society and experts. Either or both parties may solicit proposals and the facilitator of the process could help arrange expert visits; and 4) A national consultative victims Jirga be held, when the post-Covid-19 context allows, to discuss issues of victims, reconciliation and justice. Meanwhile, there may be mechanisms for online submissions or consultations, or online targeted meetings, to promote discussion, develop input to the parties and be updates on progress in the talks.
Following a request by the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s negotiating team and others, AIHRC is now elaborating policy to implement the mechanisms and has had some progress on forming a reference group to engage with the Islamic Republic’s negotiating team.
9. Statement to the UN Security Council
On June 25, 2020, AIHRC Chairperson, Shaharzad Akbar, addressed the UN Security Council by video-link on the human rights situation in Afghanistan. Noting the multi-dimensional impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on human rights, Ms. Akbar briefed the Council on the AIHRC’s continuing activities to monitor and advocate for human rights in the challenging environment. She discussed the extraordinary levels of violence faced by civilians, including a recent incident in which mothers were targeted by gunmen while giving birth. Ms. Akbar stated that only an inclusive process with human rights at its heart can lead to lasting peace and prevent a return to conflict. Any compromise on basic human rights of Afghans will not lead to peace. She urged the United Nations and the global human rights community to stand with Afghans to stop the violence, preserve human rights, particularly the rights of women and minorities, and to ensure that the voices and demands of victims will not be overlooked.
10. New Call for Justice
The New Call for Justice (NCJ) project is a national consultation with all Afghans that raises awareness of transitional justice and amplifies victims’ voices so that their concerns, reflections and thoughts on the past 18 years of conflict, as well as previous decades of conflict are front and center of the peace process. Most Afghans are a victim of the conflict and have had their rights denied by the conflict. The survey will map the impact. Through targeted messaging to the public, high-level stakeholders and input to the Afghan government’s technical team, the Commission will use the results of the survey to call for inclusion of victims in the process, to raise awareness of victim-centered justice and to show how listening to Afghan voices –the survey results – will contribute to lasting political stability.
AIHRC’s past actions, programs, and statements on victim-centered justice (2005 -2018)
1. The report “A Call for Justice”
From January to August 2005, AIHRC conducted a national inquiry on whether the people of Afghanistan wanted the human rights violations of the period from 1978 – 2001 to be address and, if so, how. The inquiry was conducted in 32 provinces of Afghanistan and among Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan. Around 6000 Afghan citizens participated and AIHRC published a comprehensive report called “A Call for Justice”. The report showed high public support for justice for violations committed during the conflict. It was a turning point in the transitional justice debate in Afghanistan and opened the way for further work, discussion and actions on transitional justice.
2. Developing the Government’s Action Plan for “Peace, Reconciliation, and Justice”
“A Call for Justice” laid the foundation for the Government’s Action Plan for Peace, Reconciliation and Justice. The Action Plan was developed by a working group comprised of the government of Afghanistan, AIHRC and United Nation’s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). The Action Plan stresses that all mechanisms for peace and justice should ensure meaningful and active participation of all segments of the Afghan society, especially Afghan women. The proposed measures are grouped into five key actions:
1) Acknowledgment of the suffering of the Afghan people;
2) Establishing credible and accountable state institutions;
3) Truth-seeking and documentation;
4) Promoting reconciliation and national unity; and
5) Establishing reasonable and effective accountability mechanisms. (The final version of the Action Plan only calls for the establishment of a taskforce to give recommendations to the President on how Afghanistan should implement its international legal obligations relating to issues of accountability.)
The Action Plan was adopted by the Government and launched by President Karzai in December, 2006.
3. Conflict mapping report
Key Action 3 of the Peace, Reconciliation and Justice Action Plan provided the mandate for AIHRC’s Conflict Mapping project which documented war crimes, crimes against humanity and serious human rights violations from 1978 – 2001. Beginning in 2007 and completed in 2012, the project documented almost 8000 witness testimonies drawn from Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The Conflict Mapping Report makes an undeniable contribution to Afghanistan’s historical record. However, a lack of political will, compounded by the presence of so many alleged perpetrators in powerful positions, has thus far prevented its public release. In 2011, partly due to its work on documenting war crimes, attempts to undermine AIHRC resulted in the removal of three commissioners. This, combined with a deteriorating security environment and budget reductions, resulted in a reduction in activity by AIHRC on victim centered justice for several years, although during this period the Commission continued to regularly speak out for justice and in favor of victims’ rights.
4. Penal Code (2017)
In 2017, Afghanistan’s first comprehensive Penal Code was adopted. Among many other provisions to strengthen criminal justice, it codified international crimes, including key provisions in the Rome Statute and resulted in the creation of a specialized Directorate for War Crimes in the Attorney General’s Office. AIHRC contributed to the development of the Penal Code, including the provisions on international crimes and other measures that strengthen the domestic human rights framework.
5. National Inquiry on the Protection of the Rights of Victims of Armed Conflict and Terrorism (2018)
In 2018, AIHRC conducted a national inquiry into the protection of the rights of victims of armed conflict and terrorist attacks. The study focused on the protection of victims’ rights, in particular the extent to which the government has met its national and international responsibilities to protect victims' rights in the context of increasing civilian casualties and the damage caused by armed conflict and terrorist attacks. Information was obtained through questionnaires, public hearings, focus group meetings, individual interviews and a literature review.
The results showed that the government has had little success in ensuring the security of its citizens or in meeting its obligations to conflict victims. While the government compensates some victims or relatives with sums ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 AFs, there is no regular program of compensation based in law, while effective accountability mechanisms are lacking. Victims and families consulted specified the following priorities: prosecution of the perpetrators, compensation for victims, finalizing, adopting and enacting the Victim Compensation Act, ensuring the security of civilians, victims participation in the peace process and specific access for victims to social services, such as education and employment programs.
6. Documenting civilian casualties
As the war escalated between the Taliban, Afghan forces and their international allies, AIHRC established its Special Investigation Team in 2007 to monitor respect for International Humanitarian Law during the war in Afghanistan.
Since then, the Special Investigation Team (SIT) has consistently investigated, documented, verified and archived cases of civilian casualties and has monitored the treatment of conflict-related detainees. The Commission frequently makes public statements about incidents that result in civilian casualties, based on internal reporting by the SIT. Annual and half-yearly reports on civilian casualties have been published for over a decade. This documentation can help to map the impact of the war in Afghanistan on civilians and support victim-centered justice efforts.