Interview with head of independent human rights body

Kabul, December 22, 2004 (IRIN) - The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) has been in business for just over two years. In an interview with

IRIN, Dr Sima Samar, the head of AIHRC, said despite improvements, arbitrary killings and torture, a lack of justice for victims, and violence against women continued largely unabated.

QUESTION: It was international Human Rights Day earlier this month. Was there anything to celebrate in Afghanistan?

ANSWER: The human rights situation in Afghanistan is better than in previous years. For example, girls can go to school and they had a significant participation in the Loya Jirga [grand assembly which ratified the Afghan constitution] and the [presidential] elections.

But there are still some very serious violations of human rights in the country, which is due to a lack of law and order. Some people are beyond the law. Meanwhile, lack of security is another issue. People don't feel secure and there is no government system to defend the rights of the people. The public has no trust in the government system.

Lack of security fuels these violations as local powers [warlords] are beyond the law and do whatever they want. With the rule of the gun taking precedence over the rule of law, rights violations can take place as long as these powers remain in place.

Q: What are the major cases of violations that the commission has to Deal with?

A: Some past violations still continue: arbitrary detentions, private jails, the torture of prisoners and detainees. The police still think it is their right to torture a suspect or culprit. Forced marriages and land grabbing are among the top violations that take place a lot.

Lack of awareness [of human rights] is very widespread. Meanwhile there is no access to justice, there are no proper courts and some [adverse] cultural practices have influenced local courts. If a women goes to court she is seen as bad and of ill repute.

Q: What are some of the achievements in the field of human rights since the creation of your office?

A: I think that one of the main achievements is justification of the commission by the people. We have offices in Kabul and some of the provinces. At least the people of Afghanistan have seen AIHRC as somewhere to share their concerns and complaints. It is a significant development. In this country, three years ago no one could even mention the phrase "human rights".

In the beginning, there was some propaganda against the commission Among the public. Some elements who did not want public awareness on human rights spread allegations that the commission was against Afghan culture, and was spreading western culture and so on. But now we have proved that we are here to defend the rights of our suffering people and pursue the perpetrators of human rights violations.

As far as the development of human rights is concerned, we have noticed some improvements in the courts and prisons. We were able to create a national plan on child trafficking with the help of UNICEF [United Nations children agency] and Save the Children. For the first time a national action plan on child trafficking was drawn up.

We were able to ensure women's rights in the new constitution. After Much effort we could maintain equal rights for men and women in the constitution.

Also, after quite some time, we are now able to go inside prisons and talk to prisoners. This is some of the progress in the field of human rights. We have been able to tackle some 30 percent of human rights problems in the country but we have a long way to go.

Q: How challenging it is to advocate human rights in a conservative country such as Afghanistan?

A: Unfortunately, the culture of protecting the human rights does not exist. We need the power to force [the implementation of] human rights on the ground. We see that women's participation in government is now symbolic. It is more for the sake of the international community than for the women's cause. We want this to be accepted as a fact.

I hope that the current government will get rid of all the compromises of the past and strengthen the rule of law. We can trust a government when the people in that government themselves are not alleged to be human rights violators. At present we are in a situation in which the people in power are themselves the perpetrators of human rights violations. Therefore, we cannot expect from the current system any significant contribution in the field of human rights.

Q: One of the big issues in Afghanistan is the trial of those responsible for past human rights abuses. Why have you not made any progress in this field in the last two years?

A: On transitional justice, or the trial of war and past criminals, the commission's duty was to undertake a public consultation. In the beginning, unfortunately no one supported the transitional justice project of the AIHRC. We decided that this depends on the people of Afghanistan because we cannot implement the practices of transitional justices of other countries.

The commission interviewed around 4,000 individuals and more than 200 focus groups in the entire country. Our report on transitional justice will be released on early January. The findings of the survey shows that people want fair justice against past criminals and also want the criminals removed from government posts.

The other reason why the transitional justice process has been slow so far is because the justice system of Afghanistan does not have the capacity to deal with such crimes. Meanwhile, war crimes and crimes against humanity have not been clearly defined in the new Afghan constitution.

We suggest that serious research and investigation is needed on the issue of past criminals in Afghanistan. So far we have had various scattered reports that have not been precise or well sourced.

Q: Do you know of human rights violations by foreign forces based in Afghanistan?

A: Yes, we have recorded some violations by the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. After the issue of prison abuse in Iraq we had a similar case by coalition forces in Gardez [a southeastern city]. It was reported as "dishonouring and insulting" a prisoner. But when we investigated, unfortunately it was similar to the Iraq prison abuse. We sent a letter to coalition forces in Kabul, but unfortunately they did not reply nor let us have access to the coalition detention centres in Afghanistan.

We have [noted] around 120 to 140 violations by coalition forces, including prison abuse, entering people's houses in violent ways and the frisking of women by a male, which was reduced after serious complaints.

Q: How would you like to see the new government addressing human rights issues?

A: I think the new president must assign professional and sound people. In the cabinet and key government departments. People expect positive change and that can only happen if we have the right people implementing the law. Also, the issue of human rights must not be addressed as a [one-off] project. We must develop the culture of human rights in government and in society.