Three of the nine members of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), one of the most successful, outspoken and internationally venerated institutions of post-Taleban Afghanistan, are losing their posts. What has been declared as a normal process, of bringing fresh blood into the commission, smells very political, though. It rather looks as if this is a new part to discipline the AIHRC in favour of allied warlords and of making civil society in general more docile. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig, Sari Kouvo and Fabrizio Foschini have looked into this poisoned Christmas gift from Kabul.
Technically, of course, AIHRC commissioners Nader Nadery, Fahim Hakim and Maulawi Ghulam Muhammad Gharib have not been fired. Everything’s normal, said the president’s spokesman on Friday, their mandates have expired on 16 December and have not been extended; the commission simply needs fresh blood. And the spokesman adds:
‘The president is authorised by law to extend or not extend their mission if he wants to. We just want fresh people, new people.’
But that justification sounds hollow. There are clear political undertones. Tolo News had reported on Thursday already that the commissioners were fired after the president’s consulted his deputies, Marshal Muhammad Qasem Fahim and Muhammad Karim Khalili, the Head of the President’s Office Abdul Karim Khorram and the National Security Advisor Rangin Dadfar Spanta. Tolo’s report links the decision to the expected publication of the AIHRC’s documentation of war crimes in Afghanistan, generally known as the ‘mapping report’, a link the spokesman denied.
The mapping report which has been compiled over the past years and builds on an earlier UN report that was finished in early 2005, but held back under Afghan and US government pressure and later leaked was expected to contain information, and possibly names, about war crimes linked to high-ranking individuals serving in the Karzai administration, including close advisors of the president. Its publication has been expected for several months but it has been delayed by internal pressure as well as by a wavering international community that has vowed to support human rights but wants to avoid – as the expression goes – to further rock the already unstable Afghan boat.
The timing and circumstances indicate that the three have been targeted not because of procedural matters but about them being often publicly critical of government policy.
Nader Nadery and Fahim Hakim have been part of the AIHRC since its establishment, and driving forces for human rights and democratic development in Afghanistan. Some of our members know Nader from pre-AIHRC times already when he and friends were operating a small human rights organisation from a ramshackle office in a not very inviting part of Peshawar while the Taleban were still in power. From there, they regularly travelled into Afghanistan, contributing to our knowledge about the situation in the country. Nader also came to the 2001 Bonn conference as part of a fifth delegation, composed from pro-democracy activists in the Afghan underground and in exile which was excluded from the conference table at the last hour in order ‘to reduce the number of actors’ (Lakhdar Brahimi).
As commissioner for the AIHRC, Nader has had a particular focus on transitional justice, as well as on war crimes (civilian casualties) committed as part of the current conflict. He managed the national consultations that resulted in the A Call for Justice report documenting opinions about how to deal with the legacies of conflict and was the commissioner most keenly involved in developing the government Action Plan for Peace, Justice and Reconciliation. For the past three years, he has managed the commission’s documentation of war crimes covering the period 1978 to 2001, the commission’s contribution to the implementation of the government action plan.
As chairman of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan(FEFA), an alliance of civil society organisations and the AIHRC which, due to the president’s authority to name its members is a governmental institution, Nader in particular also has played an important role in the struggle for clean and transparent elections. This has been perceived by Karzai as hampering his political interests and a hostile act already when the elections where still running. Local AIHRC representatives who supported FEFA during elections have received serious personal threats by people within the government; one of the authors of the report has been a witness of such a phone call.
Hakim has come under pressure recently, too, after he managed the election process for the Afghan civil society representatives at the latest international conference on Afghanistan in Bonn (‘Bonn 2’). During these elections, some pro-government non-governmental candidates fell through and started a public smear campaign against the organisers. Fahim came under pressure, even received threats and finally chose not to attend Bonn 2 to which he had been invited in his personal capacity.
Mawlawi Ghulam Muhammad is less prominent internationally but known in the country as one of the few really human rights-sensitive clergymen in the country, and he comes from Karzai’s home province Kandahar. (A fourth new member is also to be appointed, replacing Hamida Barmak who was killed in a suicide attack in Kabul earlier this year.)
If the ‘renewal’ of the AIHRC was about procedure only, it could have been expected that the president would present at least some new commissioners to parliament for approval first. This has not happened. Also mandates of other AIHRC members have been left hanging In the air, neither been renewed or cancelled, in what can be seen as a step to weaken those commissioners’ position and to undermine their job security.
That the decision to fire the three comes so close after the recent international Afghanistan conference in Bonn sheds a clear light on what assurances repeated there by the Afghan government on protecting human rights and working with civil society are worth in reality. Also the timing of this step has been carefully chosen: briefly before Christmas when the international presence in Kabul is low and capitals are on holiday mode. Whether there will be swift and clear reactions from there, as well as last minute moves in Kabul to prevent the step from being made official, also will be an indication how seriously reciprocal western assurances along the same line – protecting rights and working with civil society – are meant to be.
While capitals still remain silent, in Afghan civil society concerns have already been raised. Tolo quotes Aziz Rafiee, the director of Afghanistan Civil Society Forum, an umbrella organisation: ‘It’s a pity. It is unacceptable for civil society activists, especially human rights activists in Afghanistan. If such a decision is made by the Afghan government and those around Mr Karzai, it is the beginning of a crack down on democracy in Afghanistan.’
Indeed, the removal of the three critical voices can be seen as part of a long-term government strategy to replace the more active part of civil society – and of the AIHRC as one of the most respected independent institutions in the country in particular – with more conservative and docile Karzai loyalist. The names of possible replacements that already are floating around seem to confirm this approach*.
While we have no doubt that both Nader Nadery and Fahim Hakim will both move on to other equally important position, and that they will continue to speak out with integrity about developments in Afghanistan, they will be difficult to replace at the AIHRC. We worry that the commission – one of the few effective and reliable institutions that emerged as a result of the international intervention which, otherwise, has not been blessed with too many success stories and has dared to report on violations committed by all parties to the conflict, Afghan and international alike – will not be revived by this type of fresh blood injection but that the intention rather is to sedate it.
We also worry about the personal safety of former and current AIHRC colleagues when the mapping report is finally released. We hope – and expect – that our international colleagues in the UN, NATO and embassies in Kabul take appropriate measures to protect them, even in case some of them disagreed with the timing of the report’s release or its content.
Find the pictures and short bios of the AIHRC in its old composition here.
* These are rumoured to be Mawlawi Mustafa Barakzai, a former ECC member who is considered a Karzai loyalist, Qudria Yazdanparast, a member of the previous parliament linked to Jamiat-e Islami, and Ayub Asil. Although this is not confirmed yet, Karzai has removed Ayub Asil from his capacity as deputy chief of the Independent Electoral Commission on Friday (read here), and this would make him available for the position of deputy head of the AIHRC that allegedly he is destined to occupy.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020