The National Unity Government has finally, after 13 painful months mulling the matter over, appointed nine new commissioners to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). The new chair is Shaharzad Akbar, a well-known human rights activist, who has served as a deputy at the National Security Council on peace, protection of civilians and fallen soldiers. She is only the second chair in the AIHRC’s 18-year history and replaces Dr Sima Samar, who has become the president’s Special Envoy and State Minister for Human Rights and International Relations. AAN’s Ehsan Qaane looks at the new commissioners and considers what the appointments will mean for this important voice on human rights in Afghanistan; he also looks at the consequences of the extremely slow and labyrinthine appointments process.
The nine new commissioners of the AIHRC are:
- Shaharzad Akbar (chair)
- Asadullah Yusufi
- Benafsha Yaqubi
- Muhammad Ayub Yusufzai
- Sayed Ehsan Khaleq
- Shabnam Salehi
- Shukrullah Mashkur
- Muhammad Nayem Nazari
- Razia Sayad
The presidential decree (number 44, issued on 17 July 2019) naming the new commissioners did not mention Akbar as chairwoman, but presidential spokesperson Sediq Sediqi said she would be taking this role. All of the commissioners are appointed for five-year terms. Below are biographies of the nine, put together by consulting and double-checking with a variety of sources, including people who know the commissioners and some of the commissioners themselves. The ‘lists’ referred to in the biographies are a list of recommended candidates put forward by civil society after an open recruitment process (the CS List) and; a list put together by the Administrative Reform and Civil Services Commission (ARCSC list) after the president was not satisfied by the CS List.
Biographies of the new commissioners
Shahrzad Akbar (female, Uzbek, under 32 years, CS List) Akbar has a master’s in development studies from Oxford University (2011) which she was the first Afghan woman to attend, and a BA in anthropology from Smith College in the United States. She has most recently served as a deputy at the National Security Council (April to July 2019) and before this was: senior advisor to President Ghani on the High Development Councils (August 2017 to August 2018) and; country director of Open Society Afghanistan, the Afghanistan branch of the Open Society Foundation/Institute (September 2014 to July 2017). She was also a co-founder of Afghan 1400, a political initiative of Afghan young leaders, established in 2012 which aimed to mobilise the younger generation to push for political, social and economic development (more here). Akbar has also worked as a journalist at the BBC’s Kabul office. Her father, Ismail Akbar, was a well-known leftist politician and writer, originally from Aqcha district of Jawzjan who had been in the armed resistance against the Soviets in the 1980s. Timor Sharan, her husband, a Hazara from Bamyan, with a PhD from Exeter University, is deputy director at the Independent Directorate of Local Governance. Akbar was a delegate at the latest Intra-Afghan Dialogue held in Doha where, according to The New York Times, Sharan literally held their baby so that she could participate in talks.
Benafsha Yaqubi (female, around 35 years, CS List) Yaqubi has two master degrees in political science and international relations from universities in Kabul, as well as a BA in Persian literature from Iran. She and her husband, Mahdi Salami, an Iranian-Afghan, are both blind. After their return to Afghanistan, they established the Rahyab Organisation to provide education and rehabilitation training for blind Afghans. Before her selection as a commissioner for the AIHRC, she was working in the office of the spokesperson of the Attorney General’s Office.
Razia Sayad (female, Tajik, 35-year-old, CS List) Sayad has a master’s in public policy and administration (2014) and a BA in political science and law (2008) from Kabul university. She has most recently been working at the USAID-funded Afghanistan Justice Sector Program (JSSP) (2017 to now), as well as in the Human Rights Support Unit of the Ministry of Justice (2012 to 2017). Sayad was a member of the government delegation that, in 2017, presented Afghanistan’s periodic report on its record on torture to the committee of experts meeting under the auspices of the United Nations and the Convention Against Torture (see reporting here). Her husband, Hashmat Radfar, is politically close to CE Abdullah.
Shabnam Salehi (female, Pashtun, 33-year-old, CS List) Salehi has a master’s degree in public policy and administration (2016 to 2017) and a BA in political science and law (2007 to 2010), both from Kabul University. Currently, she is a lecturer at Kabul University. She is from the Taraki tribe and originally from Gelan district of Ghazni. Her father, Brigadier General Faizullah Salehi, served as the chief of police of both Ghor and Paktia provinces.
Sayed Ehsan Khaleq (male, Sayed, 35-year-old, CS List) Khaleq has a master’s in law from Kateb University, in Kabul, and a BA in political science and law from Kabul University (2002 to 2005). He worked with the AIHRC as a human rights trainer for four years (up to 2009) and then worked in the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, for ten years, in various positions, including the head of the labour rights department. He is originally from Herat. His brother, Sayed Nasim Khaleq, is the current technical deputy at the Ministry of Urban Affairs.
Muhammad Nayem Nazari (male, Hazara, 52-year-old, ARCSC List) Nazari, who has a BA in journalism from Balkh University, fled to Pakistan in 1996, where he joined the Ta’awun Centre, an Afghan NGO, and spent six years working there. After his return to Kabul, he joined the Civil Society and Human Rights Network (CSHRN) to edit the Angara, a human rights magazine. In 2008, he was promoted to be the director of CSHRN. Nazari ran – unsuccessfully – in the 2018 parliamentary elections for Kabul.
Shukrullah Mashkur (male, Pashtun, 30-year-old, ARCSC List) Mashkur has a master’s in international relations and a BA in veterinary science from Nangrahar University. He ran – unsuccessfully – in the 2018 elections for Nangarhar. Most recently, he has been working at the Afghan Anti-Corruption Network (AACN) and before that, as a trainer with the Independent Directorate Of Local Governance and with the AIHRC
Muhammad Ayub Yusufzai (male, Pashtun, over 50, ARCSC List) Yusufzai has been studying for his PhD in Hamburg University (since 2014) with the financial support of the Max Planck Foundation; the title of his thesis is “the legal framework of parliamentary elections in Afghanistan”. He studied for his MA at the Washington School of Law. He is a lecturer at the faculty of law and political science at Balkh University. He has also worked as a counsellor at the Norwegian Refugee Council and Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) in Balkh province.
Asadullah Yusufi (male, Hazara, 50 years, ARCSC List) Yusufi studied sharia law in madrasas in Kabul and also has a master’s in law from one of the private Kabul universities. He is an ‘ayatollah’, meaning he has the authority to interpret sharia law (the second-highest tier in the Shia Muslim clerical hierarchy). Currently, he runs his own madrasa in Kabul and is socially, but not politically active. He has a close relationship with Second Vice-President Sarwar Danesh and is originally from Markaz-Behsud district of Wardak.
What can be said about the new team of commissioners?
Four out of the nine commissioners are women, which is a positive step for gender parity, and there is one commissioner who is disabled. Six of the new commissioners, including the chair, are young – all 30 to 35 years old, with the other three in their early 50s. A fair amount of consideration also seems to have gone into ensuring that the new commission features members of all Afghanistan’s main ethnic groups: there are three Pashtuns, two Hazaras and one Uzbek, Sayed, and Tajik. AAN was not able to confirm the ethnic identity of Benafsha Yaqubi. According to the Paris Principles, a set of international standards which frame and guide the work of National Human Rights Institutions (more information here), the participation of minority groups should be guaranteed in an institution like the AIHRC. If this had been followed through fully, there would have been members of more minorities on the new commission. The previous team had featured a Nuristani (Alam Hawa Nuristani) and a Pashai (Rafiullah Bedar).
All nine commissioners are well-educated, with masters or PhDs in variously: law, sharia law, public policy and administration, development, journalism, literature and veterinary science. None has a qualification in peace or war studies – which might have been useful in current circumstances. The AIHRC’s previous leadership had already approved a five-year strategic plan (2019-2023) and a major part of this is advocating for a less-violent war and an inclusive peace. Dr Samar told AAN in March that at least two national consultations on peace and war had been planned: collecting the views of women and collecting the views of war victims. The importance of this topic has also been voiced at the start of the new commission’s work. Shaharzad Akbar, a few hours after her appointment, released a short statement on Facebook and Twitter (for the full statement, see here)
… escalation of war has restricted the citizens’ access to their rights and has caused heinous violence. I hope, together with my colleagues, at this juncture of time, we can defend the fundamental rights of our citizens in all important national processes as well as we can be effective in promotion of citizens’ accessibility to their human rights at all the corners of the country.
Shabnam Salehi, another new commissioner, also told Voice of America her priority as a commissioner would be implementing transitional justice, despite this appearing to be “impossible”. The AIHRC did have a leading position in the transitional justice process of Afghanistan. In 2004, it implemented a national inquiry to collect the views of war victims on how to deal with the alleged war criminals of the pre-2001. Based on that, the commission, UNAMA, European Union and President Karzai’s office developed the Transitional Justice Action Plan, known as the National Peace, Justice and Reconciliation Action Plan (AAN reporting for the details). Based on the action plan, the AIHRC prepared the only official report on war crimes committed between 1978 to 2001, known as the Conflict Mapping Report. However, President Karzai declined to support its publication, in effect suppressing it. Ashraf Ghani, before the 2014 presidential election, said he did not “have a problem with publishing” the report. Yet, Afghans still have no access to this important document of their recent history. It remains to be seen if Salehi and the other commissioners have any more success than Dr Samar did in the latter years at the AIHRC.
One day after she was replaced, Sima Samar spoke out again in favour of publishing the report. She was quoted as saying, “it is a need to provide the report to the future generation of Afghanistan which involves over 20 years history of Afghanistan which has been documented.”
In terms of expertise in human rights, there is reasonably wide experience in the team, from labour and disabled people’s rights to women’s rights, judicial reform and anti-corruption. It is not clear from some of the other commissioners’ biographies, however, that they have experience or a history of activism in human rights, although their educational backgrounds in law, sharia law or public policy may give a broader context to their work.
Dr Sima Samar, speaking at the Human Rights Council’s ninth session at Geneva. Dr Samar served as the head of AIHRC for 18 years, since its formation. She is now the president’s Special Envoy and State Minister for Human Rights and International Relations and Shaharzad Akbar will replace her as the head of AIHRC. (UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre/2008)
There are some concerns about how well the financial and political independence of the AIHRC will be maintained under the new team. The AIHRC, with its one central office in Kabul and 13 provincial offices, needs a sizeable budget. In 2017, the government covered only 25 per cent of AIHRC costs (1.6 million USD) according to CEO Musa Mahmudi. The commission will need continued foreign funding to help maintain its integrity and all-important distance from the government of the day. Samar’s personal relationships with donors has helped her keep this income flowing, ensuring the AIHRC could stay independent of government and be able to critically and publicly report on violations of human rights by the state and its forces. That included sensitive issues such as civilian casualties and torture. Except for Akbar, the new commissioners are not that well-known even among Afghan human rights activists. She, however, does have a good reputation among activists and foreign donors. There has also been concern expressed by some within civil society about the way the new commissioners were chosen (more on which immediately below); they question whether the new commission will be politically independent. This is important as support from wider civil society has been another reason behind the political independence of the AIHRC up till now.
How were the nine selected?
It has been 13 months since the term of the last commissioners ended in June 2018, and choosing the new team has been a long and winding process. A month later, President Ghani issued an administrative order appointing a Civil Society Working Group and a Selection Committee, consisting of five high state officials, to shortlist the 27 “most qualified” applicants for the nine commissioner positions. After a gruelling recruitment process involving a public call for applicants and three interviews, the Civil Society Working Group (2) shared an 82-strong list of applicants with the Selection Committee. (3) The committee shortened this list to 27 and shared it with the president (see AAN reporting for more details). He was not convinced by the names and asked the Selection Committee to ask the Civil Society Working Group to either make a new call for applicants or add some ‘influential people’ to the list. There were accusations, for example from applicant Khalil Raufi, speaking to AAN in January 2019, that the president wanted to add his own people. The Civil Society Working Group refused to change their list, arguing that making a new call or adding people would damage the credibility of the process and of their work. Their response was submitted to the Selection Committee in February 2019 (AAN received a copy of the letter).
President Ghani then chose to issue another order on 20 February and tasked Chair of the Administrative Reform And Civil Services Commission (ARCSC) Nader Naderi, in cooperation with Kabul University, the Ulama Council, the Afghan Bar Association and ‘social associations’ (civil society organisations which are registered with the Ministry of Justice and not allowed to receive funding), to prepare another list of 28 applicants. Each of these four groups were given 15 days to introduce seven new candidates each candidate to the ARCSC and the ARCSC was then given seven days to check the required documents of each candidate and share its final list with the president for his decision (hereafter: the ARCSC List).
According to the AIHCR’s Law Of Structure, Responsibilities And Duties, the appointment of commissioners and chairperson is in the gift of the president (art 7). However, based on two sources AAN spoke to, Ghani did not appoint the commissioners by himself. Instead, this was done by a panel consisting of Ghani, Abdullah, Danesh, Naderi and the Attorney General, Farid Hamidi. Naderi and Hamidi have both served as AIHRC commissioners previously. The panel combined the Civil Society List and the ARCSC list and shortlisted 17 people for interviews, seven people from the CS List and the rest from the ARCSC list. Out of the 17 people interviewed, nine were appointed as commissioners on 17 July 2019, International Justice Day. All in all, recruitment took one whole year.
The new commissioners were appointed only ten days before the onset of the presidential election campaign. This has raised concerns, voiced especially by some of the other presidential candidates, that President Ghani is misusing his power; after the formal end of his term as president in June 2019, they believed he should not be hiring and firing people to and from governmental agencies (AAN reporting here).
There has also been some grumbling from some civil society activists about the new team at the AIHRC. While they recognise that it is well-balanced when it comes to gender and ethnicity, and all the new commissioners are educated and experienced, some activists fear the independence of the new commission is more at risk than the old one. The Secretariat of the Civil Society Joint Working Group, which selected the seven members of the Civil Society Working Group who prepared the CS List of candidates, claimed in a press statement released on 19 July 2019 that the appointment of the new commissioners was in violation of the Paris Principles as it was based on a “political-security motivation.” They argued that the new commissioners are “more dependent on the government and this will affect its mandate” (full statement in Dari here). Some of their unhappiness may be down to sour grapes, as some had also applied to be commissioners and got onto the CS List, but were rejected by President Ghani. The lengthy and ultimately less-than-transparent selection process, by its very nature, also gives opportunities for critics to accuse the government of bias. There may also be some truth in the allegations. However, compared to 2013 when five new commissioners were appointed by Hamed Karzai, in consultation neither with civil society or AIHRC chair Sima Samar, this was a far better process. Indeed, civil society activists then were far more critical, with AAN reporting they feared the new commissioners then “do not have the experience or qualifications in the human rights field to work effectively and the Commission as a whole lacks the necessary political independence.” The post-2013 commission was certainly less active than the pre-2013 commission had been, but many believed Karzai had deliberately sabotaged it by his appointments. The choice for Samar in 2013, as we wrote, was an unhappy one: “leave the Commission and risk losing whatever gains it has made in the last decade – appears to have seemed an even bleaker option” or work with new colleagues she had not wanted.
This time, there is an entirely new slate. No one knows how these personalities will work together or how much commitment each will show to their new job. Their youth may energise the commission. They do join a state agency which is one of the few that has managed to maintain its political independence. This is a testimony to the outgoing chair and new State Minister for Human Rights and International Relations, Sima Samar (see a biography her here after she won the Right Livelihood Prize, also known as the ‘alternative Nobel’. That independence, integrity and ability to call out wrongs and advocate for Afghanistan’s marginalised and powerless are still, unfortunately, sorely needed.
Edited by Kate Clark and Sari Kouvo
(1) The information has been collected and double-checked from a variety of sources, both online and people who know the commissioners and from the commissioners themselves.
(2) The Civil Society Working Group, consisting of seven well-known civil society and human rights activists, three women and four men, and elected by the Secretariat of the Civil Society Joint Working Group were: Leya Jawad, chairwoman of Feminine Solidarity for Justice Organisation; Sakina Sakhi, chairwoman of the Support Vulnerable Persons Organisation; Nawida Kakar, chairwoman of the Women’s Association, Abdul Wadud Pedram, chairman of the Human Rights and Education about Violence Organisation; Abdul Jabar Paikan, chairman of the Afghanistan Country wide Teachers Union; Dr Abdul Basir Ruryalai, chairman of the Afghan Amputee Cyclists for Rehabilitation and Recreation and; Hassan Hakimi, chairman of the Afghanistan Youth National Development and Social Organisation.
(3) The selection committee consisted of Sayed Yusuf Halim, the chief of justice (chair), Muhammad Farid Hamidi, the attorney general, Abdul Basir Anwar, minister of justice, Delbar Nazari, the minister of women affairs, and Muhammad Qasim Hashemzai, chairperson of the Independent Commission for Overseeing the Implementation of the Constitution.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020
Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission