Over the past month a rather heated debate has arisen first over the leaked and then over the formally released UN mapping of human rights violations and war crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This debate has also drawn attention to other hidden UN gems, most notably to the unreleased UN mapping report on human rights violations and war crimes in Afghanistan 1978-2001. AAN Senior Analyst Sari Kouvo reflects on why facts are considered so dangerous.
In 2007, the UN Secretary General approved the terms of references for a mapping of human rights violations and war crimes in the DRC between 1993 and 2003. The mapping aimed at analyzing not only the violations, but also the context in which they had been committed and to provide options to the DRC Government as to how to deal with the legacies of these violations. In 2009, the 550 page report was submitted to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for Review. The release of the report was delayed, and in August 2010 the report was leaked. And, finally, after much debate about whether releasing the report will be destabilizing and pose a security threat the report was released.
In 2003, the UNHCHR initiated a much more modest mapping exercise in Afghanistan. Based on open source material, most of it the UN’s own, a team of three consultants compiled a 300 page report on human rights violations and war crimes in Afghanistan in the civil war years between 1978 and 2001. The report contains detailed accounts of indiscriminate bombings, massacres, illegal detention, torture, rape and looting from the communist period to the fall of the Taliban regime. In January 2005, then UNHCHR Louise Arbour travelled to Kabul to release the mapping report simultaneously with the release of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission’s national consultation about Afghans’ opinions about how to deal with legacies of human rights violations and war crimes, entitled “A Call for Justice”. At the eleventh hour a decision was taken not to release the UN mapping report. The UNHCHR participated in the launch of the AIHRC’s “A Call for Justice” report, and handed a copy of her report to the Commission as a basis for future documentation work. Commissioner Arbour then met with President Karzai and presented him with a copy of the report. The report has to date not been officially released, but copies of it have done the rounds of human rights organizations, embassies, web sites etc.
Over the past week, the released DRC mapping and the unreleased Afghanistan mapping have been subject to quite a bit of media attention. The debate started by an article in the Swiss newspaper Le Temps. In this article, AAN Member Patricia Gossman, one of the consultants that had compiled on the report, remembered the increasingly tense climate as the release date grew closer and the concerns expressed about the security of UN staff (for a more thorough discussion, see Gossman’s article on transitional justice and disarmament in Afghanistan. Adviser to Richard Holbrooke, Barnett Rubin, another of the consultants responsible for compiling the report, suggested that the decision not to publish the report was done after a request by President Karzai, as some of the persons mentioned in the report remained part of his government. In an email toAFP, Rubin clarified that no information has been suppressed, as the UN mapping was based on open source material.
A spokesperson of the Office of the UNHCHR, Rupert Colville, stated to Le Temps that the report was based on open source material and that it was “destiné à aider le travail de la Commission indépendante afghane des droits de l’homme” implying that the report was actually never intended for public release. In his response to the discussion, President Karzai’s spokesperson, Waheed Omeer, stated that the UN never contacted the President’s office about the report, and that in any case, the Afghan government would not have had the authority to force the UN not to release such a report.
Human rights defenders definitely need to take the security implications of their work into account. That said, security will always be an issue when doing human rights work in a place like Afghanistan. And if political and security actors are asked, “now” will never be a good moment for justice. Or as noted by Gossman in Le Temps article, “for the UN, there has never been a ‘good moment’ to publish the mapping report” (quote translated from French). It also needs to be noted that if security was the main reason for not releasing the report, the consideration was never security for all: By not releasing the mapping report the UN left the AIHRC alone to launch its “A Call for Justice” report. This was then yet another example when an a priori strong international institution, pushed an a priori fragile national institution in front of it – as a shield.
What is deeply disturbing in the Le Temps and AFP debate is that there is no emphasis on the value of releasing the report, or about the rights of victims of having their suffering acknowledged. Now, it is true that the mapping report was based on already published material, but what the mapping report would have done was to provide a coherent account of violations during all phases of the conflict to the public. While it is inevitable that such an account would meet resistance by the perpetrators and their allies in the immediate time-frame (this would be true for whenever this account would be released), a consistent account that shows the violations and victimizations of all parties to the conflict could actually be a tool for real reconciliation. That is, for reconciliation that does not aim at shoveling massive violations under the carpet in order to secure the positions of a few, but that enables forgiveness where possible and accountability where necessary. For whatever reason the mapping report was not released, it was another example of a decision by the international community where publishing the facts about what has happened is considered more damaging, destabilizing and dangerous than the events themselves.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020