Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Rights and Freedoms

Impunity and Silence: The meagre reaction to the latest HRW report

Thomas Ruttig 5 min

Human rights abuses in Afghanistan no longer make big waves outside the really concerned circles. Yesterday (on 3 March 2015), Human Rights Watch released a hard-hitting piece of meticulous research looking at the ease with which gross human rights violations and war crimes are still committed by the powerful in Afghanistan: “Today We Shall All Die: Afghanistan’s Strongmen and the Legacy of Impunity.” But so far the media echo inside and outside the country was meagre although the report had new things to tell: there is a new generation of perpetrators that not only acts under the West’s eyes, but often in connivance with it, AAN co-director Thomas Ruttig comments.

In the media, only the usual suspects reported the new paper by Human Rights Watch (HRW), mainly those who still have correspondents or Afghan subsidiaries on the ground (including The Guardian and Radio Free Europe) or who have journalists with an Afghan background who continue to keep a watchful eye on events in their country of origin (like Deutsche Welle). Although there were embargoed advance copies, available, neither the BBC or The New York Times or the flagships of German media thought the report worth covering. (1)

There was almost no mention of the report on Afghan media, except (so far) on 1TV. There was silence on most of the leading news channels like ToloNews, Khaama or Ariana and on the government-run Bakhtar News Agency and RTA (Radio and TV Afghanistan). (Pajhwok had a report in the afternoon, with a day’s delay.) [Added on 5 March 2015: Khaama then reported it in the late evening; Tolo TV aired an hour-long round table, also in the evening.] There was also no wave of outrage on the social media. Astonishingly enough (or perhaps not), even the once so courageous and avant-gardist Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), whose members were threatened after their own 2005 trail-blazing report on Afghans’ desire for justice against perpetrators of war crimes (“A Call for Justice”) has not even mentioned the report on its website.

[Added on 5 March 2015: There was also not much international  (or national) public attention to UNAMA’s report on the continuing use of torture in the Afghan security forces, published in February this year (full report here; AAN analysis here). The Afghan government, however, responded to it by announcing that it would implement a national plan on elimination of torture – a plan that includes five elements, among them preventive measures. The full implementation of this plan, including to prosecute some torturers, would send the strong political message that the highest level of government is committed to ending impunity for torture. President Ashraf Ghani also acknowledged the HRW report by a latter in which he reiterated that “the Afghan government will not tolerate torture.”]

A new generation of human rights violators

If some editors thought the Human Rights Watch was more of the same, they were wrong. Yes, the crimes allegedly committed are still the same: abduction, murder and rape, torture, ‘disappearing’ people and running secret prison, raising ‘taxes’ by force. In clear detail, however, it showed an extremely worrying new trend: that Afghanistan has entered a new era of human rights violations, and that a new generation of human rights violators has emerged since 2001. Even more worrying is that they have acted, not only under the eyes of the ‘international community’, but often in connivance with it.

Among the worst violators are the commanders of militia-like paramilitary forces that, as Human Rights Watch puts it, are “often informally known as ‘campaign’ forces, and carry such designations as Afghan Security Guards, Afghan Guard Forces, Afghan Security Forces, and Critical Infrastructure Police” or have emerged from the universe of the Afghanised private security companies, those who enjoyed lucrative logistics and guarding contracts from the US military and others. In some cases, this was the starting point for careers in the regular Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). In other cases, ‘strongmen’ used their leading positions in the ANSF or (as in the case of the assassinated Ahmad Wali Karzai) in elected civilian bodies to set up militia-like forces that acted outside of any official line of command-and-control. The report names a number of prominent individuals, some of which have been reported on earlier on by some courageous investigative journalists. (See, for example, reporting on the Kandahar Strike Forceand the Afghan Guard Force in Loya Paktia by Julius Cavendish here, here and here , articles by Dexter Filkins et al  in The New York Times, here; the so-called A-Team killings in Wardak and disappearances in Kandahar by Matt Aikins or reports about death squads in Uruzgan province by Anand Gopal in his book No Good Men Among the Living, reviewed here. AAN also has reported earlier, see for example here.)

The latest UNAMA report “on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict” for 2014 (AAN analysis here; full report here) also stated that there was a “significant increase in human rights abuses committed against the civilian population by Pro-Government armed groups” and “a widespread failure by Afghan authorities to hold these armed groups accountable” for them. (2)

Not new, indeed, but newsworthy nevertheless is that the culture of impunity has continued to prevail in Afghanistan, despite costly and well-meaning but politically limited efforts by Afghan and international actors to make human rights a cross-cutting issue in Afghan politics. However, as the summary of the Human Rights Watch report put it:

This impunity is no accident. Since the defeat of the Taliban government in late 2001, both the Afghan government and its international allies and donors have subordinated human rights and governance to short-term political and security objectives. […]

Perpetrators are rarely held to account and the victims are rarely able to gain legal redress. This impunity hinges on the inability or unwillingness of the Afghan government and its institutions, including the military, police, and courts, to challenge the strongmen and militias who operate throughout much of the country. The administration of former President Hamid Karzai installed many powerful warlords and failed to confront others, while many others have been funded by and worked alongside international forces, further entrenching them politically into the fabric of Afghan society. In this way impunity in Afghanistan is both a domestic and foreign problem for which the solution resides not only in Kabul but in foreign capitals such as Washington, DC.

Human rights institutions weakened

There may be members of the ‘new generation’ in the current batch of abusers. However, that does not mean the old ‘warlords’ are of no concern anymore. Most are now safely embedded in the political structures and the business sphere, often with large investments in the country and abroad, as far apart as Canada, Dubai, Turkey or Australia. In fact, it proves that the consistent harassment and undermining of human rights actors and institutions, including the AIHCR, administered under Karzai government, for example by implanting members into the AIHCR who have no strong commitment to the institution’s task (see AAN reporting on this here, here and here), has yielded results. In this climate, an unlikely coalition of former mujahedin, communists and Taleban was able in 2007 to pass an ‘amnesty law’ (3) for war crimes in parliament. It was quickly approved by the president but only published and, by this, put in force over two years later, “while nobody was watching,” as we then commented (see AAN analysis here). All these steps have contributed to finally weakening the resolve of key Afghan human rights actors and institutions. This will be of long-term effect, particularly for the victims whose number continues to rise in the on-going day-to-day fighting.

In conclusion, there is no better (or rather, worse) sign that the “Afghanistan issue” has dropped from worldwide attention than the meagre domestic and international reaction to this latest, and we would say, highly significant Human Rights Watch report.


(1) Those who reported were (after an extensive online search carried out around noon Kabul time): the Tamil Guardian and the Jurist website. [Also the Austrian Standard reported on 4 March, as a reader let us know.] In my home country, so far only the Neue Osnabücker Zeitung and ran the news.

(2) Crimes reportedly perpetrated by the Afghan Local Police, for example, included “assaulting civilians as a form of revenge or punishment”, “multiple examples of ALP intimidating and ordering the displacement of families from their communities” and deliberate rocketing of residential houses. UNAMA also raised concerns about the “use of ALP to ‘regularise’ existing [irregular] Pro-Government armed groups.” Other illegal pro-government groups are accused of a whole list of abuses: “illegal taxation, forced labour, restrictions on movement, killings, private incarceration, beatings, interference in the education system and interference in marriage arrangements/decisions, including claiming the right to forbid, authorize or impose marriage”, “extortion at illegal check-posts” and “illegal search operations.”

(3) Officially, it is “The National Reconciliation, General Amnesty and National Stability Law.” An unofficial English translation of the law is in our dispatch here.


HRW Human Rights impunity strongmen war crimes