When three of the nine members of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) were removed by President Hamed Karzai in December, it laid bare the fragile position of human rights activism in Afghanistan. In AAN’s second blog* on the removal of the AIHRC Commissioners, Sari Kouvo takes a look at how the President’s move further accentuated a rift within organised Afghan civil society and exposed not only valid debate on principles and strategy, but also some crude politicking.
Changes in the composition of the AIHRC had been expected as the terms of some of the key commissioners had come to an end, and as no permanent replacement had yet been identified for Commissioner Hamida Barmaki who died in a suicide attack in January 2011. Nevertheless, the President’s announcement on 22 December that three commissioners would be removed was unexpected. Neither the head of the Commission, Sima Samar, nor the removed commissioners themselves, had been informed (see Samar’s interview with ToloNews here and here).** In her interview with ToloNews, Samar explained that she had had a discussion with the President two months earlier when she had raised the issue of the expiring mandates and she had been promised that she would be consulted about the appointment of the new commissioners.
Changing commissioners and appointing new ones was always going to be contentious. For this very reason, the issue was extensively debated when the Law on the Structures, Duties and Mandates of the AIHRC was drafted and adopted in 2005. Already at that time, the Commission had become known as an independent and critical commentator and actor in Afghanistan, and both donors to the Commission and human rights actors feared that the appointment of commissioners could be used as a way to undermine the Commission’s independence and capacity. The model chosen for the appointments was to give the right of appointment to the President (art. 7 of the law). At the time, international donors in particular favored this, in the hope that this would ensure some predictability in the appointments. However, cautionary voices noted that this arrangement was based on the possibly naïve assumption that the President would consult with the Commission’s donors, and listen to the advice of Sima Samar.
When news of the commissioners’ removal came, Afghan and international media were quick to pick up on it and have contributed to the debate on who and how to appoint (see, for example, here, here and here). Because of the media attention, Afghan civil society was able to engage itself quickly in the issue of the appointments, and a consultative meeting was held at the President’s office just a few days later with a somewhat eclectic representation from smaller organisations and major civil society networks to discuss the AIHRC appointments. Following the meeting, on 27 December, the President’s office issued a press release:
‘A number of Afghan civil society activists and human rights advocates called on President Karzai in the Palace and demanded that an evaluation be launched into the past ten-year performance of the Independent Human Rights Commission (IHRC). The activists also asked that the budget for the commission be provided by the government so any opportunity for foreign interferences can be avoided.
In a meeting on Saturday evening, Abdul Satar Sa’adat*** one of the participants said, members of the civil society and human rights activists not only oppose the extension of the service term of the four commissioners, but also call for new replacements to all those commissioners whose terms come to end”.
He added the Commission, over the past ten years, had no financial autonomy and thus foreign financial dependence caused the commission to withhold revealing the human rights violations committed by foreigners’.
According to participants, these issues were indeed raised by some speakers, but the press release was not representative of all that was said. The press release showcased the allegation – or slur, depending on your point of view – that the Commission was influenced by foreigners, always a sure way of gaining support for any position. A counter position emerged within civil society a few days later. The Civil Society and Human Rights Organizations some of whom had been present at the meeting at the Palace and some who had not been there, but felt that their name as ‘civil society activists and human rights advocates’ was used to put forth an opinion that was not theirs issued a statement on the 29 December:
‘Unfortunately, the press release from the Government Media and Information Centre (GMIC) suggests that Civil Society organizations demanded the dismissal of all nine Commissioners of the AIHRC. While the Afghan Civil Society and Human Rights activists appreciate and praise the tireless efforts of AIHRC, they strongly urge the Government Media and Information Centre of President’s Office to correct the misleading information in the press release.
We, the Afghan Civil Society and Human Rights**** activists firmly believe that the dismissal of all Commissioners will result in loss of institutional memory and the disruption as well as discontinuity of AIHRC’s work’.
Two broad parties within civil society, then, have emerged. Members of the Civil Society Coordination Jirga, a newish body, have been calling for the removal of all the commissioners, while the ‘established networks’ are disputing this and stepping up in support of the remaining commissioners and to ensure institutional continuity within the commission.
The Civil Society Coordination Jirga is led by Abdul Rahman Hotaky (who calls himself the ‘acting head’). The body was created before the Bonn II civil society conference after due to grievances based on the AIHRC’s participation in the steering committee established by the German Embassy for selecting delegates for this conference. Some organisations, including Hotaky’s Afghan Organization for Human Rights and Environmental Protection (AOHREP) and the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR) found the strong presence of a state body (even if independent) in the election of civil society representatives offensive. This point of principle inevitably became more important for those not elected to represent the civil society at Bonn II, than for those who did. This resulted in the establishment of the Civil Society Coordination Jirga that now, according to Hotaky, has around 80 member organisations. (Besides initially advocating the same point, there is no connection between the Coordinating Jirga and ACBAR).
According to Hotaky, the Coordination Jirga is asking for the removal of all the commissioners because they consider two terms to be long enough for any commissioner and they feel the Commission has not made the best use of its human rights mandate. Especially, says Abdul Rahman Hotaky, it has been soft on transitional justice.
In other words, on paper, this is an attack on the Commission wanting it to take more radical stands on human rights and transitional justice. At the same time, it is clearly also motivated by grievances about who was selected to represent civil society at Bonn, earlier concerns about being excluded from the civil society mainstream and a belief that a new Commission (especially with ‘their’ people in it) will do much better. According to Hotaky, the Coordination Jirga has shared a list of around 30 names with the President’s Office and, this week, they sent a request to appoint new commissioners swiftly.
The ‘established’ networks, which include the ACSFo, the CSHRN, Afghanistan Women’s Network (AWN) and, the less formal, Transitional Justice Coordination Group (TJCG) believe that removing all the commissioners at one fell swoop would create an opportunity to undermine the integrity and institutional continuity of one of the key defenders of human rights in Afghanistan. ‘We had first developed a list of ten candidates for the Commission posts’, says Ehsan Qaane a representative of the TJCG, ‘but we did not send it as it could have been understood as if we also wanted all the Commissioners removed. We don’t’.
Their strategy then was to demand a delay of two months from the President in order to be able to propose a transparent process with which to appoint the commissioners and also propose names for the positions. The proposing of names being a contentious issues, as some consider it not to be their role to propose actual names, some need to satisfy the demands of their networks and others would be very happy to be nominated themselves. While a transparent procedure would certainly be needed, asking for a delay may well show to be counterproductive, as there are certainly alreadu influential politicians at the top of the government positioning ‘their’ candidates for the AIHRC.
The rifts in civil society are not just to do with different positions on strategy and a view as to whether the AIHRC has performed well or not. There are old resentments about access to power, influence and donors’ money and political ambition. Crude politicking has emerged and from some, a desire for position – this is partly a fight about ‘chairs’, to use Afghan terminology. All this is familiar to anyone who has worked in government or other important institutions anywhere. Added to this, human rights in Afghanistan is also, of course, highly political, especially given the number of those with power or influence in the government, the wider state and the parliament, who have allegations of war crimes or human rights abuses levelled against them.
Importantly, however, both civil society camps are emphasizing the internationally acknowledged principles for national human rights institutions, the so-called Paris Principles adopted by the United Nations in 1993. These stress that national human rights institutions should have a composition with ‘guarantees of independence and pluralism’. Whether members are appointed by election or otherwise, it says there needs to be a ‘procedure which affords all necessary guarantees to ensure the pluralist representation of the social forces (of civilian society) involved in the protection and promotion of human rights’.
Ensuring that the four commissioners to be appointed to the Commission do fulfil the criteria of both the law governing the AIHRC (see article eleven of the law) and the Paris Principles is crucial for ensuring that the Commission can continue its work as an independent actor for human rights in Afghanistan. Civil society does play an important role in advocating that these principles are upheld and for identifying possible candidates for the different positions. Not surprisingly civil society has then also become the stage for political co-option – and, as is so often the case, principles co-habit uneasily with personal ambition.
* Read the first blog here.
** As of last week, the removed Commissioners had not received any official notification of their removal.
***Abdul Satar Sa’adat represents the Afghan Analytical Advisory Centre (AAAC), an Afghan non-governmental think tank/research organisations established in 2010.
**** The networks and organisations that organised the press conference chose to represent themselves with the umbrella term the ‘Afghan Civil Society and Human Rights activists’. However, this is not a formal or established network, but just a term used by ACSFo, CSHRN, AWN and the TJCG for the purpose of this press conference.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020