Who are human rights defenders in Afghanistan
Since the ousting of the Taliban regime in 2001, the civil society in Afghanistan has developed significantly. National human rights commission (Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC)) was established, strong women’s movement has been formed to advocate for gender equality and protecting women’s human rights, and vibrant media and other human rights and civil society groups have emerged.
Women human rights defenders have been setting up schools to educate girls, working in clinics to treat women victims of rape and other forms of physical violence, operating shelters to protect women and girls who have suffered domestic violence, some women stood up as politicians to promote gender equality and women’s rights and they speak out publicly against violence against women and girls. Other human rights defenders have been investigating and exposing alleged war crimes committed during the decades of war in Afghanistan and speak out against powerful actors demanding justice. However, due to these activities human rights defenders face serious risks in Afghanistan.
General environment in which human rights defenders work in Afghanistan
The political environment in Afghanistan has been marred by corruption and power sharing deals between powerful individuals, including former warlords and commanders. There has been little progress on transitional justice and accountability for past war crimes while some current government officials and members of parliament face credible allegations of committing war crimes and serious human rights abuses. An amnesty bill, the National Reconciliation, General Amnesty and National Stability Law, passed in 2007, grants immunity from criminal prosecution to people involved in serious human rights violations and war crimes over the past 30 years, extending also to members of the Taliban and other armed groups who cooperate with the Afghan government.
The AIHRC has been also undermined by the government in number of occasions, often because of its work on transitional justice. Most recently, its independence and credibility has been threatened with the appointment of five new commissioners in June 2013, several of whom have a questionable record of respecting and promoting human rights. The appointment came, after three commissioners involved in the completion of a war crimes mapping report, exposing serious crimes and abuses committed by armed factions from 1978 to 2001, have been removed after the President Karzai did not renew their mandate. The report is thought to implicate some high-level government officials, and it has since been hindered of publishing by the then government and former President Karzai.
Freedom of expression also remains at risk in Afghanistan, as the Afghan media watch Nai reported for the period 2001 – November 2014, there have been more than 500 incidents of threats and attacks against journalists and other media workers, committed by state and non-state actors across Afghanistan.
Due to the conservative religious and patriarchal norms and customs prevailing in the Afghan society, women’s rights are sensitive issue in Afghanistan. Since the fall of the Taliban regime, there have been some considerable advancement of women’s rights, but as the Peace and Reconciliation Talks with the Taliban are underway, the women’s groups and the civil society in Afghanistan are concerned that the government will compromise on women’s rights in a bid to settle a peace deal with the Taliban. Women’s participation in the peace and reconciliation processes remains limited as only nine women have been appointed to the High Peace Council tasked with negotiating with the Taliban. Often female politicians and high level female officials have been voicing concerns that they have been sidelined from the peace talks.
In addition, recently there have been few attempts by the Afghan authorities to reverse some of the women’s rights achievements, but these have been bravely fought back by the WHRDs groups.
Risks to human rights defenders in Afghanistan
The unstable political and security situation and the weak and corrupt justice system, unable to establish rule of law and accountability in Afghanistan impedes seriously the work of the civil society and the peace and reconciliation in the country. While the prevailing conservative social customs and the growing Taliban influence further pose danger to women’s human rights and threatens the women’s participation in the political and social life.
Human rights activists face great risks and attacks when challenge and expose powerful actors such as militia commanders, corrupt government officials, warlords, etc and when advocate for accountability and speak out against impunity of alleged perpetrators of past human rights violations and war crimes. Many have faced life-threats and attacks against themselves or their families.
Due to the conservative religious and patriarchal norms and customs prevailing in Afghan society, women human rights defenders (WHRDs) remain at greatest risk. WHRDs have been intimidated and attacked for speaking out and for promoting and protecting women’s rights in Afghanistan and because simply of being women – as often women active in the public sphere have been seen by conservative elements and the Taliban as acting against or challenging the religious and cultural norms in Afghanistan. Even female politicians and prominent HRDs have been attacked and some have been killed, such as Hanifa Safi, the Director for Women’s Affairs in Laghman Province, who was shot dead in July 2012 and her successor Nadia Sidiqi who was killed in December 2012.
Women human rights defenders we have been talking to identified warlords, conservative religious leaders, local militias and Taliban groups as the main sources of threats, but they also often face threats by their own families or the families of the women they seek to protect.
The Afghanistan authorities have systematically failed to protect HRDs and to provide them with justice.
Why we need to protect human rights defenders in Afghanistan
Afghanistan is at a critical moment of its development – many human rights organizations in Afghanistan and internationally are concerned that the human rights gains achieved following the ousting of the Taliban regime are at risk.
Hence, it is important that human rights activists continue their work in Afghanistan, as they play crucial roles of ensuring human rights, justice and accountability for human rights violations and with their activities they contribute to the international and national efforts of developing democracy and peace and stability in Afghanistan.
 Amnesty International, “Too many missed opportunities: Human rights in Afghanistan under the Karzai administration”, http://amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ASA11/004/2014/en/709a2ef2-028c-47d9-9898-d035c6819017/asa110042014en.pdf
 See Amnesty International, “Too many missed opportunities: Human rights in Afghanistan under the Karzai administration”, Chapter 1 Women’s Human Rights, Modest gains under threat, page 3, http://amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ASA11/004/2014/en/709a2ef2-028c-47d9-9898-d035c6819017/asa110042014en.pdf