In a briefing released on the 28th August Amnesty International reported that Afghanistan’s human rights community are under increased attacks from the authorities and armed groups. The report Defenseless Defenders: Attacks on Afghanistan’s Human Rights Community, claims activists and human rights defenders face intensifying intimidation, harassment, threats and violence.
In September 2016, Khalil Parsa was shot seven times while driving home, shortly after receiving threats demanding him to stop his human rights activism in Herat. After leaving Afghanistan to seek protection elsewhere, the government declined to investigate the attack The report also describes the experience of a human rights lawyer who defends female survivors of domestic violence and women seeking divorce or facing criminal conviction. Since 2017, this lawyer has had to contend with repeated threats of violence, including threats of acid attack. Amnesty states that while the police have registered this case, no further action has been made. As a result, the lawyer has closed their practice.
Amnesty International say that in many cases, the Afghan authorities have done little to investigate or take action in prosecuting the perpetrators of violence, some even being told to take up arms to defend themselves. In stark contrast to Amnesty’s findings, the President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, has vowed to protect human rights activists. Speaking at a conference hosted by Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in December 2016, the president claimed that the “Protection of human rights defenders is the sole responsibility of my government and its legislative and judicial branches”. Yet despite the President’s alleged concern for human rights, several activists have told Amnesty that due to failures to protect human rights defenders, there is a lack of trust in the government. Amnesty claim that in several instances activists have been accused of ‘fabricating’ their stories.
Deputy South Asia Director at Amnesty International, Omar Waraich, commented “This is one of the most dangerous moments to be a human rights activist in Afghanistan. Not only do they operate in one of the most hazardous environments, but they face threats from both the government and armed groups. The Afghan government has a duty to respect, protect and support activists, to investigate threats and attacks against them, and to hold suspected perpetrators accountable”.
While Amnesty critique the actions of the authorities in Afghanistan, it has to be acknowledged that human rights activists and defenders in Afghanistan have been largely ignored by the international community. Reflecting on the role of the international community, Waraich said “they have long paid tribute to the bravery of Afghanistan’s human rights activists, but they have failed to recognize their achievements and effectively support them at this increasingly difficult time.”
The briefing comes in the context of intensifying violence in Afghanistan. The UN assistance mission in Afghanistan claims that last year more people in Afghanistan lost their lives through political violence than ever recorded. Over 3,800 civilian deaths were documented, while in the first half of 2019, 1,366 people died and 2,446 were injured. As violence escalates in the 18-year long conflict, the need to support human rights activists and defenders in Afghanistan remains essential. The duration of the conflict should not be interpreted by international actors as an indicator that activists fighting against injustice can be overlooked, nor should their struggle be seen as less significant than populations experiencing more ‘recent’ outbreaks of wars violence.
Without overlooking the severity of violence faced by activists in Afghanistan, nor generalizing their experience as applicable to activists worldwide, the briefing published by Amnesty International provides an indication that more needs to be done to protect defenders of human rights across the globe. In our home countries and overseas, we must engage in acts of solidarity with activists who devote their lives to protect human rights. Otherwise, we run the risk of abandoning those whose struggle it is to achieve justice and equality for all.
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