Threatened, Shot At And Killed: Crisis For Human Rights Defenders In Afghanistan

Human rights defenders in Afghanistan face “intimidation, harassment, threats and violence” both from armed groups, such as the Taliban and Islamic State, and government authorities, claims Amnesty International. Their conclusions are derived from interviews with activists and international organisations whilst being backed up by contextual research, highlighting that the situation for human rights defenders (HRDs) in Afghanistan is an increasing cause for concern.

Attacks against HRDs have not been properly investigated by the Afghan government or the international community: in some cases reports of threats and attacks have been dismissed as mere fabrication. The indifference of authorities has meant many activists are left unprotected or unsupported when carrying out work in dangerous environments. Many individuals informed Amnesty International that they were told to buy weapons for personal security instead of being given official assurance that they would be protected. This has led to a lack of trust among organisations and activists when carrying out much needed humanitarian aid; therefore, a crisis has emerged for the local and international humanitarian community, who have been helping in Afghanistan for decades.

“This is one of the most dangerous moments to be a human rights activist in Afghanistan…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,” said Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia Director at Amnesty International.

Omar’s concern is not unwarranted. The report states that in 2018 there were around 11,000 documented civilian casualties and that between “2014 and 2019 Afghanistan has lost more than 45,000 of its security personnel” to the conflict. To this day, the Taliban, despite engaging in negotiations with the USA, are still hostile to women’s rights and HRDs; additionally, many reports show that NATO airstrikes and military involvement are the largest cause for concern. A Guardian article, written on the 30th July 2019, reports that NATO and their allies have killed more civilians than the Taliban. Both parties share the blame for a hostile and violent environment for citizens and humanitarian actors. However, when those who set out to help were told by the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in 2016, that the “protection of human rights defenders is the sole responsibility of my government and its legislative and judicial branches,” they quickly became disillusioned as they are not only intimidated by armed militias but by government authorities as well.

Some individual cases were highlighted by the report, such as when Khalil Parsa was shot seven times in September 2016 while driving home, which he thankfully survived. “The attack came after he had received a series of threats, warning him to stop his human rights work.” In the end, he had to relocate for his safety but was simply told to inform the security agencies if something happened again; eventually, the case was dropped altogether. The fact that such a severe case was dropped demonstrates a lack of care by authorities for those fighting injustice in Afghanistan.

Clearly, political promises hold little weight in this context, so Amnesty and the humanitarian community have called for the Afghan government to “establish an adequate protection system for HRDs.” Namely, investment in proper investigative procedures and the creation of an “information sharing system.” They have also called upon the President to take more affirmative action and for the Taliban to “explicitly recognise” the legitimacy of HRDs. I think these recommendations are long overdue; they are vital to ensure positive work can be carried out without the threat to an individual’s life. When a holistic peace process seems to be out of reach then supporting those on-the-ground, who wish to help those that are suffering, is the least a government can do.

Jonathan Boyd


The Organization for World Peace