Don’t Sell Out Women’s Rights in DC Talks

Urgently Implement Rights Reforms, Ensure Accountability

Human Rights Watch / Afghanistan

May 10, 2010

The Washington meeting is critical for Karzai and Obama to move from words to action on protecting women’s rights, getting rid of warlords, and fighting corruption. There have been many meetings full of lofty rhetoric about rights, but far too little action. Afghans are impatient for change.

Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch

(New York) - President Hamid Karzai and President Barack Obama should pledge at their meeting in Washington on May 11, 2010, not to sacrifice women's rights in any deals with the Taliban and other insurgent groups, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch urged both leaders to promote greater accountability for abuses in Afghanistan. President Karzai should act to remove corrupt and abusive officials from power and take steps to end widespread impunity. While US forces have adopted measures to reduce civilian casualties during combat operations, they have only been partially effective. President Obama should ensure that incidents involving civilian loss of life result in credible and transparent investigations that result in appropriate disciplinary action, Human Rights Watch said.

"The Washington meeting is critical for Karzai and Obama to move from words to action on protecting women's rights, getting rid of warlords, and fighting corruption," said Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. "There have been many meetings full of lofty rhetoric about rights, but far too little action. Afghans are impatient for change."

Plans are progressing for reintegration and reconciliation with the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami insurgents, both groups with long records of abuses and discrimination against women. Human Rights Watch said that all insurgents who agree to any reintegration and reconciliation process also need to agree to enforceable commitments to respect women's basic rights, including the rights to work, to education, and to freedom of movement. Women should be brought into the decision-making bodies that will oversee the process, including the High Level Peace Council and the Joint Secretariat for Peace, Reconciliation and Reintegration Programs, Human Rights Watch said.

Outspoken and active Afghan women who participate in politics or civil society live in a climate of fear, heightened by the failure of the government to provide security or to give priority to investigations into politically motivated killings of women. Several high-profile women have been assassinated in recent years and those responsible have not been brought to justice. The government should offer protection to women leaders who speak out on rights issues, particularly during discussions about peace and reconciliation.

"The Afghan government has sold women short too many times to be trusted," Reid said. "The best guarantee that women's rights won't be traded away to pander to the Taliban is to include women in the reconciliation and reintegration process and to establish that basic rights are not up for negotiation."

The risk of political deals that will trample human rights was demonstrated earlier this year when the Afghan government brought into force an amnesty law that effectively provides immunity from prosecution for individuals who have committed crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other serious human rights violations. It also allows war criminals and those who have committed crimes against humanity to join the reconciliation process. Human Rights Watch reiterated its call for this law to be repealed.

While in the past US officials have called for a credible transitional justice process, the US government did not make any public comment or raise objections when the new law took effect. Diplomats told Human Rights Watch that US officials made efforts to dissuade other countries from criticizing the law, arguing that it was necessary for reconciliation.

"Letting war criminals off the hook will not ensure peace in Afghanistan," Reid said. "A more lasting peace will be forged if notorious rights abusers are excluded from power and brought to justice."

Karzai and Obama should also address greater accountability for civilian casualties during ongoing fighting, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch considers US and NATO directives and operational changes in the last two years aimed at reducing civilian casualties and improving conduct during night raids to be steps in the right direction. But the US continues to be involved in deadly incidents that have caused civilian deaths and injuries.

On February 12, a US military raid on a house in Gardez left five civilians dead, including two pregnant women. In April four civilians were killed and six wounded when US forces opened fire on a bus in Kandahar province. On April 29, an Afghan member of parliament, Safia Sidiqi, alleged that her home in Nangahar province was raided by US forces and a neighbor shot dead.

Human Rights Watch called on the US government to conduct transparent investigations into these incidents, assess whether these operations were in accordance with international humanitarian law and US tactical directives, and discipline or prosecute as appropriate anyone responsible for wrongdoing or cover-ups. The results of such investigations should be made public, and the intelligence verification processes should be improved to minimize reliance on questionable information sources.

"The US is planning to boost its assistance to building the rule of law in Afghanistan," Reid said. "It should set a good example by holding its own troops responsible for their actions."

Obama should keep up the pressure on Karzai to deliver on much needed rule of law reforms, anti-corruption efforts, and changes to ensure accountability, Human Rights Watch said. Government bodies such as the Special Advisory Board on Senior Appointments, Anti-Corruption Tribunal, Major Crimes Task Force, and High Office of Oversight have the potential to increase Afghans' confidence in government, but have not yet brought real change. Karzai continues to appoint officials with poor human rights records and protects notorious warlords. Several former commanders against whom there are credible allegations of human rights abuses were recently appointed as governors, police chiefs, and district police chiefs, showing the flaws of the vetting processes.

Electoral vetting should have been strengthened after the glaring problems of the presidential election in 2009. Instead, it has been weakened, by presidential decree, which could result in a deepening of impunity after the parliamentary election in September.

"For too long the excuse from both Kabul and Washington has been that shaking out warlordism and corruption would be destabilizing," Reid said. "But a government that protects drug cartels and notorious human rights abusers is keeping Afghanistan trapped in a spiral of insecurity and instability."