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Afghanistan’s Warlords Contest Presidency, Stoking Fears for Human Rights

Heather Barr, a senior Human Rights Watch researcher.
Heather Barr, a senior Human Rights Watch researcher.
Human Rights Watch has expressed pessimism about Afghanistan’s capacity to bring human rights violators to account, pointing to the lack of political will under President Hamid Karzai to address massive right abuses in the past.

In an interview with RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Zhakfar Ahmadi, Heather Barr, a senior Afghanistan researcher for the global rights watchdog, said she is fearful that the rights situation may even worsen after presidential elections planned for April.

RFE/RL: In its recent annual report for 2013, Human Rights Watch called on the Afghan government to adopt a process for addressing the legacies of grave human rights abuses. Why have campaigners failed to pressure Kabul into adopting a mechanism for transitional justice?

Heather Barr: Back in the early days of the fall of the Taliban government in 2001 and 2002 the international community, primarily the U.S. government, made a decision that it was important to become allies with powerful people in Afghanistan, and that included largely warlords. So they were prepared to ignore the background of these people and their involvement in human rights abuses.

[When] Karzai became president they really encouraged him to take the same approach, and the result of that has been since 2001 many of people who were involved in human rights abuses have sort of been empowered all over again and are now playing key roles in the government. That makes it impossible for the government to be supportive of a real process of demanding accountability for human rights abuses.

RFE/RL: Critics claim that Kabul has shown no political will to pursue transitional justice. Do you agree?

Barr: I think that is absolutely right. I don’t think we have seen any political will during Karzai’s administration. I think, perhaps there was a little bit of will around the time that the 2005 plan on transitional justice was approved by the government. But then you can see it was never actually implemented.

One of the biggest questions that we have as we look ahead to the presidential election that will happen in April is whether the next president of Afghanistan will have any willingness to provide justice for these human rights abuses.

I am not that optimistic because still we will have the problem of many of the same people accused of rights abuses being very powerful. It is so difficult for anyone in the government to try to hold them accountable, and for this reason we have been looking to the international criminal court to play a role in Afghanistan in demonstrating that you can’t have total impunity.

Four months ago the International Criminal Court for the first time issued a finding about Afghanistan. They said it is clear that since 2003 crimes against humanity and war crimes had been committed and continue to be committed in Afghanistan, so we would like to see the Court move forward as quickly as possible in making a decision about whether or not to launch a formal investigation in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: Some individuals accused of war crimes are now running for the presidential election. But some Afghan lawmakers have called for banning them from running. Do you support such demands?

Barr: The Afghan Constitution says that you can’t serve as president if you have been convicted of a serious crime. I think I understand the argument that you shouldn't remove people's names based on allegations that have not been proved in a court of law.

So what we are really calling on the government to do is to hold trials and to have a proper criminal investigation into all allegations against people who are presidential and vice presidential candidates, but into other people as well, and there should be prosecutions.

RFE/RL: What will happen if one of these figures, accused of committing war crimes, wins the presidential election?

Barr: We'll see the human rights situation in Afghanistan, which is already quite poor and deteriorating in the last year, become even worse. I am very concerned over how the next president will influence the human rights situation. None of these candidates has really demonstrated what they would do to improve the human rights situation.

When Karzai became the president he owed his job to the international community. He was appointed originally as the transitional leader by the international community and he made many public statements about how committed he was to compliance with Afghanistan’s obligations under international law.

The 11 candidates, who are running for the president's office now, they haven’t even made these kinds of statements. So already we are starting from a bad situation.