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Commentary: The U.N. Must Investigate Journalists’ Killings in Afghanistan


Afghan media workers staged a protest in Nangarhar Province in November following the targeted killing of Radio Free Afghanistan journalist Mohammad Ilyas Dayee.

Public opinion around the world unanimously and rightly condemned the heinous assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the hand of his own government, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in Istanbul in 2018. The United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) conducted a thorough investigation that concluded, “Mr. Khashoggi's killing constituted an extrajudicial killing for which the State of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible.” But the killing of a dozen journalists and civil society activists over the past six months in Afghanistan has failed to invoke the same international outrage.

On March 2, three female journalists were murdered in the eastern city of Jalalabad in broad daylight. These crimes only add to the suffering of Afghans caught in an endless war. The journalists, Mursal Waheedi, Saadia Sadat, and Shahnaz Raufi, aged between 18 and 20, were on their way home from their jobs at Enikass TV, a local station, when they were assassinated in two separate attacks. Last year, another female journalist from Enikass, Malala Maiwand, faced a similar fate.

These are not isolated incidents, but a pattern. Last November, Yama Siawash, a well-known journalist, was ruthlessly killed in a bomb attack in Kabul. A week later, Mohammad Ilyas Dayee, a journalist for Radio Free Afghanistan in the southern province of Helmand, lost his life in a similar attack. Assassins have not spared clerics, either. In the past month, two prominent clergymen, Mohammad Atif and Faiz Mohammad Fayez, were murdered.

According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, approximately 8,820 civilians were killed or injured in 2020. The bulk of last year’s deaths and injuries occurred over the past six months as the parties to the Doha peace talks failed to reach a consensus on reducing violence or a comprehensive cease-fire.

While many of these assassinations go unclaimed, the Taliban and other Islamist militant groups such as the Islamic State of Khorasan -- the main drivers of violence in the country -- remain the prime suspects. Recently RFE/RL interviewed several journalists who have barely escaped the Taliban’s “hit list.” These militant groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region compete for political power and hold ultra-conservative views on the role of the media, freedom of speech, women's rights, and civil society. The families of victims seek justice for the killing of their loved ones in a country where justice has been delayed for more than 40 years. However, the government has generally offered empty thoughts and prayers, and no substantial consolation.

In the case of Khashoggi’s murder, some countries including the United States are now considering sanctions against the perpetrators. However, the U.S.-Taliban deal signed in February 2020 obliges the United States to engage diplomatically with the Afghan government and members of the United Nations Security Council to delist the Taliban from the 1988 U.N. Security Council terrorism blacklist. Delisting the Taliban before there is a political agreement between the warring Afghan parties, and the Taliban fighters return to civilian life, will be a mistake.

Some observers also propose removing Taliban state sponsors from international financial sanctions in exchange for nudging the Taliban to negotiate. This is giving too much for too little. While the state of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Doha is an improvement, there is no sign of ceasing hostilities, particularly in the face of such daily assassinations and fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan security forces.

At a time when civilians in Afghanistan are living in constant fear and mourning the deaths of their loved ones, it is ironic to see calls for easing sanctions and prioritizing the Taliban's demands. Instead, the focus should be meeting the basic demand of Afghan civilians, namely sparing their lives. There should be calls for an end to the bloodbath and proper investigations into these brutal assassinations. If the Taliban is supposedly not behind these attacks, then it should have no issue cooperating with a neutral entity like the United Nations to probe the situation. This way, the perpetrators, whoever they may be, can be brought to justice.

Afghans often find themselves asking whether there is any accountability left in this world and if their lives even matter. For them, it’s not just rhetorical. It matters to them if international public opinion, the global media, and human rights watchdogs care about their lives and their suffering. The U.N. investigation of Khashoggi’s murder demonstrates that there is a promising level of willingness to investigate extrajudicial killings. To this end, the bereaved community of Afghan journalists and civil society should not be abandoned in their quest for justice and accountability.

The U.N. Security Council “condemned in the strongest terms the alarming number of attacks deliberately targeting civilians in Afghanistan.” But the UN would need to go beyond condemnations and message of condolences. Given its international mandate, the U.N. Human Rights Commission should open an investigation into the killing of Afghanistan's journalists and members of civil society immediately. Such investigations are part of the U.N.’s obligations to the citizens of its member states and there are no procedural obstacles. Other entities such as the European Union should also contribute to an international advocacy initiative focused on the issue of defending the rights of Afghanistan's journalists and activists by filing lawsuits against perpetrators in jurisdictions possible. The international community should stand for Afghanistan’s journalists and civil society before it is too late.

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