The Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan has magnified concerns about an accelerating human rights crisis in the country. Already the world’s deadliest conflict since 2017, Afghanistan had seen a steady rise in attacks on civilians in the past year, many by the Taliban and others by the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State. Now, with the Taliban in power, a large number of journalists and human rights defenders are in hiding and trying to leave the country, fearing Taliban reprisals. Amid growing threats from the Taliban to Afghan civil society groups, the loss of any monitoring by the United Nations and diplomatic missions in these past weeks has crippled ongoing documentation of human rights abuses and possible war crimes at a critical moment.
In May, following the horrendous, unclaimed attack on a school in Kabul that killed over 100 people, mostly schoolgirls from the Hazara minority, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) called for a UN-mandated fact-finding mission to investigate attacks on civilians since January 2020. Human Rights Watch along with other organisations supported this call for international scrutiny.
All Parties to The Conflict Are Responsible
But there was little international support for such a mission. In the months since, Taliban forces have carried out revenge killings of former members of the state security forces and some civilians after taking control of Kandahar, Ghazni, and other provinces. They expelled civilians from their homes and carried out other abuses. The rival Islamic State of Khorasan Province — the ISIS Afghan affiliate — which has been responsible for numerous attacks on schools and Shia mosques in Afghanistan, carried out a suicide bombing at the airport that killed more than 150 people.
With the collapse of the former government, and concerns about mounting atrocities, the Afghanistan human rights commission, together with Human Rights Watch and other international human rights organisations, has reiterated its call for the UN Human Rights Council — in session from September 13 — to mandate a strong fact-finding and monitoring mechanism.
Afghanistan’s 40 years of conflict have been marked by countless war crimes by all parties to the conflict. Some Afghan government forces may have committed crimes against humanity.
The Afghan Govt Delayed ICC Probe
Afghanistan joined the International Criminal Court (ICC) on 1 May, 2003, and in March 2020, the ICC’s judges finally authorised then-Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s 2017 request for an investigation into alleged crimes committed by the Taliban and affiliated forces, the former Afghan National Security Forces, and US military and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officials.
As a court of last resort, the ICC steps in only when national authorities cannot or will not genuinely investigate and prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Afghanistan is emblematic of the kind of situation the ICC was created to address: despite many years of donor support for building effective institutions, the Afghan government failed to investigate serious crimes by powerful individuals. It often rewarded, not punished, some of the gravest offenders.
Yet in mid-2020, the administration of then-President Ashraf Ghani sought to delay the ICC’s investigation under Article 18 of the ICC’s Rome Statute on the admissibility of a case, asserting that the government was already prosecuting serious crimes. It was doing nothing of the sort. On the contrary, over many years, President Ghani’s government, like that of President Hamid Karzai before him, never credibly investigated incidents of enforced disappearance, torture, rape, and extrajudicial killings by its forces. The US has also failed to hold its forces accountable for alleged war crimes, including torture and summary executions.
Is National Accountability Even Possible Now?
Now that the Taliban are in power, the landscape for national accountability is even bleaker. The Taliban have shown no willingness to hold any of their senior commanders and officials accountable for numerous crimes that include unlawful killings of civilians in suicide bombings and by improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The attacks have deliberately targeted civilians, including members of the media and judiciary, and included summarily executing detainees. Simply put, accountability at the national level is a non-starter.
The ICC has yet to reach a conclusion on Afghanistan’s outstanding Article 18 request. If anything, recent events underline that the ICC offers the most likely path to justice for victims of the conflict in Afghanistan. To this end, ICC member states should step up and underline the need for credible accountability for grave crimes.
Governments at the UN Human Rights Council should also support the call for a UN-mandated fact-finding mission to monitor human rights in Afghanistan, collect and preserve evidence of crimes, and report on human rights violations and abuses committed across the country.
It should also share its findings with the ICC and other credible justice mechanisms to bolster genuine investigations of those responsible for grave crimes. A fact-finding mission would also help keep UN member states fully informed of the situation on the ground as they take important decisions on responding to the crisis, helping in protecting the rights and lives of Afghanistan’s people and preventing further crimes.
The urgent need for such a mechanism could not be clearer. Afghanistan’s human rights body, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN experts, the Ambassador of Afghanistan to the United Nations in Geneva, and a broad constellation of national, regional and international civil society organisations, have all endorsed this call.
Close Monitoring of the Situation
The High Commissioner for Human Rights stressed that it was critical for the Human Rights Council to take “bold and vigorous action, commensurate with the gravity of this crisis, by establishing a dedicated mechanism to closely monitor the evolving human rights situation in Afghanistan, including, in particular, the Taliban’s implementation of its promises, with a focus on prevention.”
To ignore these consistent appeals and sit idly by and wait for further crimes to be committed before it takes meaningful action would be an abdication of the Human Rights Council’s responsibility. The Afghan people are counting on this support.
(Patricia Gossman is associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)