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The blight of impunity

It started well. During 2003, consultations began on a new Constitution. It was drafted and approved by more than 500 people’s representatives in early 2004. The Constitution stated that the men and women of Afghanistan were entitled to equal rights. And it reserved a quota of around 25 per cent of parliamentary seats for women.

When Hamid Karzai was elected President in October 2004, more than 40 per cent of voters were women. They went to the polls hoping for democracy and equality. Parliamentary elections for the lower and upper houses were held a year later, the proportion of women MPs elected reaching an impressive 28 per cent.

Statements made by key political figures in the international community had made a huge impact on the Afghan Government’s policies for women. And we Afghan women believed it when we heard: ‘Let’s liberate Afghan women’, ‘We are not compromising the rights of Afghan women’ – and statements of this kind.

But the President of Afghanistan and his Cabinet members have neither respected nor maintained equality. Today, seven years after the fall of the Taliban regime, there is just one female minister – for the Ministry of Women Affairs (MoWA). There are three female deputy ministers – two for MoWA and one for the Ministry of Public Health for Sexual and Reproductive Health.

More than half of the Parliament consists of war criminals and people who have been involved in gross human rights abuses from 1978 to the present day. After the 2005 parliamentary elections many cases of bribery, fraud and coercion, involving candidates and electoral officials alike, emerged. None of the MPs involved were disqualified and their identities were concealed. 

In December 2006 an Action Plan for Peace, Justice and Reconciliation was officially launched by the Government as part of the Afghanistan Compact. One of its five key points was the removal from public office of people accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. But in 2007 parliamentarians – many of them ex-communist officials, Mujahidin leaders and even some high-level Taliban members – passed an Amnesty Bill which provided safety from prosecution for those involved in war crimes during the past three decades.

Meanwhile, discrimination against women remains widespread, not only in the family, but at all social and political levels. The judicial system and the police have failed to protect women against domestic and other types of violence. Many women journalists, teachers and human rights defenders have been killed and the crimes have gone unpunished. A culture of impunity enables the perpetrators to escape the law and encourages them to continue to abuse without fear. Many cases of rape, killing and harassment are committed by local commanders and their men, who either hold a government post themselves or are connected with someone who does. 

We Afghan people believe that the laxity with which the international community has provided unconditional aid to the Afghan Government has created an atmosphere in which war criminals and human rights abusers have flourished. We are also facing challenges in regions where Taliban insurgents are gaining control. Schools are closing again and women are prevented from going to work. Many aid workers, including medical doctors who have been trying to help Afghan women and children, have been kidnapped and killed by Taliban insurgents. Women’s organizations are unable to help women and children in such areas.

The international community must hold the Afghan Government accountable for its performance on human – especially women’s – rights. As the provider of more than 80 per cent of the Afghan Government funding, the donor community should impose conditions based on respect for human rights and removal from office of abusers.

It should at the very least pressure the Afghan Government to meet its international obligations under the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, UN Security Council Resolution 1325, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and any other international documents and conventions it has signed up to.

Horia Mosadiq is a journalist and human rights activist working in Kabul.

New Internationalist issue 417 magazine cover This article is from the November 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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