Introductory Statement of Dr. Kamal Hossain on the Situation of human rights in Afghanistan

  1. After presenting my first report (E/CN.4/1999/40) to the Commission on Human Rights at its fifty-fifth session, in March 1999, I visited Quetta and Kandahar in May 1999 and Islamabad and Kabul from 8 to 13 September 1999.
    2. My first visit to Kabul (March 1999) had coincided with the initiation of talks in Ashkabad on 14 March 1999, involving the efforts of the Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Afghanistan, to explore the prospects of peace through negotiating an agreement aimed at the establishment of a broad-based representative Government in Afghanistan. This had prompted me to describe that situation as one which presented a challenge and an opportunity. I had stated in my report that only through a human rights-focused process of peace-building could progress be made towards improving the overall human rights situation.

3. I had pointed out that the people of Afghanistan continued to be victims of gross violations of human rights and persistent breaches of international humanitarian law, the basic cause being that they were virtual hostages in their own land, which was being ruled by externally armed groups without the effective participation or consent of the people.

4. The critical importance was underscored of initiating a process of transition towards a broad-based representative Government, which enjoyed the confidence of all segments of the Afghan population, including a significant proportion of 3 to 4 million Afghan refugees forced to live outside Afghanistan.

5. It is, therefore, to be regretted that the meeting of the "Six-plus-two" group held in Tashkent from 17 to 21 July 1999, which was attended by the Secretary-General's Special Envoy failed to achieve progress. The Taliban movement and the United Front (UF) had joined the six-plus-two meeting for the first time. While the participants at the Ashkabad talks had indicated a willingness in principle to explore the establishment of a shared Government, no progress was registered with regard to that issue. The more limited aim to cease-fire was not achieved, as the advent of spring, which has positive associations in most cultures, is associated in Afghanistan with the resumption of conflict.

6. A major offensive was launched by the Taliban on 27 July 1999 across the Shamali valley north of Kabul, with fighting extending into the provinces of Parwan, Kapisa and Kunduz. This offensive had followed upon the resumption of conflict in May 1999 in the central highlands, including Bamyan.

7. The retaking of Bamyan by the opposition had been considered a big setback by the Taliban, who massed 4,000 troops and retook Bamyan on 9 May 1999. Upon entering Bamyan city, there were reports of summary executions. Most of the population evacuated the city and took refugee in the mountains.

8. Reports began to be received by me that with the resumption of conflict serious human rights violations were being committed in the central highlands, particularly in Bamyan. I decided to seek first-hand information and arranged to visit Quetta in Pakistan and Kandahar from 21 to 23 May 1999. In Quetta, I interviewed newly arrived refugees from Hazarajat. The violations of human rights which were reported to me by credible eyewitnesses included forced displacement of the civilian population; deliberate burning of houses; summary executions of noncombatants including women and children; arbitrary detention and forced labour.

9. I then travelled to Kandahar and met Maulavi Wakeel Ahmed Mutawakil, Special Adviser to the Taliban leadership. An aide-memoire was delivered to him personally by me on 23 May 1999 with the request that action be taken to put a stop to human rights violations described in it.

10. The declaration signed by the participants at the Tashkent meeting had included a commitment to seek peaceful settlement of the conflict through negotiation and not to provide military support to any conflicting Afghan sides. Notwithstanding those commitments, a large-scale military offensive was launched by the Taliban on 27 July 1999 across the Shamali plains. Specially disquieting were reports that the forces which engaged in the offensive included non-Afghans of different nationalities and that the commitment not to provide military support was not respected as significant logistical support and supplies were being delivered to those forces which enabled the Taliban to carry out a large-scale offensive with successive rounds of aerial bombardment.

11. This offensive resulted in massive displacement of the civilian population, in particular women and children, from the Shamali plains. There is incontrovertible evidence of involuntary displacement of large numbers of civilians, specially women and children.

12. First-hand reports indicated that there were house and crop burnings, forced deportatios, family separation, the separation and deportation of women, and arbitrary killing in southern Shamali. House burnings were reportedly worst in Istalif, Farza, Kalakan and Guldara with lesser levels in Qarabagh and parts of Bagram district.

13. The Taliban authorities repeatedly raised the issue of recognition and urged that recognition be extended to them as in their view they had most of the territory under their control and they had substantially restored law and order.

14. I explained that a broad-based, multi-ethnic, representative Government that could legitimately seek and expect recognition would be one which would have to be constituted in accordance with internationally recognised human rights norms embodied in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ("the Covenant") to which Afghanistan was a party. The presence among the Taliban leadership of persons of different ethnic groups or previously warring factions did not satisfy the requirement of the Covenant since to represent any group or area, representatives would have to be chosen, in accordance with acceptable procedures, which could be agreed through a process of peaceful political negotiations.

15. Although the Taliban have established a degree of security in areas under their control, restrictions amounting to discrimination were imposed on women and girls in those areas through their policies which are communicated by edicts and enforced mainly by the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue. The edicts have been enforced with varying degrees of rigour throughout the country and have been felt most profoundly in urban areas where women used to have greater access to health facilities, employment opportunities and education.

16. In addition to the continuing war and policies directed towards the removal of women from public life, the situation of women in Afghanistan is also affected by poverty, low literacy rates, traditional customs, lack of appreciation of their health needs and lack of adequate numbers of female health care personnel. As regards health, women of child-bearing age constitute the most vulnerable group.

17. Grave breaches of humanitarian law have occurred in the course of the recently resumed conflict, which continues. The Secretary-General noted the alarming reports of massive forced displacements in his statement of 6 August 1999. He further stated that "the United Nations was doing its best to identify those responsible for the massive violations of human rights". Those responsible should be warned of the criminal liability that they are incurring by persistent breaches of international humanitarian law, which included: aerial bombardment, laying of mines, summary executions, destruction of homes and sources of livelihood, and abduction of and violence against women.

18. I would like to conclude by urging that the peace process should be revived at the earliest with an agenda which would underscore the need for an agreement on the basis of which a broad-based, multi-ethnic representative government acceptable to all segments of the Afghan population, including the 3-4 million refugees living outside Afghanistan, could be established. The Taliban authorities, who appear to be engaged in preparing a draft constitution, should appreciate that such a draft must be circulated among all segments of the population and can only acquire legitimacy if it is approved by properly chosen representatives of all of the Afghan people.

19. While the above basic changes are in the process of being agreed and implemented, a human rights based programmes of humanitarian assistance should be given the highest priority in order to meet the basic needs essential for survival and the right to life. The approach to human rights in Afghanistan must thus be shaped by the objective of addressing immediate life-saving and life-sustaining needs while simultaneously pursuing measures focused on strategic long-term objectives, namely to bring about a state of peace and stability essential for the enjoyment and protection of human rights.