Global Policy Forum

An Open Letter to President Hamid Karzai

Human Rights Watch
December 3, 2004

Congratulations on your election and inauguration as Afghanistan's first directly elected president. By taking part in presidential elections, Afghans overcame intimidation from regional warlords, threats from the Taliban, and tremendous logistical difficulties. Your victory gives you the mandate to realize the oft-stated wish of Afghans to live in peace and security after nearly three decades of conflict. We at Human Rights Watch wish you success in meeting this challenge.

Over the last three years, we are aware that as Afghanistan's interim and then transitional president you acted in many cases to safeguard human rights and protect vulnerable persons and groups. As you assume your new position, we ask that you give an even higher priority to protecting the rights of all persons in Afghanistan, regardless of gender, religion, or ethnicity. In particular, we urge you use the position granted to you by the Afghan people to press for the rule of law, the prosecution of human rights violators, and an end to the insecurity and warlord rule still plaguing much of the country.

Human Rights Watch has been monitoring Afghanistan for over twenty years. We would like to take this opportunity to bring to your attention several areas of special concern reflecting our investigations around Afghanistan: the need to weaken warlord rule; ending impunity and strengthening the rule of law; promoting international support for human rights protection and enhanced security; curbing abuses by U.S. forces; promoting women's rights; and preparing for upcoming parliamentary and local elections.

Ending the Rule of Warlords

You have echoed in numerous public statements what hundreds of Afghans have told us over the last three years: that insecurity and criminality associated with regional warlords and factional militias constitute the most serious impediment to the well-being of the Afghan people. Afghanistan's booming drug trade has only increased the power of warlords. Today, three years after the Taliban were ousted, armed groups controlled by warlords use violence and create fear against much of the Afghan population. In previous administrations some warlords even assumed positions at highest levels of your government.

We recognize that the warlords' usurpation of power was due in large part to realities on the ground and decisions of political and strategic expediency by the United States and its other coalition partners. Now that you have a popular mandate as the elected leader of the Afghan people, we hope that you will choose a new cabinet and appoint new government officials whose power does not derive from the strength of arms and who are committed to civilian rule in Afghanistan. The process of disarming these armed groups and reintegrating them into Afghan society should be a top priority for your new administration.

We applaud your efforts so far to sideline some of these warlords from government, in particular your dismissal of Ismail Khan as governor of Herat and Gulagha Shirzai as governor of Kandahar, and your decision not to have Mohammad Qasim Fahim run as your vice-presidential candidate. We urge you to use the occasion of naming a new government to accelerate the replacement of warlords and their proxies with civilians committed to the rule of law.

We urge you to take appropriate steps against warlords and others outside of government who use unofficial authority to improperly interfere with democratic processes and institutions. Specifically, we call on you to speak out against and disarm the forces of Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, the head of the Ittihad-i Islami faction and the Daw'at-e Islami party. Sayyaf has no government post but has used his power over the Supreme Court and other courts across the country to curtail the rights of journalists, civic society activists, and even political candidates. He also controls militias, including forces recognized as the 10th Division of the Afghan army, which intimidate and abuse Afghans even inside Kabul. We ask that you express public opposition to Sayyaf's activities, explicitly state your opposition to such misuse of unofficial authority, and move expeditiously to disarm and demobilize armed forces associated with Ittihad-i Islami and other unofficial forces.

Dismantling the power of the warlords requires speeding up the process of disarming, demobilizing and reintegrating the tens of thousands of Afghans who carry arms as part of militias (as called for in the December 2001 Bonn Agreement). Disarmament of militias has been largely symbolic: in most rural areas local commanders have retained their forces, and use them to commit abuses against local populations. This process has progressed far too slowly, largely due to obstructionism by warlords and the failure of the international community to challenge them. With your election, you have the opportunity to focus the necessary international attention on finally ridding Afghanistan of unauthorized guns and gunmen.

Ending Impunity and Strengthening the Rule of Law

Afghanistan continues to face a crisis of impunity. Numerous officials in local and national posts—including several senior military and police officials, as well as district and provincial governors—have been implicated in ongoing and past human rights abuses and other crimes. Very few of these officials have been brought to justice.

Some of the abusers who now threaten Afghanistan's security gained widespread notoriety and public opprobrium during Afghanistan's long and bloody civil war. Warlords like Fahim and Sayyaf are implicated in serious human rights abuses during the bloody battles that destroyed much of Kabul in 1992-95. General Abdul Rashid Dostum, now a military commander in northwestern Afghanistan, is also implicated in atrocities in Kabul during that period, as well as in Mazar-e Sharif and northwestern Afghanistan in 1997 and after the ouster of the Taliban. Armed militias loyal to these leaders continue to commit human rights abuses to this day.

In addition, there are numerous police officials, army troops, and intelligence agents in your own government who are further implicated in current abuses.

There are also numerous former Taliban leaders implicated in past and current human rights abuses. We are aware that your government is currently negotiating with some of these leaders, and that it is possible some may be brought into your government.

As a matter of urgency, we urge you to create a commission that would vet all senior government posts, preferably in collaboration with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, with the power to sideline persons from government service who face credible allegations for past or recent abuses.

With regard to crimes of the past, we urge your office to work with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission to investigate the creation, with parliamentary approval, of national mechanisms to promote accountability, so that the persons involved in serious war crimes and crimes against humanity can be called into account for their atrocities. It is clear that there is strong sentiment among Afghans for making the most serious criminals of the past answer for their crimes.

Ultimately, however, the best way to address impunity is to strengthen institutions which uphold the rule of law, including the police, the judiciary, prosecutors, and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Accordingly, we strongly urge you to seek greater support from the international community to accelerate efforts to improve and professionalize the police force and judicial and correctional systems. Simply put, persons who violate the law need to be prosecuted and fairly tried for their crimes, and your government should work to reform the institutions—police, judicial, and corrections—to make this possible.

In addition, we urge you to appoint judges who are adequately trained in civil law (as distinct from religious law), devoted to improving the judicial system, and committed to upholding human rights standards and the rule of law. We are deeply troubled by the fact that the current chief justice of Afghanistan's Supreme Court, Fazl Hadi Shinwari, and his deputy chief justice, Fazel Ahmad Manawi, lack any training in civil law. More troublingly, they have abused their authority by targeting journalists, civic activists, and even presidential candidates. They do not appear to act independently, the first requirement of a judge, instead making political judgments in close collaboration with warlords like Sayyaf.

Seeking Greater International Support for Afghanistan

International actors, including the United States, have committed considerable resources to helping Afghanistan rebuild, but there is much more they can and should do. We urge you to use the mandate you have received from the Afghan people to be a more forceful—and, if necessary, more critical—interlocutor with the international community.

Over the past three years, key international actors have used your public silence or diplomatic phrasing to justify inaction or strategic mistakes that did not take into account the best interests of the Afghan people. One specific disappointment has been that NATO, as the lead organization in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), has failed to satisfy its repeated promises of providing the adequate number of troops necessary to bring security to most of the country. As a result, reconstruction and development projects in many areas have not gotten underway, and efforts to disarm militias have gone too slowly.

Small Provincial Reconstruction Teams, consisting of coalition troops, have been deployed to some areas, but their numbers are too small and their area of coverage too large to provide adequate security. To make matters worse, the mandates given to both ISAF and coalition Provincial Reconstruction Teams are vague and do not include explicit instructions for commanders to assist with human rights protection efforts or disarmament programs.

At the same time, from its inception the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has deployed an inadequate number of human rights and political affairs officers outside of Kabul—officers who could help protect vulnerable persons and groups, monitor elections, and maintain pressure on commanders to meet their obligations to disarm their militias. The United Nations has an obligation to address this problem.

We hope that you are able to use your new mandate as Afghanistan's first directly elected president to ensure that international security assistance to Afghanistan fully meets the needs and concerns of the Afghan people.

Curbing Abuses by U.S. forces

We urge you to take all necessary steps to ensure that foreign forces on Afghan soil, particularly U.S. forces, conduct military operations in full accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law, for which they remain obligated. As we have raised previously, U.S. forces in Afghanistan appear to act without regard to any specific body of law. U.S. forces continue to conduct military attacks and arrest operations in many parts of the south that lead to unnecessary civilian death and injury, as well as resentment at the local level. U.S. forces continue to arrest and hold Afghans at detention sites around the country, incommunicado and indefinitely, without regard to and in violation of Afghan law. Allegations of physical abuse continue to be raised, and the U.S. military's response to such allegations remains inadequate.

The Afghan government is responsible for human rights violations committed on its soil, even if committed by foreign armed forces acting on its behalf. The U.S. government, moreover, cannot evade its responsibilities under international law because they are occurring outside the United States. We urge you as an immediate step to seek a clarification from the United States that appropriate Afghan and international law will be applied to all arrests and detentions occurring in the country, whether carried out by Afghan or foreign forces. This will require, among other things, that the U.S. forces overhaul their detention policies, in particular, by allowing visits by the AIHRC and family members of detainees, as well as by legal counsel or other representatives. We also ask that appropriate Afghan authorities investigate claims of abuse by U.S. and other coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Increasing Support for the Rights of Women and Girls

We urge you to increase your government's political and material support for the rights of women and girls, who have suffered disproportionately over the last 25 years of instability. Today, women and girls continue to suffer from major inequalities in educational and work opportunities, as well as severe social restrictions.

We call on you to appoint a cabinet that is more representative of women, and to work to mainstream women's involvement in your government. Women should be given meaningful opportunities to serve in all ministries, in particular powerful ministries like interior, foreign affairs, and defense. We also call on you to strengthen women's representation at the local level by appointing more women to local government positions.

In addition, we call on you to appoint a minister of education who will work to equalize educational opportunities for women and girls across Afghanistan—not only in elementary levels but through the university level.

Preparing for Parliamentary and Local Elections

The October 2004 presidential election was an important and historic step forward, but political rights in Afghanistan remain at risk. Upcoming parliamentary and local elections, scheduled for next year, will be a vital test. Regional leaders and warlords continue to dominate political processes at the local level, and many politically active people have told us that they are afraid to run as candidates for fear that their lives will be in danger.

We urge you to continue your efforts to prevent and address threats made by local leaders against politically active persons, and we urge you to speak out against repression by local leaders and in favor of free expression and pluralism, so that everyone in Afghanistan—even people who criticize you or warlords—can enjoy their political rights. We ask that you take special care to ensure that political groups operating on your behalf set a good example by scrupulously respecting human rights.

We urge you to press the international community to increase and expedite the logistical and security support necessary for successfully carrying out parliamentary and local elections, including by ensuring a sufficient number of impartial international and domestic observers.

We believe that you would agree with us that the protection of human rights and political freedom is ultimately the best recipe for stability and peace in your country.

Human Rights Watch wishes you success in carrying out the historic responsibility entrusted to you by the people of Afghanistan.

Yours sincerely,

Brad Adams
Executive Director, Asia Division
Human Rights Watch

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.