Human Lives Human Rights: The Taliban are steadily dismantling the human rights gains of the last twenty years, Amnesty International, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) said in one of the briefings.
Contrary to the Taliban’s repeated claims that they will respect the rights of Afghans, the briefing, Afghanistan’s fall into the hands of the Taliban, details a litany of human rights abuses including targeted killings of civilians and surrendered soldiers and the blockading of humanitarian supplies in the Panjshir Valley, which constitute crimes under international law. Restrictions have also been reimposed on women, freedom of expression and civil society.
Ever since taking control of Afghanistan, the Taliban have made it clear that they are not serious about protecting or respecting human rights. World has already witnessed a wave of violations, from reprisal attacks and restrictions on women, to crackdowns on protests, the media and civil society.
Given the prevailing climate of fear, lack of mobile connectivity in many areas, and internet blackouts enforced by the Taliban, these findings are likely to represent just a snapshot of what’s happening on the ground. The UN Human Rights Council must establish a robust, independent mechanism with a mandate to document, collect and preserve evidence of ongoing crimes under international law and other serious human rights violations and abuses throughout the Afghanistan.
Climate of fear for Human Rights Defenders
Attacks on human rights defenders have been reported on a near-daily basis since 15 August. The Taliban are conducting door-to-door searches for human rights defenders, forcing many into hiding.
Researchers spoke to Mahmud, an Afghan human rights defender who managed to get out of the country. Mahmud described how, on the day the Taliban entered Kabul, he received a call asking him to hand over his organizations’ vehicles, equipment and money. The caller knew his name and warned him he had no choice but to cooperate.
Over the following days, Mahmud received further phone calls and WhatsApp messages, asking for his home address and requesting to meet him at designated locations. Two colleagues at his NGO had been beaten by the Taliban. Images shared by one of his co-workers and verified by Amnesty International and a forensic pathologist show classical assaultive ’whip marks’ to the back and yellowing bruising to the victim’s left arm.
The threat faced by human rights defenders stranded in Afghanistan is real. They are under attack on all fronts as they are seen as enemies of the Taliban. Their offices and homes have been raided. Their colleagues have been beaten. They are forced into permanent hiding. They live under the constant threat of arrest, torture or worse. Those who managed to leave the country are now stranded in military camps or in neighboring countries, not knowing their final destination nor how they will be able to rebuild their lives that have been shattered overnight.
The international community must uphold its moral and political commitments and not fail the people who have dedicated their lives to the defense of human rights, gender equality, the rule of law and democratic freedoms in their country, but protect them at all costs.
Persecution of journalists
Two Kabul-based female journalists that Amnesty International spoke to, shared the threats and intimidation they faced following the Taliban takeover. Ayesha, who has now fled the capital following warnings from her employer that her life was at risk, said her family had since been visited by the Taliban, and threatened after they informed the group that she was not at home.
Aadila described the first two weeks of Taliban rule as a time of fear and uncertainty. She had initially decided to stay in Afghanistan and continue her work, until the Taliban came to her home one night asking for her. Upon the insistence of relatives, she left the country shortly afterwards.
Abdul, a male journalist said that editors, journalists and media workers had received instructions from the Taliban that they could work only under the terms of Sharia law and Islamic rules and regulations.
“I have not reported to my job since the fall of the republic. Taliban came to my house several times, but I hid myself. From the time of the collapse, our office is closed” he said.
Stating that “the threat is very real”, Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, called for an urgent coordinated response from the international community.
“Defenders tell me of direct threats, including gendered threats against women, of beatings, arrests, enforced disappearances, and of defenders being killed. They describe living in a climate of constant fear”, she said.
Those most at risk are people documenting alleged war crimes, women, in particular criminal lawyers, cultural rights defenders, especially those working in banned sectors such as musical performance, and others from minority groups.
Some told Mrs. Lawlor that they have erased their online data history to evade identification, and that the Taliban are using other ways to find them. One of them, for example, was identified by an injury to his leg.
According to her, the Taliban raided the offices of human rights organizations and civil society and searched for their names, addresses and contacts. “Many defenders are well known in their local communities, especially in rural areas, and have left cities for anonymity, but even there they are forced to constantly change locations,” the UN expert said. “Most have also lost their source of income, further limiting their options to find safety.”
Mrs. Lawlor called for immediate international support, including an urgent plan for the evacuation of those at high risk, along with their families.
She also said these are the people who have been fighting for 20 years to advance human rights in the country.
“Many say they feel abandoned. States who have supported their work for the past two decades must do more to provide visas, travel documents and routes to asylum for the hundreds of defenders left behind and at risk.”
To produce her report, the rapporteur received online testimonies from around 100 human rights defenders. A woman living in western Afghanistan told her that every day 5 or 10 people are being arrested, with families afraid of being recognized.
“Family members don’t even claim the dead bodies in the street. They are afraid. Human rights defenders were not prioritized in the evacuation efforts”, Mrs. Lawlor said. Another activist argued that “the Taliban cannot be expected to stick to their word” and that “the future looks dark.”
A woman who worked in 34 provinces, for women’s rights, assured that she wants to protect the gains made in the last 20 years, but she can’t leave her home and go to the office. People like her, she said, “are being smeared as foreign agents.”
Another defender said that 38,000 prisoners have been released, some of them with problems with those working on justice and rule of law, and they are now “a direct threat to human rights defenders.”
Finally, a mother complained to Mrs. Lawlor about the torture of her 12-year-old child by the Taliban, asking for help.
“She thought that even now we could defend their children’s rights, but what was not clear to her, was that I have no more authority and the ability to defend her and her son, as I myself have been side-lined along with human rights activism in Afghanistan”, the rapporteur said.
UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said in a statement that there was “fear and dread” across Afghanistan, which had driven people to flee their homes.
Women have been flogged and killed in areas overrun by the extremists, while journalists and human rights defenders had also been attacked and killed, Ms. Bachelet said.
There have been reports of violations that “could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity”, including “deeply disturbing reports” of the summary execution of surrendering government troops. Since 9 July in four cities alone – Lashkar Gah, Kandahar, Herat and Kunduz – at least 183 civilians have been killed and 1,181 injured, including children.
Living in fear
In Geneva, spokesperson for High Commissioner Bachelet, Ravina Shamdasani, said that people “rightly” feared that the Taliban would erase the human rights gains of the past two decades, as US and international forces completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Repeating the High Commissioner’s condemnation of reported Taliban violence against communities, including women, rights defenders and journalists, she told correspondents that “women are already being killed and shot for breaching rules,” whilst “some radio stations have stopped broadcasting”.
In Balkh Province, “a women’s rights activist was shot and killed for breaching the rules”, added Ms. Shamdasani. OHCHR had also been receiving reports of “summary executions, attacks against current and former government officials and their family members, destruction of homes, schools and clinics and the laying of large numbers of IEDs (improvised explosive devices),” in areas already captured by the Taliban and in contested areas, she said.
Half the population at risk
The head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has also voiced his concern about the impact of the conflict on displaced populations, and those on the move, including returnees.
With over 5 million people already internally-displaced – more than 359,000 so far this year and record numbers of undocumented returnees – some 680,000 Afghans have returned in the first seven months of this year, according to the Border Monitoring Team of the Directorate of Refugees and Repatriation (DoRR).
Along with the country being “in the throes of a third wave of COVID-19 and a severe drought,” almost half of Afghanistan’s population are in need of emergency relief assistance, with needs expected to rise.
All parties to the conflict and neighboring countries must do everything they can to ensure that border crossing points remain open, and humanitarian workers are able to access vulnerable populations in the border areas.
Calls for restraint have also come from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which urged the international community to provide more protection for civilians and vital infrastructure, such as hospitals, from attack and help prevent collateral damage caused by fighting in populated areas.
Since 1 August, the organization has treated 4,042 patients wounded by weapons at 15 ICRC-supported health facilities, and nearly 13,000 patients in July alone, while ICRC medical services have been heavily strained due to damage and a lack of staff.
“We are seeing homes destroyed, medical staff and patients put at tremendous risk, and hospitals, electricity and water infrastructure damaged”, Eloi Fillion, ICRC’s head of delegation in Afghanistan said in a statement.
“The use of explosive weaponry in cities is having an indiscriminate impact on the population. Many families have no option but to flee in search of a safer place. This must stop.”
According to the ICRC, electricity is out across several contested cities and water supply systems are barely operational in some places. Many families are trying to leave but cannot find transport to escape or simply do not have the financial means.