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President Joe Biden speaks from the Treaty Room in the White House on April 14, 2021 about the withdrawal of the remainder of US troops from Afghanistan.
© 2021 AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool
(New York) – The US government should address fears of increased insecurity fueled by its announced plan to withdraw all military forces from Afghanistan by committing to expanded support for human rights, including women’s rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The US should boost assistance for education and health, especially for girls and women, and for independent media given the threat of a widening conflict that undermines human rights gains and exacerbates the country’s humanitarian crisis.
US support for legal reform in Afghanistan has been vital for increasing access to justice for women and training hundreds of lawyers, prosecutors, and judges. Assistance will be needed to improve enforcement of laws protecting women and to ensure that legal aid is available for women prisoners and juvenile detainees. Support will also be needed to strengthen Afghan human rights groups, particularly the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, so they can continue to monitor human rights conditions, particularly during an uncertain peace process.
“President Joe Biden’s announcement of a withdrawal of US forces has raised fears that further insecurity may erode important gains in human rights that have allowed Afghans, women and girls in particular, to enjoy greater freedoms and better education and health,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director. “The US government should commit to providing vital funding and diplomatic support to preserve and expand on those gains and press for an end to abuses against civilians.”
The Biden administration stated on April 13, 2021, that it would “use its full diplomatic, humanitarian, and economic toolkit to … protect the gains made by women and girls over the course of the past 20 years … [and] bolster support for civilian, economic, and humanitarian assistance programs.” However, past US administrations have not made human rights in Afghanistan a sufficient priority, Human Rights Watch said. Further gains by the Taliban that threaten those rights will need a prompt US response, including withholding financial assistance to government agencies and targeted sanctions, while maintaining support to groups providing direct services.
The Taliban have made no firm commitments to protect fundamental rights in a transitional government or after a peace agreement and have continued to restrict the rights of women and girls to education in areas under their control. They have also engaged in a pattern of threats and attacks against Afghan media. Should the conflict continue following the US withdrawal, the US should use all diplomatic and other forms of influence to press the parties to comply with international human rights and humanitarian law, especially to protect civilians.
The Biden administration should also expand its support for programs that increase access to education and health care, especially for women and girls. US assistance to vital aid programs in Afghanistan has been shrinking. Since 2016, foreign donors, including the US, have reduced funding to Afghanistan in key areas, and the Covid-19 pandemic has further reduced donor commitments. In some cases, conditions imposed to curb corruption have made accessing funds for legitimate projects more difficult.
Afghanistan’s most important achievements in safeguarding civilians and protecting human rights have benefitted from donor support. Since 2002, that support provided greater access to education for millions of Afghan children and contributed to growing acceptance in many parts of the country that girls have the right to study. Organizations that support “community-based education” classes – schools located in students’ communities, often in homes – have been particularly successful in enabling children to study in areas where because of insecurity, distance, family resistance, or community pressure, they were unable to attend government schools.
Human Rights Watch has urged donors and the Afghan government to expand such programs. In many Taliban-held districts, nongovernmental organizations operating community-based education programs have been able to provide education, particularly for girls, where no other schools were available. These programs would represent a lifeline for girls should Taliban control expand.
Protecting gains in media freedom is also critical, Human Rights Watch said. Afghanistan’s independent media plays a vital role in holding officials accountable and providing access to information for the public. Afghanistan’s donors have long recognized the importance of protecting and strengthening independent media in the country. Support has diminished in recent years, however, even as the media, including female journalists, have increasingly faced attacks by insurgents and local strongmen and efforts by the government to restrict reporting.
The US should provide long-term institutional support to assist independent news media organizations to become self-sustaining. The US should also press the Taliban – which could become an aid recipient under any future peace agreement – to cease all threats and attacks on the media and to pledge to uphold media freedom.
Since 2002, donor funding has also led to crucial improvements in access to health care. However, serious problems remain, particularly in providing services in rural areas, and in reaching people with disabilities and other marginalized populations. Health services for women have improved, though much more needs to be done. Nongovernmental organizations have also delivered healthcare services in Taliban-controlled districts, including rural and insecure areas that were long neglected. Donors should continue their support for programs that increase access to basic health care, especially for women. Cuts in donor funding have already undermined that effort, though, and further cuts will put more lives at risk.
After the withdrawal of US forces, the status of Afghan paramilitary forces that have operated with US support outside Afghan government control will most likely be unclear. The continued presence of paramilitary forces implicated in serious abuses – at times fueled by tribal or political loyalties – will pose a threat to communities. The US should clarify command responsibility for operations by Afghan paramilitary forces, press for accountability for those responsible for grave abuses, and cease support to any linked to serious laws-of-war violations.
Even after it pulls out all of its military forces, the US will remain a party to the non-international armed conflict in Afghanistan. The laws of war will still bind US forces until there is a lasting disengagement from the provision of military support to the Afghan government. The Biden administration should commit to transparency regarding any continued US use of force including so-called counterterrorism strikes, which should comply with international law.
It should pledge to support accountability for past abuses, including through cooperation with the investigation by the International Criminal Court into war crimes and other serious crimes, and review past incidents of civilian casualties to appropriately provide redress or ex gratia (condolence) payments to victims.
“Afghans who have endured decades of human rights abuses are understandably fearful that achievements in media freedom, education, health care, and women’s rights may soon be lost, and that there will be no accountability for the injustices they have endured,” Gossman said. “The US should seize this moment to express its commitment and strengthen its support for human rights in Afghanistan.”