Ruth Pollard

In Afghanistan’s Darkest Hour, the Taliban Must Know We Are Watching

We’re just six weeks into the Taliban’s second shift as Afghanistan’s rulers, and the picture could not be bleaker.

Bodies hang in public squares and women are banned from their jobs. High schools are closed to girls, the women’s ministry has been replaced by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, while former government officials, public servants, civil society activists, journalists and minorities are being targeted in a ruthless house-to-house crackdown.

Afghans rightly feel deserted by the international community, and betrayed by the US’s chaotic and deadly exit from their country.

But while the news cycle has moved on, those working to protect the gains made over the past 20 years and investigate the human rights abuses committed by all parties — the US-led coalition forces and the Afghan Government troops included — have kept going, both inside and outside the country.

Calls by human rights campaigners for an independent fact-finding mission to investigate those abuses were growing louder even before the Taliban arrived in Kabul. Spurred by a spike in targeted killings — which worsened after the US-Taliban deal was signed in Doha in February 2020 — the push has taken on fresh urgency as the security situation deteriorates across the country.

Taliban officials now speak of the resumption of executions and amputations as punishment, creating a “culture of impunity and an environment of fear,” Shaharzad Akbar, the chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, told an online forum Monday on the sidelines of the latest UN Human Rights Council meeting. The Taliban are targeting former national security force members and their families, beating and torturing journalists, and erasing women from public spaces, Akbar said. There also have been forced displacements of the ethnic Hazara minority from their homes in several villages.

“This is a really hopeless moment for Afghanistan,” she said. “In this moment of darkness we need member states to step in.”

There’s an immediate need for the international community to work out a way to deliver aid to a population where as much as 97% are at risk of sinking below the poverty line in the coming months. But there is also more pain-staking work to be done to document past and future abuses and reform the sanctions regime, which essentially operates outside the rule of law and without consistent humanitarian exemptions, says the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on counter terrorism and human rights, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin.

“Afghanistan is ground zero of post-9/11 counter-terrorism and our experiment of trying to address the violence committed by non-state actors like the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the ISIS,” Ní Aoláin told me. That’s led to 20 years of systematic human rights abuses in Afghanistan — not only by the Taliban and other groups — but serious violations by the Afghan government and acts of torture and violence by the US-led coalition, she said. “I know there is a cry for clear, grand gestures from the international community, but we need something more old-fashioned and reliable.”

Syria — with the Assad regime’s sustained human rights abuses and the myriad terrorist groups operating within its borders — provides a possible way forward. After the failure of the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (thanks to Russia and China), the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism was born. Created by a UN General Assembly resolution in 2016, the mechanism — properly funded and with some heavy-hitting jurists on board — has been collecting, preserving and analyzing evidence of human rights violations in Syria with the aim of expediting criminal proceedings against perpetrators.

It’s already had some early success with the February sentencing in a German court of a former Syrian intelligence officer for complicity in crimes against humanity. Another trial is ongoing. In a separate action in July, a Syrian doctor was charged for his alleged role in torturing prisoners in military hospitals in Homs and Damascus. These are important advances for the principle of universal jurisdiction for such violations, which allows national courts — like the ones in Germany — to prosecute individuals for serious crimes against international law.

A similar body could be established on Afghanistan. Those who’ve been gathering evidence on the Taliban and other groups for 20 years will continue to do so — whether they’re part of the growing diaspora or members of the country’s civil society who were unable or unwilling to flee since the hardline Islamist group took control on Aug. 15. Along with the evacuation of many of those working in the field, a significant collection of human rights records has been safely taken out of Afghanistan in these last weeks that could feed into those investigations, Ní Aoláin said.

It’s even more important since the International Criminal Court announced Monday the resumption of its Afghanistan investigation — which was welcomed by those seeking justice for victims. However its clarification that it would prioritize alleged crimes committed by the Taliban and the local Islamic State affiliate over those perpetrated by US and other coalition troops and the Afghan National Security Forces was roundly condemned.

When decades of serious violations have taken place, laying the seeds for accountability, for acknowledging to the victims what happened, who was killed and harmed by whom, can prove key to future endeavors to rein in impunity. It can also send a powerful message to the Taliban that their actions — not their words — are under a microscope.