Past crimes haunt Afghan progress
By Giuliano Battiston
KABUL - As Afghanistan heads for presidential elections on April 5, people are asking if the country's massive legacy of human-rights violations will be swept under the carpet yet again by the new government.
Civil society activists in Bamiyan city - capital of the central province by the same name where the Taliban in 2001 destroyed two ancient Buddha statues - seem particularly interested in what the presidential candidates have to say about "transitional justice".
The term refers to the set of judicial and non-judicial measures, including criminal prosecution, truth commissions and institutional
reforms, which a country implements to redress past human-rights abuses, according to the International Centre for Transitional Justice.
"Justice is necessary to achieve peace," Ismail Zaki, regional coordinator of the Civil Society Human Rights Network (CSHRN), told IPS here.
"Without justice, peace is not a real, strong, stable peace. I would say that justice - which also means accountability for past crimes - is even more important than peace," he said.
Any peace process, in order to be effective, must enable acknowledgement of past crimes, says Said Hussein Shah Hussainy, monitoring and investigating unit assistant at the local branch of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).
Both Zaki and Hussainy say it is important to revise and implement the government's 2005 Action Plan for Peace, Reconciliation and Justice, which was aimed at redressing past human-rights abuses in Afghanistan.
Adopted by President Hamid Karzai, and supported by the international community, the Action Plan envisaged five activities, including truth-seeking, reconciliation and accountability measures.
But to date it has largely not been implemented, say researchers Niamatullah Ibrahimi and Emily Winterbotham in "Caught Between Past and Present", a study based on interactions with the victims of three massacres in Afghanistan.
"The favored strategy of both the Afghan government and the international community for addressing legacies of past and present human-rights violations and war crimes in Afghanistan has been to sweep them under the carpet," writes Sari Kouvo, co-founder and co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network, in a paper titled "A Plan Without Action", published in July 2012.
The international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) had sent a questionnaire on key human-rights challenges in Afghanistan to all 11 candidates in the April 5 presidential race. The few who responded seemed willing to change the course on transitional justice - at least on paper. Their replies were released February 9.
Abdullah Abdullah, one of the leading contenders and head of the National Coalition of Afghanistan, told HRW that "transitional justice is one of the most important discourses in our society".
But he had a word of caution too. In order to avoid "political misuse and the strengthening of a spirit of vengeance", he said, "it is necessary to create the appropriate cultural, moral and legal backdrop through which the discussion of transitional justice can be had".
Apart from him, only three other candidates - Qutbuddin Helal, Daoud Sultanzoy and Qayum Karzai - chose to answer the HRW questionnaire. Later, however, Qayum Karzai, elder brother of President Hamid Karzai, dropped out of the presidential race in favor of another candidate.
Even Helal, linked to the radical, Islamist party Hezb-e-Islami, told HRW that "punishment and accountability for human rights violators is important". He argued for prosecution "in case credible evidence exists so that they become a lesson for others".
Civil society activists, however, worry that calls for transitional justice might exacerbate conflict if not properly handled.
"Before working on transitional justice, there needs to be a legitimate and respected government in full control of the country," Ali Jan Fahim, a member of CSHRN in Bamiyan told IPS.
"Only then, when the warlords are no longer in power, will it be possible to work on it. If we were to do it before that, they would kill us, or at least they would create more instability," he said.
Amir Sharif, sociology lecturer at Bamiyan University, told IPS, "Today the criminals and their supporters are in government, they have power. We should focus more on national unity.
"We will be able to discuss a special court - either national or international - only further down the road when there is a strong, functioning, central government accepted by most of the population."
Zaki of CSHRN said, "Before dealing with the issue of transitional justice, time is required. The time is not ripe yet. We need to let the idea take shape in people's mind. We need to work on it carefully."
Citing internal power dynamics, a culture of impunity and the international community's lack of will, some say that transitional justice is impracticable.
"I doubt if it will happen in future. The criminals are more powerful now than before, and those who have suffered abuse do not have any means to demand justice," Gholam Hussein, director of the NGO Shuhada, told IPS.
Ali Wardak, an Afghan professor who teaches at the Centre for Criminology of the University of Glamorgan in Britain, holds a different view.
"The AIHRC survey, 'A Call for Justice', showed that the Afghan population wants justice and accountability and we know that without justice there cannot be lasting peace," he told IPS.
"The past cannot be removed. It is never too late to deal with it."