At the local level, Americans are demonstrating a strong commitment to advancing human rights. In recent elections, voters legalized marriage equality in nine states and passed the DREAM Act to expand educational opportunities for undocumented residents in Maryland. In addition, legislators in four states abolished the death penalty. The message to the nation’s leaders seems to be this: human rights still matter, and the task of “perfecting our union” remains incomplete.
As President Obama prepares to give his second inaugural address, he should embrace an ambitious rights agenda: enhancing our security without trampling on human rights; implementing a foreign policy that hold friends and foes alike accountable for human rights violations; and ensuring human rights for all in the United States without discrimination.
Measured against international norms and his own aspirations, President Obama’s first term record on human rights merits an “incomplete.” While he made the bold move of issuing an executive order to close Guantánamo on his second day in office, he has yet to fulfill that promise. The U.S. government’s reliance on lethal drone strikes is growing steadily, but the administration has provided no clear legal justification for the program. Congress has abrogated its responsibility to exercise meaningful oversight of this most ubiquitous element of the “global war on terror,” a paradigm which is in and of itself problematic. Although President Obama has on occasion stood up for human rights defenders abroad — in China, Iran, Russia and Libya — his administration has often muted criticism when it comes to U.S. allies, in the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
If enacted, this crucial piece of legislation would require the Department of Defense to develop a three-part strategy to promote and support the security of Afghan women and girls during and after the security transition process. The bill would support Afghan women’s rights by:
• Improving monitoring and response to women’s security conditions.
• Increasing recruitment and retention of women in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) by reducing barriers to women’s participation.
• Improving gender sensitivity among ANSF personnel by requiring training related to the human rights of women and girls and by strengthening enforcement and accountability.
Afghan teacher Meher Afroza with her students at an Islamic school in Kabul. Under the Taliban, few girls attended school. Today 3 million girls go to school, and 20 percent of university of graduates are women. (Photo: ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images)
World leaders, dignitaries and reporters will convene in Chicago next week for the 2012 NATO summit, and among the urgent questions they will consider is that of Afghanistan’s future after the 2014 withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops.
Indeed, recent developments signal that the significant but tenuous gains Afghan women have made over the past decade are mere bargaining chips in negotiations between U.S., Afghan and Taliban leaders seeking to expedite the transition to Afghan rule. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has proposed a program of “reintegration and reconciliation” with the Taliban that holds grim implications for women and girls, and in March he briefly endorsed an edict issued by a council of clerics that would allow husbands to beat their wives in certain situations and encourage gender segregation in workplaces and schools.
“We love each other no matter what happens.” Those were some of the last words of Khayyam and Siddiqa before they were stoned to death for ‘eloping’. This was the first stoning in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Surrounded by many of the victims’ neighbors and even their family members, the couple received this gruesome punishment handed down by an Islamic Council.
In fact, the execution was carried out two days after the Council of Ulema called on the Afghan government to implement harsher shari’a punishments, which included public stoning, lashing and amputations.
Despite continuous efforts by international human rights groups and governments, the method of execution by stoning still remains a legal punishment in several other countries. They include Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates.
The news of the couple stoned to death is a tragic and ironic remainder of ongoing abuses of human rights in Afghanistan. The Council of Ulema and the Afghan government must denounce stoning as a punishment and cease from using it.
AFGHANISTAN – Election violence and a nod to “warlord politics”
The world is looking to Afghanistan this week, where Presidential and Provincial Council elections will be held on August 20th. The Taliban are threatening to attack polling stations in the country’s unstable southern province. The government estimates that about 14 percent of the country’s polling centers are considered too dangerous for people to vote. Moreover, the risk of violence will increase should no presidential candidate reach more than 50 percent of the vote, leading to a mandatory run-off between the top two contenders. Nevertheless, US government officials are optimistic, stating that the Taliban have failed to derail the elections. In other developments, both government officials and the Taliban have been increasing pressure and threats against journalists in the country and limiting independent and critical reporting.
We hope that, from top to bottom, every effort will be taken to make election day secure, to eliminate fraud, and to address any complaints fairly and quickly. It will be several days before we have preliminary results and we hope initial reports will refrain from speculation until results are announced. Final results could take several weeks. We call on candidates and their supporters to behave responsibly before and after the elections – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
We have made clear to the Government of Afghanistan our serious concerns regarding the return of Mr. Dostum and any prospective role in today’s Afghanistan. And I think that President Obama had earlier, based on an earlier story, had asked that the national security team gather further information on his background, including concerns that he might have been involved in the deaths of a significant number of Taliban prisoners of war a few years ago, and that the team is continuing to gather that information – Philip J. Crowley, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs
A ferocious offensive by the Taliban [was] designed to try to kill the elections. Their goal is to prevent the elections and they have failed in that – Richard Holbrooke, US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC – Humanitarian situation deteriorates
Ongoing ethnic conflict in northeastern Central African Republic (CAR) and recurring attacks by the Ugandan rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the southeast part of CAR have created overwhelming humanitarian needs throughout the country. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that thousands of internally displaced people have been left without food, protection or shelter.
The country is the second poorest in the world after Sierra Leone and has long been unstable. Although five of the rebel groups signed peace treaties with the government in late 2008, the security situation has been deteriorating since the beginning of the year, causing about 18,000 people to flee to Chad and many more losing their homes during attacks. Children are particularly at risk in CAR, with almost 700,000 children under five living below acceptable standards, according to UNICEF.
Meanwhile, CAR Communications Minister Cyriaque Gonda announced on Monday that the government has set up a three-year timetable to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 former rebels. However, upcoming elections in 2010 and the formation of a new rebel group in 2009 in the northeast of the country are likely to lead to increasing insecurity and tension in CAR.
The situation is still very volatile and the displaced population remains traumatized […] Fear is very evident amongst the people who had to repeatedly leave their villages and watch their homes and livelihoods being looted, burnt and destroyed – Catherine Bragg, UN Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator and Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs
These children’s lives, their ability to learn, to earn, and to lead productive lives is being stunted by this tragic crisis – Jeremy Hopkins, acting representative of UNICEF in CAR
Coming This Week
August 18: U.S. President Barack Obama meets Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Washington, DC
August 18: Secretary Clinton meets with Colombian Foreign Minister Bermudez
August 20: Presidential and Provincial Council Elections in Afghanistan
August 17-24: US Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration travels to Sudan (Juba, Makalal), Ethiopia and Egypt
Juliette Rousselot contributed to this post.
Human Rights Flashpoints is a weekly column about countries at risk of escalating human rights violations and is brought to you by AIUSA’s Crisis Prevention and Response team.
AFGHANISTAN – Increased violence prior to elections
As the second presidential election draws closer, increased violence from Taliban militants appears imminent. This past Monday, Taliban militants attacked official buildings in Pul-i-Alam, launching rockets towards the police headquarters and the governor’s building, threatening to weaken governmental authority. The Taliban have declared that they will continue with the attacks in order to disrupt the August 20th elections while the United Nations fears that intensified violence jeopardizes the voter turnout. This attack is one of the closest to have occurred to Kabul, the Afghan capital in the days prior to the election.
As the threat to civilian life increases, the White House is in the process of re-evaluating its “metrics” of success to determine if the revamped strategy of the United States in Afghanistan is working. The new measures include tracking the size, strength and durability of the Afghan National Army, analyzing the number of operations led by the Afghan soldiers. The plan is also to include further protection of civilians while isolating the insurgents from support and sanctuary.
The Wall Street Journal’sinteractive map of Regional Violence in Afghanistan
“My message to my Democratic colleagues is that we made mistakes in Iraq. Let’s not ‘Rumsfeld’ Afghanistan,” Senator Lindsey Graham (R), South Carolina.
“It’s a very aggressive enemy right now. We’ve got to stop their momentum, stop their initiative. It’s hard work.” General McChrystal, U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
MYANMAR – The shameful verdict
Myanmar’s military junta handed down its shameful verdict against opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi today, locking her up for at least another year and a half. Conveniently for the oppressive Generals, this will put her under house arrest until next year’s planned elections are over. The time between now and next year’s polls bears the great risk of further arrests and oppression of Myanmar’s political opposition. After all, there are already now more than 2,100 political prisoners locked up in the country’s prisons, where they are held in poor conditions and at risk of torture. To quell any potential protests in the aftermath of today’s verdict, the regime has strongly tightened security in the country.
Today’s verdict led to worldwide condemnations, and the UN Security Council will be holding a special session on the topic. Political leaders around the world have already spoken out against this injustice.
OVERHEARD – The world reacts to the verdict
(…) I join the international community in calling for Aung San Suu Kyi’s immediate unconditional release. Today’s unjust decision reminds us of the thousands of other political prisoners in Burma who, like Aung San Suu Kyi, have been denied their liberty because of their pursuit of a government that respects the will, rights, and aspirations of all Burmese citizens. They, too, should be freed. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. I call on the Burmese regime to heed the views of its own people and the international community and to work towards genuine national reconciliation. (…) – US President Barack Obama
Unless she and all other political prisoners in Myanmar (Burma) are released and allowed to participate in free and fair elections, the credibility of the political process will remain in doubt – UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon
The reduced sentence was “not a concession — it is a manipulation of an illegal process. It must not be accepted by any government.” – Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town
With respect to Aung San Suu Kyi, she should not have been tried and she should not have been convicted. We continue to call for her release from continuing house arrest. (…) The Burmese junta should immediately end its repression of so many in this country, start a dialogue with the oppositon and the ethnic groups. Otherwise the elections they have scheduled for next year will have absolutely no legitimacy – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
The Burmese authorities have shown with this iniquitous ruling their decision to ignore pressing messages from the international community – French President Nicolas Sarkozy
I am both saddened and angry at the verdict today, August 11, following the sham trial of Aung San Suu Kyi. This is a purely political sentence designed to prevent her from taking part in the regime’s planned elections next year. So long as Aung San Suu Kyi and all those political opponents imprisoned in Burma remain in detention and are prevented from playing their full part in the political process, the planned elections in 2010 will have no credibility or legitimacy – British Prime Minister Gordon Brown
If, as Dostum asserts, there were investigations by the Afghan and U.S. governments, they should be made public. If their findings were accurate, Dostum should have nothing to fear from a reexamination of the facts. But the facts currently available indicate very strongly that many detainees – possibly hundreds – died while in the custody of Dostum’s forces in November 2001 and their bodies were dumped in the nearby desert of Dasht-e Leili (adding to the numerous bodies unceremoniously deposited there by various warring factions over the past three decades).
I was a human rights investigator in northwestern Afghanistan in February 2002. At the time, numerous witnesses spoke of seeing several trucks dumping what appeared to be human remains in Dasht-e Leili, while others told of detainees being held for days in overcrowded shipping containers without food, water, or medical care, and, in some instances, being shot while inside the containers.
Crucially, the International Committee of the Red Cross did not have access to the Taliban detainees at Sheberghan until December 10, 2001 – and thus could not monitor their conditions during the period when the detainees died. This undermines Dostum’s claim that a massacre could not have occurred because the ICRC would have known about it.
Dostum is correct in one regard: There is a highly politicized atmosphere surrounding the timing of the increased attention to this incident, and that is linked to President Hamid Karzai’s reinstatement of Dostum as the army chief of staff after he had been removed in disgrace last year. Karzai has also nominated as his vice presidential candidate Marshal Fahim, another Northern Alliance commander facing widespread allegations of serious human rights violations and war crimes.
Many Afghans, who have repeatedly demanded truth and accountability for the three decades of atrocities they have endured, have told Amnesty International they are extremely disappointed by the presence of such figures in Karzai’s administration. The ongoing impunity of senior government officials has done much to erode public confidence in the Afghan government, something now readily acknowledged even by international militaries.
General Dostum has bemoaned the increasing operations of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda after seven years of international nation building. It is time to ask: After seven years of appeasing warlords and human rights violators, isn’t it time for the Afghan government and its international supporters to try truth and accountability?
Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) demonstrated in a more than impressive way this week how science and technology can advance the cause of human rights. Using forensic analysis and satellite imagery, they did an excellent job in documenting a war crime—and the subsequent US supported cover-up—in Afghanistan, where in the wake of the US led invasion in 2001 hundreds of prisoners of war were killed by a US backed warlord and dumped in a mass grave in Dasht-e-Leili. Check out this must see video:
In 2002, PHR investigators discovered the presence of a mass grave site in Dasht-e-Leili, outside of the city of Sheberghan in northern Afghanistan. The grave site is reported to contain anywhere from hundreds to thousands of Taliban prisoners of war. Forensic analysis suggests that most of the prisoners died from suffocation. They reportedly died while inside closed metal shipping containers.
Upon returning to the site in 2008, Stefan Schmitt, Director of PHR’s International Forensic Program, noticed that the mass grave might have been tampered with. To gather additional evidence, PHR requested satellite imagery from the area, which showed two sizeable pits, compromising the original area. The satellite imagery obtained by the AAAS indicated that there was earth-moving equipment present on August 5, 2006 along with one of two new pits. Later imagery on October 24, 2007, revealed the second pit in the same location as the earth-moving equipment from August 5.
The Bush Administration discouraged any attempts to investigate the episode, as the warlord suspected of committing the crimes, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, was on the C.I.A.’s payroll, while his militia worked alongside the United States Special Forces in 2001. The Department of State has urged the Obama administration to oppose Gen. Dostum’s reappointment in the Afghani government; however the president has yet to take action on this issue.
US air base in Bagram, Afghanistan. (c) Digital Globe 2009. Screenshot taken from Google Earth
Detainees held in the U.S. military detention center at Bagram Air Base are in the middle of a conundrum over their legal rights. Human rights campaigners argue that the prisoners should be provided with the same rights as those being held in the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The United States military, however, argues that they deserve different treatment since they are held in a current war zone. In Bagram, detainees are informed about the reason for their arrest, and are offered the ability to defend themselves without outside legal counsel at six-month military review sessions.
To protest their lack of legal representation, the detainees themselves have begun protesting, refusing privileges such as recreation time and family visits in order to obtain access to lawyers or independent reviews. The prisoners further refuse to leave their cells to shower or exercise. The prison wide protest started on July 1 and only became public recently through the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The U.S. detention facility in Bagram is even more closed off to the public than Guantanmo Bay. The Washington Post has more background information on the expanding detention facility.
Their operations are vast and war zone contractors are likely here to stay, as Suzanne Simons writes in her CNN International article. Her article is a comprehensive piece that places emphasis on one of the more salient issues regarding private military and security companies (PMSCs) or contractors: lack of regulation, oversight, and accountability. The PMSC industry has grown rapidly since the war on terror and continues to play an integral role in the conflict in Afghanistan under the Obama administration, but the US government, as reported by the CWC in its Interim Report, lacks resources to manage the industry that it has come to depend on like a crutch.
Since 2001, Congress has appropriated about $830 billion to fund U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over that period, America’s reliance on contractors has grown to unprecedented proportions to support logistics, security, and reconstruction efforts related to those operations. More than 240,000 contractor employees—about 80 percent of them foreign nationals—now work in Iraq and Afghanistan, supporting the Department of Defense. Additional contractor employees support the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The result from the combination of a growing military industry and weak government regulation and oversight is a culture of impunity and lack of accountability for the many human rights abuses committed by PMSCs. Yes, five Blackwater guards will be tried in February 2010 for opening fire and killing civilians in Nisour Square and yes, a private civil lawsuit was filed against Blackwater contractor Andrew J. Moonen for killing one of the Iraqi Vice President’s bodyguards in Baghdad’s green zone. However, let us also keep in mind not only how long it took for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to act in the first case, but also the fact that numerous cases of detainee abuse committed by PMSC personnel have gone unprosecuted. In February 2008, Amnesty found out through Senator Durbin’s inquiry to the DOJ that 24 cases of detainee abuse were transferred to the Eastern District of Virginia; 22 of the 24 were dismissed and 2 are pending. Our efforts to find out why these cases were dismissed or unresolved were fruitless.
The industry cannot be expected to regulate itself and a government that is increasingly outsourcing its operations needs to ensure that it has the mechanisms to regulate PMSCs’ activities and hold the companies accountable for their actions (and not reward them with more contracts). Doug Brooks of the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA) stated that PMSCs are here to stay and that it’s about time we made it work but after the recent completion of a twelfth version of IPOA’s Code of Conduct, the trade association still has not made it work. Essentially, the Code is ineffectual. For starters, there are no guidelines detailing what compliance with its standards entails; companies do not have to show that they are operationalizing the Code to IPOA or any third-party monitor; and there are no requirements for public reporting on company efforts to adhere to the Code.