She is the Deputy President of the Provincial Council, and you just watched as she argued passionately with the President of the Council about the need for human rights and justice in Afghanistan. He had suggested that it was time for people in Afghanistan to accept that there had been no human rights in this country for 30 years, that those who had been responsible for abuses of human rights were still around and are not going to go away. He argued that it was time to simply accept this and let it be. He asked: what would make things better anyway? Did she want to see all those responsible for human rights violations executed? Would that make things better? She argued that it was never too late for justice, that she didn’t want to see those responsible killed, instead she wanted them publicly identified, investigated and tried. She wanted a chance for the victims and their families to have their stories told, to have their pain heard and acknowledged. She wanted people to know that those who were responsible for their suffering were not allowed to get away with it without any accountability or punishment. She talked about war crimes tribunals in other countries, about war criminals who had been held accountable for their crimes in other jurisdictions. She talked about global efforts to have Pinochet tried and about the trial of Milosovic. She is obviously intelligent, well informed and committed to justice. She is, quite simply, a woman who you admire, who you would like to get to know better and to work with. She is the kind of woman who can give you hope for this country and a sense of purpose and optimism in your work. So it is incredibly hard when you have to be so careful about what you say in response to her, when you have to carefully select each word to ensure that you are speaking in accordance with your organisation’s official position on the matter. She is referring to the Human Rights Watch report on human rights abuses committed by the Jehadi leaders and factions in Kabul in the 1990’s. She is furious that President Karzai has rejected the report and refused to act on its recommendations to bring those leaders (now holding powerful positions in Karzai’s cabinet and in the Parliament) to trial. You first have to clarify one point - she has mistakenly attributed the HRW report to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. This confusion is proving to be common across the country and is risky for the Commission, so you are careful to point out that the report she is referring to was not produced by the Commission, but rather by an independent NGO called ‘Human Rights Watch’. You explain that AIHRC was involved in the background research for the Action Plan on Peace, Reconciliation and Justice and they did produce a report based on their consultations with thousands of Afghans, that report was “A Call for Justice”. It has been used as the basis for the development of the Action Plan. You remind her that on 10 December 2006, International Human Rights Day, President Karzai launched the Action Plan. You say that this is a very important development, one that the AIHRC and the international community have been pushing for over the past year. You remind her that the plan is comprehensive (i.e. that it does not only deal with accountability but also with victims needs to tell their stories and to see their experiences reflected in shared histories of Afghanistan) and that it is progressive (i.e. it starts with steps like establishing national memorial days and have a series of phases that should happen consequentially). You feel acutely aware that in the face of genuine passionate feeling you are responding with policy. It is good, sound policy and you have no argument with your superiors in Kabul who have developed the policy. But you feel that this woman deserves more from you. You know that the launch of the plan was completely overshadowed by the reaction to the Human Rights Watch press release calling for the prosecution of a number of key figures involved in human rights abuses in the 1990s. Those named in the HRW report and press release have decided to use this as an opportunity to attack the international community and the AIHRC and to put the President in an extremely difficult situation. You are afraid that if this situation escalates it will endanger the implementation of the Action Plan itself, so you feel that the policy you have been given is correct. But in your heart you want to join with her in her passion. Instead you talk calmly and carefully about the Action Plan and ask for ideas about what you and she can do together in the province to promote greater awareness of the plan. You argue that it is the right of people here in Farah to know about the plan and to understand what the plan proposes should happen in Afghanistan. You look her in the eye and tell her that your mandate is to promote implementation of the Action Plan, so although you understand she may be disappointed in some aspects of the plan this is what you have to offer. You look her in the eye and tell her that you do not work in Kabul, that you work in Farah, so although you do not disagree with her suggestions that more needs to be done at the national level to ensure implementation of the plan you are here, not there, and you can only offer to work with her on initiatives to promote the Action Plan here. You watch her face while your interpreter translates your words to her. You see that although she is passionate and ready to fight about these issues, she is not going to fight you. She is going to be gracious to you, she is going to accept your mandate, and accept what you can do rather than railing against what you cannot do. You hear her say that she will prepare a proposal for some dissemination activities in Farah, using radio, televisions and mobile awareness raising workshops for the remote areas. You let out the breath that you have been holding. You take in another deep breath and feel yourself begin to believe that you can find a small way to make your contribution in this place. Background information: Transitional justice is the term used to describe the full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society's attempts to address past abuses, ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation after a period of war, conflict and/or oppression. These may include a combination of both judicial and non-judicial mechanisms, individual prosecutions, reparations, truth-seeking, institutional reform, vetting and dismissals. In 2002 the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission was given a mandate, through a decree signed by the Chairman to “undertake national consultations and propose a national strategy for transitional justice and for addressing the abuses of the past.” Throughout 2003 and 2004 AIHRC undertook a widespread consultation, comprised of :
- the application of a survey, designed to capture quantitative data and test for preferences to 4151 respondents; and
- the convening of over 200 focus group discussions with over 2000 participants, designed to capture qualitative data and test for perceptions.
The consultation took eight months and covered 32 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces as well as refugee populations in Iran and Pakistan. I highly recommend the resulting report “A Call for Justice” to anyone with an interest in transitional justice in Afghanistan. But I do warn you that it is disturbing to read. A pdf file of the report can be accessed here Based on the findings reported in “A Call for Justice”, the Government of Afghanistan, in cooperation with the AIHRC and UNAMA (the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan), developed the Action Plan for Peace, Reconciliation and Justice. It was presented and agreed upon at the Hague Conference on Peace, Reconciliation and Justice in Afghanistan on 6-7 June 2005. Although the Government of Afghanistan adopted the plan in early 2006 the President did not formally launch it until 10 December 2006. Where do I fit into this? Part of my job description is to promote and support the implementation of this Action Plan – by raising awareness of the plan amongst the general public, the media, and local authorities. Some of the Afghan people with whom I discuss this plan want more than the plan offers – more immediate judicial action to bring violators to account, for example, where the action plan proposes more progressive actions starting with memorials and the development of shared historical narratives.
I feel deep sympathy for those victims of gross human rights violations who want immediate justice – but I also trust the wisdom of those people who have developed this plan, taking into account the current political and security environment in Afghanistan. Essentially, although my heart longs to meet these cries for justice with the response that they yearn for, my head tells me that people who know so much more than me have so carefully mapped out this path, and that we need to follow it step by step.