Human Rights and Democracy: The 2010 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report - Afghanistan

The Afghan government, interested states, NGOs, local organisations and the international community made commitments to support human rights in Afghanistan at two international conferences on Afghanistan that were held in London and Kabul during 2010. At the Kabul Conference in July, the government of Afghanistan committed itself to finalise and begin implementation of its National Priority Programme for human rights and civic responsibilities and to undertake human rights, legal awareness and civil education programmes targeting communities across Afghanistan. We welcomed these important commitments.

During 2010 we continued to work with the Afghan government and the international community to make progress on human rights and to ensure that the groundwork for any political settlement should be inclusive and address the concerns of all Afghan citizens. In keeping with the London and Kabul 2010 commitments to follow an increasing Afghan lead, much of our work focuses on supporting Afghan voices calling for change by empowering individuals and groups to play a local and national role, including Afghan human rights institutions; supporting legislation and national policies; and providing practical support to people in need in their communities.

2011 will be an important year for human rights in Afghanistan. We will work alongside our international partners to support the Afghan government make progress, particularly on implementing their commitments from the London and Kabul conferences.


The first Afghan-run parliamentary elections since the 1960s were held on 18 September. More than 2,500 candidates stood for election across 34 provinces. While by no means free of irregularities or fraud, there is general consensus that they represented a significant improvement on the 2009 presidential elections. Following polling day, cases of malpractice were investigated and the new anti-fraud mechanisms implemented by the Independent Election Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission resulted in the disqualification of 1.3 million fraudulent ballots.

We continued to support the democratic process in Afghanistan and worked with the international community to support the Independent Election Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission for the 2010 parliamentary elections. We have contributed $28.5 million to the UN Development Programme's "Enhancing Legal and Electoral Capacity for Tomorrow" project between 2009 and 2011, which provides technical support for Afghan electoral institutions. We supported the deployment of election observer missions from the EU and the OSCE. Staff from our Embassy in Kabul also participated in election observation alongside other missions.

Credible and inclusive elections are central to the process of building a secure and democratic Afghanistan. The UK is committed to supporting Afghan democratic institutions and processes, including the newly elected parliament. We also stand ready to assist the Afghan government advance the electoral reform agenda in line with the commitments it made at the Kabul Conference, and respond to the lessons learned from both the 2010 and 2009 elections.

Access to justice

Access to justice is key to creating stability and protecting human rights. At the July Kabul Conference the Afghan government recognised the importance of state provision of justice, and committed to a programme of reform to strengthen justice institutions. The international community has committed to support this programme. There is, however, much to be done. We work closely with the Afghan government and the international community in supporting this work.

In 2010, we supported national judicial reform through building the capacity of the Criminal Justice Task Force, a multi-departmental Afghan detention, investigation, prosecution and judicial team, to target the narcotics trade. Between March 2009 and March 2010 the Primary Court of the Criminal Justice Task Force convicted 440 people, including several leading figures of Afghanistan's largest drug trafficking rings. We also provided specialist mentor support to the Afghan Attorney-General's Office to improve the ability of the Afghan system to prosecute, and where appropriate, convict insurgents and terrorists and support anti-corruption prosecutions.

Due process and clarity of legal procedures are also important for protecting human rights. During 2010 we worked with the Afghan government and the international community to progress the new criminal procedure code. We also worked extensively with the Afghan government to hold them to their commitments to improve access to, and accountability in, the justice system. Increasing access to legal representation is another crucial aspect of improving the justice system. We provided an international adviser to the Afghan Independent Bar Association and funded training and outreach events for defence lawyers.

In Helmand Province, we improved access to the state-administered justice sector through a range of initiatives. We provided ongoing mentoring and case-tracking support to judges, prosecutors and huquq representatives who form part of the Ministry of Justice, coupled with salary support and performance management for prosecutors. In addition, we provided training for legal professionals on criminal procedure, judicial ethics and fair trials and funded Helmand's only "publicly funded" lawyers to provide criminal defence representation.

Rule of law

Corruption remained a serious problem. The Afghan government entered into important anti-corruption commitments at the London and Kabul conferences and progress was made on some of these commitments, including the filing of asset declarations. The international and Afghan members of the Monitoring and Evaluation Committee, which will monitor the implementation of anti-corruption commitments, are now in place and we are looking to the Afghan government to support the work of the Committee in 2011. We will continue to support the Afghan government as they translate anti-corruption commitments into action.

In 2010 we provided support to the Afghan government on tackling corruption through supporting law enforcement and the management of public finances. This included developing the capacity of the Ministry of Interior to investigate cases of corruption within the police force, and building sustainable internal and external accountability mechanisms. We supported the ministry in introducing a range of anti-corruption measures, such as a crime-stoppers helpline and mobile anti-corruption teams. Other steps, such as the payment of police through electronic funds transfer to a personal bank account rather than cash-in-hand, have been rapidly expanded. In 2010 we also provided support to the Major Crimes Task Force, an investigative unit focusing on serious cases of corruption, organised crime and kidnapping and the Anti-Corruption Unit within the Attorney-General's Office. Modest progress is being made, but this will be a long term effort.

A professional, well-trained police force is critical to ensuring that human rights are respected in Afghanistan. That is why, in conjunction with the government of Afghanistan and the international community, we are focusing efforts on the development of law-enforcement policing skills; the institutional capacity of the Ministry of Interior; and sustainable mechanisms to hold the Afghan police to account for corruption and poor performance.

An effective police force, alongside the other Afghan security forces, will also help ensure that communities are safe and secure, providing an environment where the human rights situation can improve. There are still many challenges relating to the integrity and professionalism of the Afghan National Police, but progress is being made. In 2010, the size of the police force exceeded growth targets. More effective training programmes raised standards of leadership and discipline and helped the police to protect their communities better. Training programmes, which include human rights awareness, became mandatory for new recruits. The minister of interior has implemented programmes to improve discipline structures, including the authorisation of the Afghan National Police code of conduct, and drug rehabilitation programmes have been initiated.

We are a major contributor to the EU Police Mission to Afghanistan. We have 14 senior UK police officers in key positions, including the Deputy Head of Mission, and lead the Mission's work in Helmand. Our EU Police Mission contingent will soon rise to 19, with five officers deploying to the new police staff college that will open in 2011. The Mission's objectives include implementing an anti-corruption strategy, strengthening cooperation between the Afghan police and the judiciary, and building structures throughout the Afghan police to improve their understanding and respect for human rights and gender issues. In 2010 seminars on gender issues were introduced to improve the knowledge and sensitivity of the Afghan National Police leadership on issues such as domestic violence, gender integration and the prevention of violence against women. These seminars are a significant step towards an improved, more professional police force.

Gender integration in the Afghan National Security Forces can lead to greater enfranchisement of women in the Afghan government and society as a whole. In line with the Afghan National Police Strategy, the Afghan government and the international community are working to create opportunities for women within the police force. By the end of December, there were more than 900 female officers in the Afghan National Police, and the Ministry of Interior is working hard to increase the number of female recruits. In Helmand, UK police officers are providing support and training to the 16 female police officers in the province. The women have their own training facility at the Provincial Headquarters and the Provincial Reconstruction Team also fund a scholarship programme to support the next intake of women to the Afghan Uniformed Police.

Throughout 2010, we worked to embed human rights-compliant practices within the Afghan National Police and other Afghan institutions. We continued to train the police in human rights awareness and supported the development of systems to ensure that any claims against them are investigated, and members prosecuted if appropriate. We also mentored the inspector-general and senior members of both the Ministry of Interior and the Afghan National Police, to help strengthen Afghan capacity to investigate complaints against the police force.

Death penalty

Afghanistan retains the death penalty under current law. The majority of crimes punishable by the death penalty are terrorism-related, although it can also be applied to other crimes, such as murder. There were no executions carried out in Afghanistan during 2010, although the courts handed down several death sentences and more than 350 prisoners remain on death row. Together with EU partners, we regularly raise our concerns about the use of the death penalty with the Afghan government, including our concerns about particular cases.

Torture and other ill treatment

If the international community come across incidents of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in Afghanistan, immediate steps are taken to raise the issue at appropriate levels, including with the Afghan authorities and human rights institutions.

Prisons and detention issues

Detaining those who pose a threat to Afghanistan's security is vital for maintaining stability. The UK and Afghan governments have put in place safeguards so that the human rights of detainees captured by British forces are respected once transferred to Afghan custody. These measures include a memorandum of understanding on the transfer of detainees backed up with practical steps. The memorandum sets out the responsibilities of both countries in respect of human rights, including an assurance that UK-captured detainees will not face the death penalty.

We have a policy of visiting UK-captured suspected insurgents held in Afghan facilities in order to monitor their welfare and to inform decisions about future transfers to those facilities. We also transfer detainees to the Afghan Counter Narcotics Police if they are captured with narcotics over the Afghan legal threshold. In 2010, we strengthened our monitoring of detainees through the establishment of the Detainee Oversight Team, a dedicated team of military police and a legal adviser responsible for visiting UK-captured detainees throughout Afghanistan and assisting the Embassy in engaging with organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. The establishment of the Detainee Oversight Team has led to an enhanced level of consistency in reporting on the welfare of detainees and improved engagement with the Afghan authorities.

In 2010, our policy on the transfer of detainees to the Afghan authorities was judicially reviewed in the light of a claim that detainees transferred into Afghan custody faced a real risk of torture or serious mistreatment. In a small number of cases, UK-captured detainees have alleged mistreatment against the Afghan authorities. In such cases, and subject to the detainees giving their consent, we ensure that the Afghan authorities, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission are informed of the allegations. The court found that our policy of not transferring individuals where there was a real risk of serious mistreatment was unimpeachable and that in practice we could continue to transfer detainees to facilities at Kandahar and Lashkar Gah with various provisos. These included strengthening the existing monitoring arrangements, which we did through establishing the Detainee Oversight Team.

Afghanistan's prison sector faces significant challenges, including non-existent or poor infrastructure, lack of basic amenities, overcrowding, little separate provision for women and children and a lack of accountability. There has, however, been some progress in this area. UK offender management experts have worked closely with the US to promote the development of a safe and secure prison sector by assisting the Afghan Ministry of Justice's Central Prisons Directorate in developing prison infrastructure, policies and working practices.

We also continued to share best practice through training and mentoring, for example, by running courses on prisoner and detainee management. By December, more than 270 Afghan detention officers had completed the course. In addition, we delivered basic training to National Directorate of Security officers in conducting investigations into allegations of mistreatment by both detainees and staff. A new training wing at the National Directorate of Security Academy is expected to become fully functional in 2011.

In 2010 we continued to fund the construction of a prison in Lashkar Gah, in Helmand Province, which will conform to international standards. This project is one of the ongoing prison building and refurbishment programmes in Afghanistan which will help address overcrowding and poor infrastructure. By March 2011, there will be capacity for up to 1,000 inmates, as well as other amenities. A new fit-for-purpose juvenile facility and a dedicated female facility will be completed by November 2011. The building of a separate National Directorate of Security facility with capacity for 152 inmates was completed in January 2011. We also supported nascent rehabilitation programmes.

Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders and human rights-focused civil society organisations are growing in strength and number in Afghanistan. An international civil society conference on Afghanistan took place in January, which made recommendations direct to the foreign minister-level London Conference. Civil society campaigned for and won a place at the table at the Kabul Conference, demonstrating the determination of Afghan civil society groups and human rights defenders to make their voices heard on the international stage.

There is an ever-growing network of women's NGOs and advocacy groups across the country. These groups are increasingly leading the way in calling for change on both women's rights issues and on the wider human rights agenda.

In 2010 preparatory work was completed on a multi-donor Civil Society Fund, which will launch in 2011. This fund aims to increase civil society's capacity for advocacy and constructive engagement with the Afghan government to improve results in human rights, access to justice, anti-corruption, peace-building and conflict resolution, and the media. We will contribute £20 million over five years to this fund.

In 2010 the UK continued to provide support to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. We also supported the creation of a new Afghan-led Human Rights Support Unit in the Ministry of Justice, which opened on 29 September, to coordinate and advise on human rights policy and legislation across the Afghan government.

Freedom of expression

The principles of free speech and free media are enshrined in the Afghan constitution and the mass media law. However, while the mass media law was passed in 2008 by the Afghan parliament and published in 2009, it has yet to be fully implemented. Journalists continued to face intimidation and restrictions.

Television and radio stations, websites and the print media also continue to face difficulties. In 2010 the Afghan cabinet ordered the closure of several news outlets in contravention of the mass media law, which stipulates that all media violations should be reported to, and resolved by, the newly established Mass Media Commission. While the news outlets are now operating again, without full implementation of the mass media law the Afghan media continues to operate in a restricted space.

Freedom of religion and belief

In 2010 Afghan parliamentarians publicly called for the execution of Christian converts. Several Afghans were subsequently imprisoned on charges of converting to Christianity from Islam. Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative country, and there is little public empathy for converts from Islam. Article 2 of the Afghan constitution provides for freedom of religion and Afghan law does not criminalise conversion, but the constitutional provision for Sharia law allows the death penalty for conversion. The Afghan parliamentary debate on conversion followed the screening on Afghan television of alleged footage of Afghans converting to Christianity. As a result, two international aid NGOs were suspended and investigated under suspicion of promoting Christianity. The organisations have now been permitted to resume their work.

In 2010 we continued to press the Afghan government to implement fully the provisions in the constitution and to uphold national and international human rights obligations on freedom of religion and belief. We also supported projects that have helped to promote religious tolerance and understanding. We ran a series of successful exchanges between UK and Afghan religious leaders aimed at countering radicalisation and building understanding of the compatibility of Christianity and Islam. As part of this programme, a group of religious leaders from Helmand visited London where they were impressed by the breadth of Muslim life and the diversity and tolerance of British culture. We also funded a similar and successful study visit to Egypt for a group of 10 Afghan religious leaders.

Women's rights

Women in Afghanistan continued to face huge challenges throughout 2010, including high illiteracy rates, domestic violence, forced marriages, poor access to healthcare and lack of livelihoods. However, some encouraging gains were also made.

Women played a full and active role in the June Consultative Peace Jirga – an event hosted by the Afghan government to gain the support of the Afghan people for their reconciliation and reintegration proposals – where they made up almost 25% of all participants. There are nine female members of the High Peace Council, including at least one woman on each subcommittee. In the parliamentary elections, women won 69 seats in the Lower House, breaking through the constitutional quota of 68.

The Afghan government has pledged to improve the situation of women through its conference commitments and efforts to include women in the political process. However, there remains much to be done by the government to promote women's rights in Afghanistan and, particularly, to improve the lives of women in rural communities across the country. The London and Kabul Conference communiqués contained clear commitments on women's rights, including implementing a National Priority Programme for Human Rights and Civic Responsibilities and the implementation of the National Action Plan for Women and the law on elimination of violence against women. Committed implementation of these programmes and legislation will be key to ensuring improvements over the next few years.

We continued to work closely with Afghan women's rights advocates to improve the status of women in Afghanistan. In 2010 we supported a Kabul women's legal aid centre run by the NGO Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan, which provides legal assistance to female and child victims of violence and discrimination. As part of our work to empower Afghan women, we funded a project to provide support to female parliamentary candidates. The year 2010 was also the final year of the UK's five-year women's empowerment project with Womankind Worldwide in Afghanistan. The UK's National Action Plan on UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security was launched on 25 November and contained a specific country action plan for Afghanistan. This plan sets out how our defence, diplomatic and development work in Afghanistan will reduce the impact of conflict on women and girls and promote their inclusion in conflict resolution.

In addition to project funding, we continued to press the Afghan government to implement national and international human rights commitments, including the law on elimination of violence against women and the UN Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. We also continued to support progress on women's rights through the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and the Ministry of Justice's Human Rights Support Unit.

We also provided assistance to human rights civil society groups in Helmand Province. We provided infrastructure support to the Helmand office of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and mentoring and legal awareness training to elders and mullahs, including the Justice Sub-Committee members of district community councils.

Children's rights

There have been some improvements in the situation of children in Afghanistan in recent years. According to the Afghan Ministry of Education there are currently more than 7 million school students in Afghanistan, of whom 38% are girls. In 2010, 135,000 children enrolled in schools across Helmand Province, a 250% increase on the previous year. Child mortality rates are down with more than 80% of children now reaching their fifth birthday, compared to approximately 75% in 2005.

We fully support the UN's work to protect children in armed conflict in Afghanistan, including the establishment of an in-country monitoring team to investigate children's rights, including the sexual abuse of children. This monitoring mission has the full backing of the Afghan government. Prosecution of a small number of cases of child sexual abuse has been reported by the UN, and more initiatives, including studies on this issue, are being developed.

Conflict and protection of civilians

Afghanistan has suffered from three decades of conflict and currently faces an insurgency in several parts of the country. Operations by the International Security Assistance Force have helped to bring rule of law, democratic government and human rights improvements to an increasing proportion of the population.

However, despite Afghan government and International Security Assistance Force successes in 2010, the insurgency continued to wage an aggressive campaign in several provinces, including by targeting civilians. The conflict resulted in 3,368 civilian casualties in the first half of 2010, including 1,271 deaths, according to the August report on the protection of civilians from the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. While the International Security Assistance Force takes the strongest possible measures to prevent civilian casualties, the insurgency deliberately targets civilians. This distinction was reflected in the London and Kabul communiqués and UN Security Council Resolutions 1917 and 1943, all of which condemned the Taliban's responsibility for causing civilian casualties. In 2010, the insurgency made increasing use of improvised explosive devices and stepped up a campaign of intimidation and murders of civilians. During the first half of the year, insurgents killed approximately 30 civilians a month. They targeted teachers, nurses, doctors, officials, tribal elders, community leaders and civilians working for international organisations.

The International Security Assistance Force and UK forces take the strongest possible measures to protect civilians. In 2010, the International Security Assistance Force continued to revise its tactical directives and standard operating procedures to give greater protection to civilians and learn the lessons from earlier incidents. Air-to-ground munitions and indirect fire are only used against residential compounds in an extremely limited set of conditions. Furthermore, international forces routinely work with Afghan forces that have local knowledge of residential areas and can assist with culturally sensitive searches and operations. As a result of International Security Assistance Force and Afghan National Security Forces measures taken to protect the local population, the number of civilian fatalities fell 29% from the first half of 2009 to the same period in 2010, according to the UN. In particular, the number of casualties resulting from aerial attacks was cut by more than a half. We will continue to work with International Security Assistance Force and the Afghan government to take the strongest measures to protect the local population.


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