Human Rights Watch World Report 2000 - Afghanistan

Fighting continued in contested areas of Afghanistan, intensifying in midyear as both the Taliban and the United Front launched new offensives in the north. The fighting drove thousands of displaced civilians into Kabul. There was no improvement in the status of women in the parts of the country controlled by the Taliban. After months of negotiations over security for United Nations staff, some expatriate U.N. staff began to return to the country in March. Attacks on Afghan political figures opposed to the Taliban continued in Pakistan.

Human Rights Developments

Fighting continued for control of the central part of the country which had fallen to the Taliban in 1998. On April 21, United Front faction Hizb-i Wahdat took control of Bamiyan city, only to relinquish it after heavy fighting in early May. Following the Hizb-i Wahdat victory, relief workers reported that Hizb-i Wahdat forces had beaten and detained residents suspected of supporting the Taliban, and burned their houses. When Taliban forces retook the city, they reportedly took reprisals by shooting suspected Hizb-i Wahdat supporters, primarily ethnic Shi'a Hazaras, burning hundreds of homes and deporting men to unknown locations.

In late July, at peace talks held in Tashkent, the Taliban and the United Front agreed to the "Tashkent declaration," which called on all parties to resolve the conflict through "peaceful political negotiation." Almost immediately afterwards, both the Taliban and the United Front resumed fighting, with the Taliban focusing its efforts on United Front Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud's territory north of Kabul. As they pushed north, the Taliban forced civilians from their homes and then set fire to houses and crops, and destroyed irrigation canals and wells, ostensibly to rout opposition sympathizers but effectively preventing the residents' return. In the Shomali region, men believed to be loyal to Massoud were arrested or shot, and women and children were taken by truck to Pakistan or made to walk to Kabul. Some one thousand ethnic Tajik men were reportedly separated from their families during the exodus and held by the Taliban. Over four days in August the U. N. estimated that over twenty thousand people fled to Kabul, bringing the total to close to forty thousand in a two-week period.

The influx of displaced people into Kabul further strained relief efforts in the city. Some 850 families took refuge in the abandoned Soviet diplomatic compound. A further one hundred thousand displaced were thought to have taken refuge in the Massoud-held Panjshir valley, fifteen thousand of them without shelter. In September, officials with the U.N. World Food Programme stated that 145,000 people were at risk of malnutrition in the coming winter.

For much of the year, both the Taliban and the United Front launched mortar and rocket attacks on cities, killing hundreds of civilians. In September Taliban fighter planes bombed Taloqan, the capital of northern Takhar province. Earlier in the year, Massoud's forces fired rockets into Kabul, killing scores of civilians.

Taliban officials continued to beat women on the streets of Kabul for dress code violations and for venturing outside the home without the company of a close male relative. In Kabul, girls were not permitted to attend school, although primary schools for girls were permitted in other parts of the country. Women's employment remained severely restricted and was generally limited to health care. To ensure that religious practices were strictly enforced, Taliban police continued to arrest men for having beards that were too short, for not attending prayers, and for having shops open during scheduled prayer times.

As in previous years, the Taliban enforced its laws according to its interpretation of Islamic Sharia, with weekly public executions, floggings, and amputations in Kabul stadium and other cities under its control. Several men accused of sodomy were punished by having walls pushed on them by a tank. In one case, a man who survived the ordeal after being left under the rubble for two hours was reportedly allowed to go free.

In September, the Taliban issued new decrees aimed at non-Muslims that forbade them from building places of worship but allowed them to worship at existing holy sites, banned non-Muslims from criticizing Muslims, ordered non-Muslims to identify their houses by placing a yellow cloth on their rooftops, forbade non-Muslims from living in the same residence as Muslims, and required that non-Muslim women wear a yellow dress with a special mark so that Muslims could keep their distance.

Defending Human Rights

No human rights organizations operated inside Afghanistan, but several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) based in Pakistan documented abuses in Taliban-controlled areas. Other humanitarian groups also reported on human rights abuses. A number of women associated with these groups received threats from Taliban soldiers in Pakistan; in some cases, the women were compelled to cease their work and seek asylum outside Pakistan.

The Role of the International Community

Peace talks sponsored by the Group of Six-plus-Two, comprised of Afghanistan's neighbors (Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Uzbekistan) plus the United States and Russia, held in February and March, produced cease-fire agreements but had little effect. The March talks resulted in an agreement by all parties to a shared government, but a meeting to work out the details scheduled for the following month never took place, after the announcement by the Taliban that it would not share power with opposition elements. Talks in July resulted in both sides agreeing to allow humanitarian aid into areas under their control. Most neighboring countries as well as some of the Gulf states continued to provide financial and military support to one or more of the Afghan factions.

Twenty NGOs returned to Kabul in January, after a six-month absence stemming from the Taliban's edict that all aid organizations and employees be housed in a single dilapidated building. The returning groups included MedAir, CARE, and Médecins sans Frontières, who agreed to the move on the condition that the facility be rehabilitated.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which had remained in Kabul throughout the controversy, continued to provide food and assistance to the civilian population. In June, ten ICRC workers were attacked, beaten, and robbed in Taliban-controlled Bamiyan province, despite having permission to travel and safety assurances from Taliban authorities. ICRC staff was reduced for approximately one week until further safety guarantees were obtained from the Taliban.

United Nations

The United Nations Afghanistan seat remained in the control of the government of Jamaat-I Islami leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was ousted from Kabul by the Taliban militia in 1996.

U.N. staff began a gradual return to the country in March and April. A team was also sent to the northern city of Mazar-i Sharif to reopen a U.N. office in the city, the first since September 1997, when U.N. offices were raided there during heavy fighting.

The special rapporteur on Afghanistan, Dr. Kamal Hossain, visited the country in March. In April, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution condemning human rights violations by all parties in Afghanistan, citing in particular the mass killings that accompanied the Taliban's taking of Mazar-i Sharif in August 1998 and the continuing violations of women's rights. It also denounced both sides in the conflict for continuing the civil war and urged other nations to refrain from supplying military support to any of the factions. The commission also specifically condemned the Taliban for violations of women's and girls' human rights. The mandate of the special rapporteur on Afghanistan was extended for another year.

Shortly after the start of the Taliban's July offensive, the U.N. Security Council called for an immediate stop to hostilities. Once again, countries were urged not to aid any of the factions militarily. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan implored the Afghan factions to stop their "senseless self-destruction." He criticized all the parties for committing "criminal acts" and then relying on "the U.N. and the international help save their own people from disasters provoked by those who claim to be their country's leaders." He also denounced the use of child soldiers in the conflict.

In August, the U.N. Subcommission on Human Rights adopted a resolution condemning the Taliban for violations of the most fundamental rights of women and girls, stating that Afghan women were "cheated of their rights to health, employment, freedom of movement and security."

In September, U.N. Special Rapporteur for Violence against Women Radhika Coomaraswamy visited Afghanistan. She condemned the Taliban militia for its "widespread systematic violation of the human rights of women." She stated that public beatings of women continued and she urged the Taliban authorities to respect international conventions on human rights and dismantle the Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the religious police responsible for the beatings.

In January, UNICEF reported that 90 percent of the girls in Afghanistan and 75 percent of the boys were not attending school in Taliban-controlled areas, a drop from previous statistics. In a July UNICEF report on children at risk, Afghanistan ranked behind only Angola and Sierra Leone. The study analyzed environmental conditions, mortality rates, nutrition, primary education, security, and health.

Afghanistan remained one of the most densely mined countries in the world, with approximately six million mines, most of them remnants of the war with the Soviet Union from 1979-1992. In 1999 it was estimated that there were ten to twelve victims of landmines per day in the country, 30 percent of them children and 50 percent of them fatalities due to inadequate or nonexistent medical facilities. In July and August, the U.N. reported that the United Front was laying mines north of Kabul to repulse the Taliban offensive.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported in February that the 2.6 million refugees from Afghanistan living in Pakistan and Iran remained the largest group of refugees in the world. Over two million remained internally displaced due to fighting and forced evictions and relocations. Although some fifteen thousand refugees returned from Iran, and fifty-one thousand from Pakistan during the first half of the year, renewed fighting deterred many from going back.

United States

Due to their harboring of suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden, the Taliban's relations with the U.S. remained strained. Tensions increased in June when the U.S. put bin Laden on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list and offered a $5 million reward for his capture. To exert further pressure, the U.S. imposed economic sanctions in July, including a freeze on all property and trade controlled by the Taliban in the U.S. This was extended in August to include the freezing of approximately $500,000 in assets of Ariana Airlines, the only airline operating in Afghanistan, on the presumption that it could be supplying the Taliban with export goods.

In a statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Karl Inderfurth stated that U.S. representatives had been meeting with Russian representatives as well as with Afghan King Zahir Shah to discuss means of reaching peaceful settlement in Afghanistan, but that prospects for peace were dim. Listing the areas of concern to the U.S., he cited the threat of terrorism, ongoing narcotics cultivation and export, human rights abuses, treatment of women and girls, and regional instability. Inderfurth reiterated the U.S. goal of a "broad-based, multi-ethnic, representative government" but expressed doubt that the Taliban would accept such a formula and predicted further hostilities.

In August, the State Department announced that it was doubling its resettlement quota of South Asian refugees for the year 2000 from four thousand to eight thousand, specifically to allow more Afghan women into the country. In the announcement the department representative said, "We have seen a sizable increase in the numbers of Afghan women at risk. As President Clinton has made clear, we are deeply opposed to the Taliban regime's repressive policies toward women and we are committed to ensuring that Afghan women in vulnerable circumstances obtain the protection they deserve." In September the U.S. issued a report on religious freedom worldwide in which it accused the Taliban of persecuting and killing minority Shi'as.

Relevant Human Rights Watch Report:

  • Afghanistan: Massacre at Mazar-i Sharif, 11/98

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