The right to life in Afghanistan

Afghan family on the move
Afghan family on the move (© Eric Beauchemin)

For people in the developed world, human rights mean things like a free press, the right to vote or freedom from torture. But in many parts of the developing world, people are concerned with more basic rights, such as the right to life, shelter, food and education. It’s a fundamentally different approach to the entire issue of human rights and has profound implications for all of us. Aid workers call it the human rights deficit. One of the nations where it’s felt most acutely is Afghanistan.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: January 17, 2001


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “The Right to Life”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

Here in Afghanistan, which as you can see is a very, very poor country that has suffered two decades of war, when we talk about human rights, our immediate concern is about the right to life. And then everything that contributes to that, whether it’s people’s right to food, people’s rights to health, kids going to school, etc., etc.

For people in the developed world, human rights mean things like a free press, the right to vote or freedom from torture. But in many parts of the developing world, people are concerned with more basic rights, such as the right to life, shelter, food and education. It’s a fundamentally different approach to the entire issue of human rights and has profound implications for all of us. Aid workers call it the human rights deficit. One of the nations where it’s felt most acutely is Afghanistan.

In north-eastern Afghanistan, relief organisations distribute blankets, pots and bags of food to thousands of people who’ve fled the latest fighting. For over 20 years, Afghans have been at war, first against the Soviets and then against each other. A fifth of the population has fled the country, and hundreds of thousands more have been displaced.

When the Taliban came to our village, 10 men entered our house and killed my husband in front of my eyes. They burned my home and many other houses in the village. They caught some people who were trying to escape, put them into a room and shot them dead. I saw them stabbing my neighbours. They killed many people, and they kidnapped women and girls. I managed to escape through the back door with my children. I left my children in a safe place, and I went back a little later to try to get some of my belongings. I could hear the cries of old people and children.

The war is by far the most significant factor affecting human rights in Afghanistan.

This aid worker spends much of her time in Afghanistan. She prefers to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardise her work.

This past year of fighting has seen very deliberate indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations, as well as the indiscriminate use of landmines. As people are obliged to flee their homes and their villages, they have been subjected to what we have described as a scorched earth policy. In other words, people are burned out of their homes, and their meagre resources for survival – food, crops, animals, fruit trees – are burnt or destroyed. And civilians are the victims always. They bear the brunt of the fighting, and this has become more severe as the war has continued. Because as people flee time and again, they have less and less resources on which they can rely upon. Also as extended family networks break down, that whole coping mechanism is no longer there. What you see in effect then is growing numbers of very vulnerable families. There’s a huge number of female-headed households in Afghanistan. And of course the situation of women is such that these women have very limited opportunities to provide for their kids.

In the very early morning hours in the capital, Kabul, some of the nearly 30,000 widows prepare to go out onto the streets. They’re covered from head to toe in bright blue burqas, often with a small child in their arms. Unlike most women in Afghanistan, widows are allowed to work. But jobs are few and far between in this nation, exhausted by 2 decades of war and United Nations sanctions. So the widows beg in the streets. Muslims are required to give alms, but poverty is so great that the widows don’t receive enough to feed their children. Many of them also send their children out to beg or scavenge. 10-year-old Shijah is one of the estimated 28,000 street children in Kabul. He started working 2 years ago and knows that he’s lucky to be attending a centre for street children. The kids get a decent meal, learn how to read and write and acquire skills such as making flowers out of paper.

We used to gather papers on the streets and we had no special work. EB: Why are you out on the street working? Because I’m an orphan. I have mother, but I don’t have a father. He has died in rocket attacks on Kabul. EB: Do you have brothers and sisters? Yes. I have six brothers and one sister. EB: Are your other brothers and sisters working too? Yes. Now they are gathering papers from the streets. They have not a special job. eb: And does your mother work too? My mother is a tailor. EB: Is she working? Yes. EB: With everyone working, with your mother working and you working and your brothers and sisters working, do you have enough money to buy food? Yeah, but we don’t have enough money to eat good food. We eat bread and tea every night. EB: What would you like to do when you’re older? I want to be a florist and make a flower shop and make a living.

Since he arrived at the street children’s centre, Shijah has learned how to read and write. Most Afghan children never have the chance. Schools throughout the country have closed because of the war and extreme poverty. Many children never attend school. Mortality rates among Afghanistan’s children are among the highest in the world. Life expectancy is only 43 years. Hunger is as widespread as in Somalia. And the country’s health system too has collapsed. It’s the stark reality of life today in Afghanistan that’s causing foreign and Afghan aid workers to urge the world to rethink our approach to human rights.

I think many people associate human rights work with the excellent work of groups like Amnesty International. But working in a poor country, especially a country like Afghanistan, that has also suffered this long period of war, it is even more evident that rights are interdependent. Everything affects the right to life. If a population is very poor and people don’t have jobs, then that’s going to affect the whole well-being of the family and their ability to eat and to have shelter. And we’ve seen recently in Afghanistan, for example, that people are dying from hunger. In other words, there are famine deaths. So this is what I refer to as the human rights deficit. In other words, people’s ability to live lives as regular human beings is so limited that they suffer this massive deficit and thus our approach and understanding of human rights has to change so that we reduce that deficit.

Haneef Atmar, who works for Norwegian Church Aid, firmly believes that he and his countrymen and women have the same the right to life as people in the rest of the world.

We regard human rights as universal and indivisible. It’s basically all human rights reflected and enshrined in international instruments of human rights, i.e., the rights to life, to health, education, food, shelter, and the civil and political rights in their totality. Rather than focussing on one aspect of human rights, the debate here is about the universality and indivisibility of human rights.

One issue is constantly highlighted in reports about human rights violations in Afghanistan: the treatment of women. The ruling Taliban authorities have imposed draconian and – what many in the West regard as – totally unacceptable measures against women. When they first came to power, the Taliban barred women from working and getting an education. Recently, the authorities have relaxed some of these regulations. Girls are now allowed to attend school till the age of 10, and women can work in the health sector. But these new policies have gone largely unreported. What has attracted far more attention is the Taliban’s rule that women in urban areas must wear a burqa or veil – completely hiding the body – when they go out in public. Their only window on the outside world is through a fine mesh which covers their eyes. The testimonies of women, like Bibigul, who’ve been forced to wear the burqa or chadri, as it’s also known, have mobilised certain groups in the West.

One day I went with my sister for shopping, of course with chadri. As you know, I am wearing glasses and with glasses the chadri is very difficult. And for choosing something, I want to lift chadri and see something. On that time, one of the Taliban come to the shop and beat with a stick on my hand. EB: When this happened, what did you think? Only I argued with this, that look, this is my problem that I can’t see something with chadri and glasses together. This is my problem. You don’t know that I am wearing glass. Because of this, he beat the shopkeeper. EB: Did you say anything else? No, I didn’t say anything. It was a common event in Afghanistan, in Kabul. EB: Before the mujaheddin and the Taliban came, had you been wearing a chadri before? No, never. Never. I haven’t never been the chadri. EB: What did you think about it when you first had to wear it? I feel very sorry and because it’s not my wish. It was imposed to me. EB: Did you feel depressed also? Of course. Sometimes we feel depressed. EB: But after this incident, what did you think about it afterwards? Did you think I really must go, what did you think? After two days, I left Afghanistan and Kabul.

It’s easy to understand why the burqa is so objectionable to outsiders. But even educated women, like Bibigul, say peace and educational opportunities for her daughters are far more important than being forced to wear the burqa or chadri.

Yes of course. In that time, with chadri, if there is education in Afghanistan, I want to go to Afghanistan. So even if you were forced to wear the chadri, as long as there is education, you would return. Yes, I don’t like chadri, but if with the chadri there is education, I want to go to Afghanistan because I love Afghanistan. I never crying but when I think about Afghanistan, when I think about my people, I cry.

Feminists, particularly in the United States, have seized upon the issue of the burqa to demand that Western governments take punitive measures against Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban movement. But given all the other human rights problems in his country, Haneef Atmar believes their protests have not helped Afghan society.

Haneef Atmar
Haneef Atmar (© Wikimedia Commons)

A sceptical view would argue that gender is an issue for these activists basically back in their home countries. We understand and we appreciate their interest, but what is of concern to the Afghans is first the single issue focus here which is unhelpful. Second they might have good intentions, but what they do, they do not really help Afghans realise their human rights. Some of these feminist approach activists have argued that humanitarian assistance should be reduced to only lifesaving to Afghanistan. Now you could question as to whether they really understand what impact this would have on the very same women that they are now standing for.

Haneef Atmar points to education, for instance. Some donor countries stopped supporting schools because girls could not attend. As a result, many boys too were prevented from getting an education. According to some aid workers, confrontation is not always the best approach, particularly in a country like Afghanistan, which suffers such an enormous human rights deficit.

Through the international assistance community advocacy there is a decree which allows girls up to age 10 to schools which was not necessarily the case 2 or 3 years ago when the decree banning women’s education was first issued. So we have some concrete examples that progress has been made. But we need to be patient, we need to be principled, and we need to make sure that we do not take actions in order to protect a set of human rights and violate the human rights of others. / Unfortunately, quite often, there is a kind of knee jerk reaction when there is a human rights situation that is difficult and is of concern, that maybe one way of improving it is to boycott or avoid that situation. If there is evidence of that, I’m not aware of it. Here in Afghanistan, what we’re advocating is that given just how bad the situation is for Afghans who are already in a very vulnerable situation, that the answer to the human rights problems that they face is to engage and not disengage. For example, discrimination of women, of minority groups, etc., etc., these are deep-rooted practices that are informed by societal attitudes and norms as well as a number of other factors, including the policies and practices of Taliban. But to tackle discrimination is not something that can be done overnight, and I don’t see how it’s going to change by finger wagging from outside.

What is difficult for Afghans and fellow aid workers is that while there is a lot of concern expressed about the human rights situation in Afghanistan, actually – and Afghans will express this concern all the time – there is very little that the outside world appears to be interested in doing constructively. Afghans constantly point to why the Security Council is not taking more deliberate action to support the process of peace in Afghanistan, and they point to where in East Timor and Kosovo for example, the world rightly acted and acted promptly whereas Afghans have been suffering this war for over two decades, and very little has been done about it.

The United Nations Security Council has acted against Afghanistan. After the bombings of two American embassies in East Africa in 1998, the Security Council imposed economic sanctions against Afghanistan. The Security Council, under strong pressure from the United States, demanded that the Taliban extradite the alleged Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden. Washington suspects bin Laden of masterminding the embassy bombings and other terrorist actions. A year after the sanctions were imposed, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator’s Office for Afghanistan carried out a survey to determine the effects of the embargo. In human rights terms, says the UN Humanitarian Coordinator Erick de Mul of The Netherlands, the sanctions have been disastrous for the Afghan people.

Erick de Mul
Erick de Mul (© Eric Beauchemin)

There are economic sectors that have had negative consequences, notably the transport section because the only airline of the country is grounded basically. The trade that was done through the airline – Afghanistan is a land-locked country – has had relative importance, both in terms of bringing goods into Afghanistan for traders and also medicines. There was some export of dried fruits and nuts and all that had to stop. So on the economic front, a number of consequences. But almost as important the psychological consequences in that not only the Taliban but the Afghan population as such felt that they were singled out by the international community as call it bad people and feeling that they didn’t deserve this type of treatment. So I think that Afghanistan is not different from the overall situation when it comes to sanctions that however smart you want to make them and however precise you want to define them, there is always a danger and a risk that those who you do not want to affect will suffer negative consequences.

In December, the UN Security Council imposed new sanctions, further isolating one of the world’s most isolated nations. The latest sanctions include an arms embargo against the Taliban, but not against the opposition Northern Alliance which is also guilty of gross human rights violations. Aid workers fear that by singling out the Taliban, the sanctions may lead to a further upsurge in fighting. For many Afghans, the tightening of the embargo highlights once again the international community’s double standards on human rights. Instead of trying to stop the war – which is the single most important factor affecting human rights today, says Haneef Atmar – the UN Security Council remains more concerned about trying to force the Taliban to close down alleged terrorist camps in Afghanistan and extradite Osama bin Laden.

So you can see that human rights does not really come as a high on their agenda as Osama bin Laden. So one may ask the question as to whether the whole concept of sanctions has anything to do with the human rights of the Afghans. So it’s more about their own interests. Now the question is as to whether the United Nations Security Council is really concerned about the human rights situation in Afghanistan, why can’t they impose an arms embargo on the warring factions? Why isn’t this an issue on the agenda?

The reasons behind this neglect are quite simple, believes Pakistani journalist, Ahmed Rashid who recently published a book on the Taliban movement. After the Soviet invasion in 1979, Western nations provided massive support to a ragtag group of Islamic fundamentalists, known as the mujaheddin. They forced the Soviets to withdraw a decade later, but the cost was enormous. Over 1½ million Afghans were killed, the country’s infrastructure was devastated. In the process, says Ahmed Rashid, people’s most fundamental rights were trampled upon.

Ahmed Rashid
Ahmed Rashid (© Wikicommons)

The tragic element has been, I think, that the Afghans were used by the West as this frontline state against the Soviet Union. And certainly the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in my opinion was one of the major factors leading to perestroika, the Gorbachov era and the undermining of Soviet authority and communist power within the Soviet Union. So the Afghans have a lot to say for themselves, that they were a major factor in ending the Cold War. Yet the tragic part is of course since then they have been totally ignored. And the tragedy has been totally ignored. It has not attracted the kind of attention for example that is presently being given to Yugoslavia or for example East Timor, where you also have very, very major tragic situations, but I think you know the particular tragedy of Afghanistan is the fact that it has been so ignored by everyone.

Many nations, including The Netherlands, proclaim that human rights are one of the main foundations of their foreign policy. Aid workers in Afghanistan would like to see the rhetoric turned into reality. It’s about time, they say, that the international community assumes its responsibility for the massive human rights abuses committed during the war of liberation against the Soviets and the subsequent civil war, including the bombing of civilian targets, the killing of innocent civilians, summary executions of prisoners, rape and torture.

There is an incredible climate of impunity, and unless something is done about that it’s difficult to see how people responsible for really horrendous crimes will ever be brought to account. It seems that perhaps one of the factors inhibiting a straight-forward internationally-supported accountability process is indeed the role of Western countries in supporting the mujaheddin effort during the Cold War years. And it’s that type of double standard that inhibits also the international criminal tribunal coming into being. When you talk about double standards, there’s also another issue in double standards and that’s many of these war criminals, Afghan war criminals have actually been given asylum in countries like the Netherlands. Yeah, not enough is known about this, but for Afghans it is a very sore point. They talk a lot about the hardship they suffered under what is called the Communist era, in other words during the Soviet period. And it seems that many high-level individuals, people in places of authority, have received asylum in the West.

Afghans believe that if the world is truly serious about human rights, it should establish a war crimes tribunal, like it did for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Without justice and an end to the country’s culture of impunity, says Haneef Atmar, Afghans will not be able to come to terms with the past 20 years of bloodshed.

Armed men
Armed men (© Eric Beauchemin)

Some would argue that the establishment of a war crimes tribunal would work as a deterrence. It’s strategically important for Afghans that they see an action taken by the world community that would bring all the abusers to justice. So that the abusers know that the history of impunity with which they have acted is over. Human rights is the principle to which the whole world community subscribe. Now they have a responsibility to Afghans. They will have to take actions to stop this grave situation that is taking place in Afghanistan.

Afghans have a saying that when your home’s burning, the first thing you have to do is stop pouring oil onto the flames. They know they can’t expect the international community to extinguish the inferno that’s engulfed their country for the past 20 years. They too will have to do their share. But, they argue, Afghanistan’s war is no longer a civil war. The ruling Taliban authorities are receiving backing from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf States, while Iran, India and a number of the former Soviet republics are supporting the opposition. If the international community were serious about human rights, says Ahmed Rashid, it could quickly bring an end to this devastating war.

I think that the most important thing is for the Western countries to put pressure on all the neighbours to basically pull out of Afghanistan. Stop arming the factions, stop sending in ammunition and fuel and food and support to the factions. Once I think you get really heavy Western pressure, particularly American pressure on the regional countries to pull out, what I see happening is basically a drying up of the war. The fact is that this war is being fuelled from outside. The Afghans do not have the ammunition or the fuel to continue this fighting indefinitely. They would dry out in three months, six months.

But the international community is unlikely to flex its muscles as it did in Kosovo or East Timor. The human rights of Afghans are low on the world’s list of priorities, and Afghans know it. In the meantime, the violations continue unabated.

Right now there is a horrendous food crisis, so the right to food is being threatened and undermined, and the aid agencies have a horrendous time mobilising resources for what are considered longer-term investments, in other words, it’s always easier to generate support when there’s a massive displacement, but it’s much more difficult to generate support for training programmes for example for health workers, training programmes for teachers, and these types of services and support that is absolutely essential for people’s survival.

Even more essential programmes are being affected by donor fatigue. Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined nations in the world. Even now, 200 to 300 people are taken to hospital every month with landmine injuries – how many die in the minefields or on their way to clinics is a mystery. A highly effective and unique de-mining programme has cleared hundreds of square kilometres, but over the past few months, it’s had to cut its operations by half because of a lack of funding, again imperiling the Afghans’ right to life. Donor fatigue is a source of constant frustration for the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan, Erick de Mul.

There is no doubt donor fatigue in the case of Afghanistan, first of all because this has been going on, this war scenario for more than 20 years. In the meantime, there are so many crisis situations around the world that take attention. Afghanistan is not necessarily very high on the list of the main donors. On the other hand, the plight of the Afghan population is very serious. This year even the situation is even worse than in years before as a result of the drought. So to try to keep an interest in and that interest then translated into funding of programmes and processes is not an easy task.

The debate among aid workers in Afghanistan raises many ethical and moral issues. There are no easy answers. But the human rights deficit – the gap between the world’s rhetoric and reality – is growing. In Afghanistan and elsewhere, people would welcome the right to vote or a free press. But first they want more basic human rights, such as food, shelter, education…and the right to life.

If you see individuals as having rights, then we have to go beyond the charity concept and understand the problem from the perspective that when people have rights, then we also have obligations. This human rights deficit is being discussed more and more in human rights circles here in Afghanistan, but it doesn’t seem yet to have filtered through to an international level. Traditionally, human rights work has been primarily preoccupied with violations of civil and political rights and the somewhat standard response to those kind of problems was to document and denounce. But here in Afghanistan, what we are saying is if that approach works and has a positive impact immediately that is good, but if it is going to take a long time in the meantime people are going to die. So here in Afghanistan the focus is on helping Afghans meet their immediate human rights concerns, and the immediate human rights priority in Afghanistan is helping people survive, in other words, enjoy their right to life.

“The Right to Life” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Ronald Hofman. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.