Afghanistan: A cry for justiceKABUL Haji Qudos, a middle-aged man from Nangarhar Province, is one of a vast majority of Afghans who are willing to commit their lives to promote peace and stability in order to pave the way for a sustainable democracy. But peace and stability in our country are possible only if the United States and the international community help the Afghan people bring to justice those who have committed crimes against humanity.
Haji's wife, sons and daughters were killed in front of his eyes in his house on June 7, 1995. Those responsible now hold very powerful political positions in the country and work closely with U.S. military officials in the war against terror.
Hundreds of ordinary Afghans like Haji from remote areas of the country travel every month to our office at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission here to recount atrocities. Haji told us that in 1995, after he refused to let his 16-year-old daughter marry a local commander, militia forces loyal to the warlord slaughtered his family and tortured him in an underground cell. Worried for his safety, I asked him if he was concerned that the warlord would find out about his visit. He said, "I am here to seek justice, and I am not worried about what will happen to me."
Like many Afghans, I am grateful for American-led efforts to bring democracy and rebuild the country. But if the United States wants to retain the faith of the Afghan people, it should act immediately to help people like Haji achieve justice for past crimes and to protect them from future ones.
Millions of ordinary Afghans had hoped that they would benefit from the establishment of the rule of law after the Taliban fell. But while some courthouses are being reconstructed and limited efforts are being made to train judges and lawyers, much of Afghanistan lacks a functioning judicial system. In a national poll we conducted, 65 percent of respondents had little or no faith in the current judicial system, with courts staffed by untrained or corrupt judges often acting under the orders of the warlords.
The power of Afghanistan's central government is limited, with private armies controlling large parts of the country and continuing to commit human rights abuses. The U.S. military has fought the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the south and east, but has not prevented infighting among warlords, often over control of the opium trade. Civilians are the most common victims of these bloodbaths, and local militias as well as common criminals often enjoy impunity from prosecution.
Some say that while justice and human rights are vital, Afghans must wait until the country is more secure and a democratically elected central government is formed. But three-quarters of those who responded to our poll believe that bringing human rights violators to justice will bolster peace, stability, and security. Afghans believe that democracy and freedom are meaningless without justice and the rule of law.
Without any consideration for the desires of the Afghan people and the effects on democracy and justice, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General David Barno, recently announced an initiative to grant amnesty to Taliban perpetrators. Yet 61 percent of Afghans in the poll showed no desire for amnesty and rejected it, particularly when imposed by non-Afghans.
Afghans want a special court established to ensure that war criminals and other human rights offenders are prosecuted. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have witnessed or been victims of abuses under different regimes since the early 1980s. Nearly 70 percent of those we polled identified themselves or immediate family members as direct victims of human rights violations during the conflicts.
The international community must stand by the Afghan people and respect and heed their cries for justice. It must help us rebuild our judicial system into one that can be trusted to deliver swift and impartial justice. Otherwise, Haji Qudos and millions of other Afghans will once again lose hope, and the prospects for a peaceful and secure society based on the rule of law will be significantly set back.
Without justice, sustainable peace will remain forever elusive.
(Sima Samar, who chairs the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, was the first woman to serve as Afghan vice president and minister of women’s affairs. Nader Nadery is a member of the commission, in charge of transitional justice.)