Issue 19 - Article 4

Working in a political vacuum: humanitarian aid and human rights in Afghanistan

June 3, 2003
Patricia Gossman
10 min read

The arrest in August 2001 of staff of a German relief organisation has made strikingly clear that being a humanitarian worker in Afghanistan can be a perilous occupation. Calculating such risks has become much harder as the Taliban has imposed new regulations on foreigners and aid programmes – moves that some see as an attempt to force all foreigners to leave. Many in the humanitarian community view their work as essentially neutral, and advocacy on what are really questions of governance and the rule of law as more properly a function of a human rights organisation. But what the arrests demonstrate is that, professions of neutrality notwithstanding, intervening in any way in Afghan society is essentially political. Relief organisations have been on the front line in this political fight not only because they are the repositories of foreign values, but also because they are seen as capable of changing Afghan society and thus threatening those in power. While most humanitarian workers in Afghanistan do not fear arrest in the normal course of their work, many Afghans do. Afghanistan under the Taliban is a police state, where the arbitrary exercise of power has left ordinary Afghans vulnerable to grave human rights abuse. It is also engulfed in an armed conflict in which the parties involved have violated the laws of war with impunity. Unfortunately, human rights abuses like these receive scant attention from the outside world.

A history of abuse

In the 23 years of Afghanistan’s wars, providing humanitarian assistance and protecting the human rights of ordinary Afghans have always been linked. The mass repression that accompanied the Saur revolution of April 1978 and the Soviet invasion of December 1979 drove some five million refugees into Iran and Pakistan. Pakistan became the primary staging-ground for resistance operations and the conduit for CIA-supplied weaponry to the mujahidin opposition to the Soviets. Scores of humanitarian agencies estab-lished themselves primarily in Pakistan to assist the refugees, and a number of NGOs with links to solidarity groups based in Europe and the US also provided cross-border assistance to mujahidin-held areas, some of it directly to the commanders. Testimony from the refugees formed the core of reports by international human rights organi-sations about abuses by Afghan communist and Soviet forces, particularly the massive use of Soviet firepower in indiscriminate attacks and the repressive control the Soviet-backed government exercised in cities like Kabul.

The practices of the mujahidin began to come under scrutiny by human rights organisations in the early 1990s, when it became clear that the withdrawal of Soviet forces would lead to the formation of a government made up of these groups. At the same time, more humanitarian agencies began shifting their focus to work inside Afghanistan. In Pakistan, NGOs found themselves facing increasing threats from mujahidin groups critical of efforts to support women’s education. Several mujahidin groups that had long been favoured by Pakistan in the delivery of CIA-supplied weaponry were particularly notorious for attacks on NGOs and for other human rights abuses, including assassinations of Afghans who supported the former king, Zaher Shah, or who were critical of the Islamist groups. But the mujahidin’s international patrons, particularly the US and Pakistan, were more concerned about securing a mujahidin victory than about the character of the government that might ensue.

The years of chaos and bloodshed that followed the mujahidin’s coming to power in 1992 saw most of the international community – with the exception of some humanitarian groups – backing away from any kind of engagement on Afghanistan. Even for the humanitarians who stayed, insecurity impeded efforts to reach populations in need. Although some humanitarian groups had become more aware of the pitfalls of working through local leaders, securing ‘humanitarian space’ was inevitably a daily struggle of negotiating with (and paying protection money to) any number of commanders. Deterred by the difficulty and dangers of investigating violations inside the country, and by the lack of political engagement on Afghanistan among Western countries, international human rights groups did very little monitoring and documentation, even though the period 1992–95 was marked by atrocities, including mass rape, systematic summary executions and indiscriminate shelling. That lapse has undermined the credibility of the UN and international human rights groups when they have criticised the Taliban for human rights violations.

The emergence in 1994–95 of the Taliban as a major power had a number of consequences that initially appeared contradictory. Its early campaigns against local, predatory warlords around Qandahar created more secure conditions for the delivery of assistance and, once it had solidified control over the south and west, appeared to eliminate the need for the international community to negotiate with multiple actors. (In fact, the opposite was true as aid workers found that an agreement struck in Kabul or Qandahar might mean nothing elsewhere in the country, and vice versa.) At the same time, the Taliban’s policies provided serious reasons for the humanitarian community to limit engagement. Its policies towards women, particularly banning women and girls from schools and universities and from most forms of employment outside the home, fuelled major confrontations with the international community. These policies have continued to strain the Taliban’s relationship with the UN and non-governmental relief organisations, leading some agencies to scale down programmes or threaten to withdraw non-emergency assistance altogether.

A conflicted response

The ‘principled’ approach and ‘rights-based programming’ that many groups adopted in response laid out, in many cases for the first time, ground rules for engagement. These have been heralded as a significant step forward in bringing together human rights standards and humanitarian practice. However, there is still lack of clarity about precisely what the fundamental principles are, and what should be done when they are violated, raising the question of whether it is really feasible to take such an approach when the Taliban is committed to principles diametrically opposed to those the aid community is attempting to promote. For example, the response to the July 2000 edict prohibiting Afghan women from working for international agencies revealed serious underlying disagreements about whether conditionality should be imposed on assistance, and if so, what kind.

Humanitarian groups working in Kabul have long become accustomed to the ‘duck and weave’ approach to attempts by the authorities to interfere with programmes: lying low, avoiding confrontation, and keeping programmes going as best they can. Many were concerned that a response to the edict from the overseas headquarters of the various agencies involved would not take into account realities in the field, particularly the fact that edicts are not enforced uniformly throughout the country, and may not even affect programmes outside Kabul. Others, primarily from UN agencies, were troubled by the inadequacy of the response, and argued for a more confrontational approach. The gap between the two remains wide.

While a flexible approach often appears to work at the local level to keep programmes going, it would be a mistake to assume that humanitarian organisations can moderate the behaviour or policies of the core Taliban leadership – or that of any other group for that matter. In the five years since the Taliban took power, there has been no evidence to suggest that engagement of that kind might lead to real change.

The international dimension

The essential problem remains that ‘rights-based programming’ and human rights protection in general cannot begin to have an impact in a vacuum of political engagement at the international level. International human rights advocacy on Afghanistan has been inconsistent and inadequate, with gender discrimination and the destruction of large religious artefacts the only issues on which the international community appears capable of sustained attention. The pervasive nature of all other human rights abuses largely escapes scrutiny altogether. Even large-scale atrocities garner only short-lived headlines: the massacre of some 2,000 civilians – most of them Shia Hazaras – when the Taliban took control of Mazar-i Sharif in mid-1998 was widely condemned, then forgotten; the massacre of 3,000 Taliban prisoners the year before by forces allied with the United Front received even less attention, confirming for the Taliban that ‘universal’ human rights norms are not applied even-handedly.

Human rights researchers have documented more than 13 massacres of civilians and non-combatants in the past four years; most merit scarcely a mention in the international press. In addition, there are countless other cases that, taken together, paint a picture as grim as anywhere on earth: arbitrary arrests, ‘disappearances’, routine torture, discrimination and violence against minority groups, and deliberate attacks on civilians, including the destruction of entire towns and agricultural fields. The abuses, together with the drought, have prompted thousands of new refugees to flee the country, or join the ranks of the internally displaced, struggling for survival. Afghanistan was among the world’s most impover-ished and under-developed countries before the war; 23 years of conflict have pushed it to the bottom, or off the charts altogether.

Nor has the international community made a concerted effort to curb support for Afghanistan’s warring factions. Until recently, Western policy towards Afghanistan has been shaped almost entirely by US and Russian security interests. The one-sided UN Security Council sanctions, dictated by the interests of the US and Russia in curbing the Taliban’s support for Osama bin Laden and Chechen fighters, have yet to be enforced. Although the Six-plus-Two contact group (made up of Afghanistan’s neighbours, plus the US and Russia) has the stated aim of promoting a peaceful solution to the Afghan conflict, curbing the flow of arms into Afghanistan, and promoting respect for human rights, most members have continued to provide military assistance, with no regard to the human rights practices of the parties they support. As the Human Rights Watch report ‘Afghanistan: Crisis of Impunity’ puts it:

“Pakistan has provided the Taliban with military advisers and logistical support during key battles, has bankrolled the Taliban, has facilitated transshipment of arms, ammunition, and fuel through its territory, and has openly encouraged the recruitment of Pakistanis to fight for the Taliban.”

In turn, the parties allied in the United Front receive military support from Iran and Russia. Officials in the US and donor governments in Europe have begun to rethink their policies towards Afghanistan. Those policies should include finding enforceable ways to curb the arms flow to Afghanistan, and spur efforts to indict and try individuals responsible for war crimes. Peace negotiations should exclude all such individuals. As the problems related to Afghanistan’s civil war and the smuggler’s economy that sustains it have implications for security throughout Central and South Asia, serious efforts to protect human rights and establish a government that would be accountable to the people have to be linked to just such a larger, regional political strategy for bringing about an end to the conflict and rebuilding Afghanistan. In the absence of that, the humanitarians are operating in a vacuum.


Patricia Gossman is a consultant on human rights issues in Afghanistan and former senior researcher with Human Rights Watch. She is also a professorial lecturer at Georgetown University and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington. Her current research on humanitarian assistance and human rights in Afghanistan was funded by the US Institute of Peace.


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