Citizens’ rights should be protected in peace talks, says AIHRC chairperson

In July 2019, President Ghani appointed Shahrzad Akbar as chairperson of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. Kabul Now has talked to Ms. Akbar, inquiring what changes the country’s human rights commission has gone through and what challenges it is facing.

Question:  Six months ago when you appointed to chair the Commission, how did you evaluate its works in the last 19 years?

Answer: Six months ago, when I started working with the Commission, there were major opportunities; the Commission’s international credibility as a good human rights institution was clearly a privilege. This privilege could help us make the world hear the Commission’s voice. The other issue was that for the first time in the history of the Commission, there was a complete change of leadership and it was an opportunity to take a fresh look at the issues of the commission and do things in a different way. The first step we took was to update the content of the agendas for the Commission which were not updated though the realities outside the Commission had changed a lot.

Whereas for the challenges, the first and the biggest challenge that the Commission was facing was financial problem. The AIHRC has been founded on the basis of the Paris Charter and the international framework. With the exception of Afghanistan and Palestine, all human rights commissions are funded by their respective governments. The AIHRC has received a major amount of its funding from international institutions over the past 17 years, and assistance has been reduced as the Commission’s status and focus level shifts to Afghanistan.

When I started working, the commission had a 1.3 millions USD of budget shortfall, and only 40,000 USD was in the Commission’s bank account. The one month salary of our staff members (459 people) is around 310,000. Budget shortfall is one of the major challenges that took so much of our time and energy.

This problem made us aware of the Commission’s administrative weaknesses that is another challenge. In the past few years, there was no clear financial system in the Commission. Later, we realized that financial problem was not a new issue—from 2014 onwards, it has been there. One of the main reasons for facing financial problems is disagreements between former members of the Commission, which has damaged the credibility of the Commission. This made it even harder for us to get help from both national and international agencies.

Question: After reviewing strengths and weaknesses of the Commission you mentioned, what approaches did you take to resolve the Commission’s problems and challenges?

Answer: We have made a series of difficult decisions especially about the activities of the Commission. Besides, we continued to publish reports on civilian casualties and violence against women. We took our stance and followed up cases of child abuse in Logar and the unconditional virginity tests.

The Commission’s financial problem is not yet fully resolved, and in the year 2020, we have a two million USD deficit. We have eliminated unnecessary sections and lowered the budget for organizing workshops and informative events. Releasing and publishing 20 prints of the AIHRC’s magazine was another reform case. We thought that in technology era, publishing this expensive magazine is not necessary anymore. We can do it online.  

We try to expand our core donor loop from 5 to 9 entities. In exchange for strong commitments of the international partners towards the commission, we promised them to increase transparency of our system.

In addition, we asked an international body to do research for the Commission upon the experiences of other national human rights institutions financially supported by the government. As the long-term option is for the government to provide our budget, because it is the duty of the government to fund human rights commission, according to the principles of Paris. Currently, up to 10 percent of our budget is paid by the government, yet the Commission is reluctant to receive budget provided by the government for we are concerned about government’s political influence on the Commission’s independence.

Question: When Sima Samar was the chairperson of the AIHRC, in an interview with Etilaat Roz, you said that one of the challenges of the Commission was low capacity of its staff members on human rights issues. What changes have you made on this and the structure of the Commission?

Answer: There are two categories of staff members working at the Commission, the newly recruited staff and the old staff members, who have 12 to 13 years of experience working with us. At the same time, a balance must be made between the old and new laborers in the labor market. When the Commission started its work, human rights experts were very few, but now there are many having masters in human rights. We want to provide equal opportunities for these people over time. However, we made slow progress in this area because we had budget problems.

Training current employees is another issue. We do not necessarily need funding from international partners; we need educational opportunities to be provided to our staff members. At the same time, we have prepared a list of training needs for the current year, and with the few institutions, we have spoken to have shown interest in training our colleagues.

We have taken a look at the administrative, security, and logistics sectors and made it a little bit more proportional and smaller. An evaluation was carried out, and about 14 to 15 of our colleagues unfortunately lost their jobs. There have not been much hiring done, both because of the financial situation and because we had to redefine our priorities and our way of doing our duties.

Question: What changes have you made to the Commission’s procedures?

Answer: One of our main focus and discussions was on having regular leadership meetings; because my priority is to make a group decision and take every step together. Everyone is involved in discussions. One of the issues that the Commission did not have a clear position on, was the issue of peace. After having a long, clear debate about the role of the Commission in the peace process, we came to the conclusion that we should act as a neutral national body. We simply want to defend the fundamental rights of citizens and victims in this process.

The one issue we want to work on and improve is our reports. The Commission publishes investigative reports on human rights abuses in various areas, but we want these reports to be dealt with in-depth and with a more specific set of recommendations. As most of our suggestions are not very practical, therefore, they are not taken seriously. We have decided to make more elaborations and detailed suggestions so that the government can implement them easily.

Question: How do you see the Commission’s leadership composition now?

Answer: The human rights institutions (HRIs) have commissions because they don’t need to reflect one’s view as an institution. The Paris Principles require the AIHRC to be diverse in its composition and reflect the diversity of society. At the Commission, we agree on the big issues though sometimes we disagree on how we work, these differences are strengthening us by choosing a path that is least risky for us and the Commission.

Question: When you took the charge of chairpersonship, you told the media that your priority was to document human rights abuses, civilian casualties, and women’s rights. Is this still your priority or it has changed now?

Answer: Civilian casualties are a major issue for the Commission. The Commission has already reported on this, but we want to step beyond by increasing our formal and informal litigation with the security agencies. There have been many regular meetings organized on how to protect civilians during the war with the members of the National Security Council and other security agencies. We want to have the same meetings with the Taliban, but it didn’t happen yet. The AIHRC, as a national body, is responsible to engage with all sides of the conflict. To institutions that are currently in direct contact with the Taliban, we emphasize that we share all our reports and findings with them so that they could further emphasize on issues of protecting civilians, on behalf of the Commission.

Both sides of the conflict have different views on the definition of civilians under International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The American definition of civilians is limited and not fully in line with IHL, but the Taliban definition is more limited. For example, civil servants are not recognized as civilians. This is a controversial human rights issue. Protecting civilians is a big area of our work and focus.

Question: As you know, the Taliban do not recognize the AIHRC. Are you hopeful about Taliban, I mean will they listen the Commission to reduce civilian casualties?

Answer: We have urged international human rights organizations that the Commission is keen to talk to all sides of the conflict about civilian casualties, but we have not yet received a clear answer. I believe as much as the role of the Commission in the peace process becomes clearer, there will be more room for that dialogue.

Question: The US peace talks with the Taliban have apparently reached a critical stage and people are concerned about their rights. What role can the Commission play in peace negotiations with the Taliban to protect citizen’s rights?

Answer: Peace process is a big area of our agenda and work. AIHRC is in a very critical condition. We have talked about the role of the Commission in the peace process with the government and the State Ministry for Peace. We told them that as an institution, the relationship between peace and human rights is important for us. We hope that the peace process leads to a situation where citizens have more access to their rights. Our position is clear and citizens’ rights cannot be compromised. We also raised the issue that the AIHRC does not necessarily want to be included in the list of negotiators, as the Commission has a supervisory role on both sides of the negotiations. We had the same discussion with our international partners. The Commission is concerned, and human rights debate is missing from the current talks. Although the current talks cannot be called peace talks because they have focused more on the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, we told our international partners that in the talks—taking place between Afghans— women, victims, and civil society should be given space.