Aid group warns West not to trade women’s rights for peace in Afghanistan

OTTAWA – Two new reports from the international aid group Oxfam paint an unnerving portrait of human rights in Afghanistan and warn the international community, including Canada, not to sacrifice women or justice in order to achieve peace.

The pair of studies urge western governments to pay more attention to what the government of President Hamid Karzai is doing in the areas of women’s equality and accountability for security forces before international troops are pulled out in 2014.

One study, released Sunday, demands that women be given a voice in the peace process and even a seat at the negotiating table.

“Afghan women, no less than their husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers, want peace. But they also fear that their rights will be traded off for the sake of peace at any price,” said the report, entitled A Place at the Table.

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“There are no short cuts to peace in Afghanistan.”

Over the weekend, the process towards reconciliation was dealt another blow when Karzai called off negotiations with the Taliban in the wake of last month’s assassination of the head of the High Peace Council.

Mark Fried, an Oxfam policy co-ordinator in Ottawa, said Canada, with its significant contribution to both combat and security force training, has invested heavily in Afghanistan and simply cannot walk away leaving only vague promises of support.

“I certainly hope Canada, being a key trainer, will encourage the Afghan government to take the issue of women’s rights and women’s participation more seriously,” he said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

The reported noted that in the decade since the fall of the Taliban there’s been a remarkable surge in the participation of women in Afghan society, including the recent election of 69 women to the country’s Parliament and the return of thousands of girls to school. But those gains are tenuous and women’s rights groups in the country point to Draconian laws, such as the 2009 Shia family rights legislation, which essentially legalized rape within a marriage, as examples of how quickly advances can be reversed.

“The international community, for its part, must offer specific guarantees of its long-term commitment to Afghanistan, including women’s rights and their needs, well beyond 2014,” said the report.

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A separate study, published late last week, warned in blunt terms that the West is focusing on quantity and not quality when it comes to training Afghan security forces and that could lead to a human rights disaster.

“As the deadline for the handover of security responsibilities to the ANSF draws closer, it remains the case that the ANSF, and particularly the police, are regarded by a significant portion of the Afghan public as abusive, corrupt and incompetent – a force to be feared rather than a force to trust,” said the report entitled Promoting the Accountability of the Afghan National Security Forces.

“But worse than incompetency or corruption, Afghan police continue to be implicated in serious violations of human rights, as well as in incidents in which a readiness to resort to lethal force rather than non-lethal alternatives leads to avoidable civilian casualties.”

The number of civilian shootings by police in crowd-control incidents has risen dramatically in the last couple of years and Oxfam noted many of them are not investigated, including a protest last April in Kandahar where 10 peopled died.

The report said “Afghan police are inadequately trained and poorly equipped.”

It also raised the alarm about the frequent sexual abuse of young boys by Afghan cops – allegations that are currently the subject of a high-profile investigation by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

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The commission is currently looking into allegations “that a number of senior officials regularly engage (and abuse) two well known bacha bazzi (dancing boys), including at high profile engagements such as wedding parties, with the acquiescence of the police.”

Oxfam said authorities often “turn a blind eye to the perpetration of such abuse by others” and noted human rights staff in Uruzgan province, north of Kandahar, have also received “multiple reports of young boys being sexually exploited by the police.”

The use of “bacha bazzi” has a long tradition in Afghanistan, and “thus little effort is made by the police to conceal the practice.”

Fried said NATO trainers must put more emphasis on human rights training, in addition to the combat skills being taught to police.

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