Afghanistan peace jirga's unlikely critics: victims of war crimes

Some 1,500 delegates at Afghanistan’s peace jirga are debating how to reconcile with insurgents. But war crimes victims say their concerns are being buried.

By , Correspondent

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    Delegates listen to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's opening address of the peace jirga in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, June 2, 2010. Peace jirga delegates are considering how to reconcile with insurgents, but war crimes victims say they are being overlooked.
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As the Afghan government’s peace jirga meets for a second day to discuss how to reconcile with insurgents and end years of violence, an unlikely coalition is lobbying against the effort: victims of previous wars, who say their demands deserve to be heard alongside the belligerents’.

After hours of discussion Thursday, Afghan tribal elders agreed that this peace meeting had to produce an overture to the Taliban insurgents because NATO and Afghan forces weren't able to bring security to the people.

Victims say that they too want lasting peace for Afghanistan, but argue that it requires accountability, not amnesty. The lack of justice only encourages further violence, they say.

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But in a country that’s seen countless factions battle brutally and shift alliances for three decades, they acknowledge that any peace deal is more likely to bury the past than try to assign blame for the suffering and deaths of millions.

Victims’ jirga

Still, surviving family members, along with a coalition of 24 NGOs called the Transitional Justice Coordination Group gathered in Kabul last month ahead of the three-day government jirga, or council, to make their point with a “victim’s jirga.” More than 100 attendees from around the country met for two days, where they recounted personal tragedies and war crimes under various regimes, and visited a suspected mass grave at Pul-e-Charki, on the outskirts of town near the country’s largest prison.

“I am like a butterfly hovering over the grave of my sons… I have a broken heart… my children, my flowers, why did you go away from me?” lamented Taj-e-Nissa, reading a poem she had composed.

The middle-aged woman, who goes by one name, lost two sons, a daughter, father, and brother to rocket attacks during the 1990s civil war as mujahideen factions, having beaten back the Soviet Army, now battled one another for power. During the Taliban era that followed, her husband, accused of opposing the regime, was imprisoned and tortured.

Amnesty law

The war victims’ lobby had hope a few years ago that the government would heed their call – in 2005 it adopted a Transitional Justice Action Plan that called for the acknowledgment of suffering, removal of war crimes perpetrators from senior positions, and documentation of human rights abuses, among other requirements. But it was never implemented and instead expired last year.

In January it came to light that the government had adopted an amnesty law in 2007 and kept it under wraps. The law protects all belligerents, past and present, from prosecution. It passed without much comment from the international community.

“Accountability, not amnesia for past and present crimes is a prerequisite for genuine reconciliation and peace in Afghanistan,” the TJCG said in a statement criticizing the amnesty.

The law prevents virtually all investigation or prosecution of war crimes, crimes against humanity, rape, and torture, they pointed out. It has no cutoff date, thus allowing armed groups to continue to act with impunity. Though it allows victims to seek prosecution for war crimes, critics point out that individuals cannot realistically take on a warlord.

Two other independent groups – the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) – have also criticized the law. They point to Afghanistan’s international treaty obligations, which calls for the prosecution of certain serious crimes.

“It is questionable whether measures that ignore the rights of victims, promote impunity and undermine accountability contribute to stability and reconciliation in the long run,” they said in a joint statement in February.

Some survivors, though, recognizing how improbable their call for justice is, say they would settle for simply an acknowledgment of their suffering. Says Arab Shahi, whose brother was tortured to death by government forces under the Soviet regime even though he worked as an official in the Ministry of Education, “We don’t want revenge. We do not want an eye for an eye…. [But] the perpetrators should at least apologize.”

‘Not our reconciliation’

Others, like Engineer Niamat, wish they could find out exactly what happened to their missing relatives.

After his brother disappeared in 1978, Mr. Niamat, a teacher at the police academy, tried desperately to find him. Years later his family learned the brother had been killed, but his body was never found.

Niamat, who lost five other brothers in conflict, gathered last month with dozens of others at the site of the suspected mass grave. For him, that visit held more hope for him than the government’s peace jirga.

Asked about the official gathering, he is dismissive.

“This is the reconciliation of the government,” he says. “This is not our reconciliation.”

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