UN official stirs debate with claim of Afghan rights gains

Investigators reporting on the trend in human rights in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan are reminiscent of the six blind men describing an elephant. At one end of the examined subject is Prof. Felix Ermacora of Austria, the special rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Commission. The UN General Assembly's Humanitarian Committee has before it his official finding that there has been ``some improvement'' since his last report a year ago.

At the other extreme, is a new report by an ad hoc multinational panel of international law experts. Operating as the Independent Counsel on International Human Rights, the experts accused the Soviet-Afghan government forces of ``war crimes'' and ``genocidal acts.''

Other groups, including Amnesty International and the seven-faction alliance of Afghan mujahideen (as the resistance fighters are known), also have charged Afghanistan's Moscow-installed regime and its Soviet protectors with torture, indiscriminate bombings of civilians, and other atrocities.

The sometimes conflicting views have been weighed by the humanitarian committee in advance of today's vote on a draft resolution sponsored by nearly 20 Western countries and Japan. As in past years, the text is essentially a condemnation of atrocities attributed to the forces of the Soviet Union and the Kabul regime, headed by strongman Najib.

But reflecting Mr. Ermacora's report, the most moderate he has submitted to the Assembly since he took the post in 1984, the draft ``welcomes'' Kabul's ``cooperation'' in permitting him into Afghanistan for the first time. (Ermacora was in Afghanistan July 30 to Aug. 9 and in Pakistan Sept. 8 to 17.) While expressing ``deep concern'' for the many persons detained without due process in Afghanistan, the draft notes with approval ``a reduction in the number of political prisoners and the release of some prisoners as a result of limited amnesty.''

Ermacora's acknowledgement of such alleged improvements drew criticism from other investigating groups, the mujahideen, and some UN delegates. The principal targets were assertions that:

``There are some improvements in the human rights situation in government-controlled areas.'' (Ermacora was permitted to visit only selected government-controlled areas.)

The number of political prisoners has been reduced and prisoners have been released through amnesties.

``Religious manifestations are not restricted.''

No new reports of torture ``within the meaning of international instruments'' have been received in the last six months.

Kabul is ``making efforts to persuade refugees to return and to facilitate their integration into Afghan society.''

In ``certain areas,'' the government is trying to convince opponents of the regime's sincerity ``through discussion rather than military confrontation.''

In an interview, Ermacora emphasized that the report must be considered in its entirety. Thus approached, he said, ``I am convinced it reflects the situation.''

UN representatives of Pakistan suggested privately that perhaps Ermacora was misled by his Kabul hosts, who restricted his travel. Nevertheless, one Pakistani delegate said, ``We can live with the report because it coincides with our assessment on the two fundamental issues.'' He was alluding to Ermacora's key conclusions: that the Soviet military presence is ``the main reason'' for the conflict's intensity and existence of more than 5 million Afghan refugees, and that Kabul's ``reconciliation'' policy is unacceptable as an instrument of self-determination.

In his interview, Ermacora emphasized ``linkage'' between the two issues. The return of refugees, he said, depends on prior Soviet withdrawal, and without repatriation of that one-third of Afghanistan's pre-war population, ``one can't speak of self-determination.''

``Without withdrawal,'' he added, ``there will be no peace in the region.''

Ermacora stressed to the committee that his observations do ``not mean that the human rights situation is in full conformity with the human rights instruments to which Afghanistan is a party.'' The bulk of his report was, in fact, critical. For example:

Reports continued of ``particularly inhuman methods'' of execution in outlying prisons. In some, ``anything can happen to the prisoners without the knowledge of the outside world.''

There are continuing reports of Kabul troops' deliberate killing of civilians and property destruction under Soviet-backed land and air bombardments.

Increasing attacks on Pakistani territory are reported.

The regime's draft constitution restricts citizens' rights and basic freedoms.

Nevertheless, other critics were less restrained than Ermacora, and some reports directly challenged his findings.

Amnesty International, in its 1987 annual report, expressed concern over ``persistent reports of systematic torture,... extrajudicial executions by Soviet troops... [and] the continued imprisonment of thousands of political prisoners.''

The Independent Council charged that there has been ``no change in the use of torture'' and that there is a deliberate campaign amounting to genocide to destroy Afghan culture and religion.

The mujahideen alliance continues to report what its president, Maulvi Muhammad Younis Khales in a UN briefing called ``shocking'' violations of human rights.

Asked about such differences in emphasis if not always in substance, Ermacora replied that Amnesty International's report was based on data ``from last year and previous years.'' Other investigators, he said, have acquired their information outside Afghanistan or entirely from guerrilla sources.

``I am the only person,'' Ermacora concluded, ``who has been free to travel in the Kabul area,'' along the Soviet frontier, and other off-limits sites inside Afghanistan.

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