On Monday, the New York Times wrote about an unreleased report by the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission mapping human rights abuses from 1978 until 2001. Spanning the two bloody decades in which Afghanistan oscillated from Russian occupation and violent resistance, to all-out civil war in the early 1990s, to oppressive Taliban rule, the report documents tens of thousands of deaths, torture and other extreme abuses, including evidence of 180 mass graves. Although many of these abuses are well known, what has caused the biggest controversy, and the reason the report is still unpublished, the Times reports, is that many of the perpetrators are members of the current government or are local powerbrokers who still hold sway over key regions and provinces in Afghanistan.
Many of these incidents (the Dasht-e-Laili massacre of 2,000 Taliban prisoners; massacres of Hazara populations in Bamiyan during the Taliban era; the 1993 Afshar massacre by mujahedeen leaders) have been documented by other groups, but this report appears is of a different scale and level of detail. It is certainly the most comprehensive reporting on past abuses to date, and with more forensic and investigative resources, likely more rigorous. It also holds the greatest promise for energizing a more balanced and holistic debate about how Afghanistan might address this horrific past. Whereas past transitional justice projects have been criticized for singling out certain warlords or ethnic groups, this mapping illustrates how widespread the violence was. Victims and culprits can be found in every ethnic group, every region, every pocket of Afghan society. This report might be used as a springboard for a national discussion about how to move beyond finger-pointing and allow recognition of past abuses to be a part of more meaningful national reconciliation.
If it ever comes out that is. Previous high-level efforts to get traction on transitional justice issues have been squashed due to political pressure. For example, a 2005 United Nations mapping report that documented past cycles of violence and conflict and tied specific abuses to perpetrators was never released officially (though it has been leaked). Similarly, much controversy has surrounded the release of the AIHRC mapping report. Originally commissioned in 2005, human rights advocates have been preparing for an imminent release for several years but publication has been repeatedly delayed, in part due to technical issues and follow-up research, but also because of political pressure from the Afghan government, the Times reports. Most recently, when the Afghan government learned of the report's imminent release, the lead Commissioner in charge, Nader Nadery, was fired - many believe in order to prevent the report's release.
Nor is the Afghan government the only player to question if the report should be released. A U.S. official quoted in the piece argued the report should not be published, at least until after Afghanistan's 2014 presidential election "There will be a time for it, but I'm not persuaded this is the time. ...It's going to reopen all the old wounds."
This is a refrain that human rights advocates have heard time and again. While there has been much lip-service to supporting transitional justice, it has always been de-prioritized versus other political and security concerns. With a new election cycle, a new stabilization initiative, prospective reconciliation talks, or simply flowering insecurity always on the horizon, there has never been a "right" time for such a discussion. And in the meantime the rancor caused by impunity continues to erode confidence in the Afghan government and the rule of law, and the abuses of past years seem ever more likely to repeat themselves. This was never truer than it is now, as the looming 2014 elections and withdrawal of international combat troops have prompted many of the same perpetrators of past abuses to re-arm in preparation for a potential new era of violence.
Not only would it be important for such a report to come out now, so that there is at least a chance that such concerns will be discussed during this critical transition period, but it would be a serious setback if the report succumbed to political pressure and was not published at all. Already there are troubling signs that the space to publish critical thought in Afghanistan is getting worse, not better over time. In post-2001 Afghanistan, one of the few unequivocal successes has been the growth and freedom of the media. Afghan journalists, researchers and analysts have consistently been at the forefront of a surging new civil society, asking challenging questions and providing one of the few real checks and balances to government actions. Supported by foreign aid donors, and unrestrained by a Karzai administration that for most of the last 10 years has tolerated criticism, Afghans have enjoyed greater freedom of speech and association than anywhere else in the region.
However, there are signs that space is shrinking. Afghan journalists and stringers have been reporting greater harassment - in some cases leading to physical abuse - at a local level. New procedures have also been instituted that limit NGO activities or research organizations. When I was in Afghanistan earlier this month, we had to seek permission from several, overlapping ministries in Kabul to do even the most basic research or events in the provinces. Given this overall climate, the perception that the AIHRC report is hushed up would send a powerful signal to Afghan media and civil society: If a report of this magnitude and importance cannot be published, then what can?
The fact that such a report could even be produced shows how far Afghanistan has come in the last 10 years. Now, the way the report is treated is an important litmus test of how many of those gains will be preserved following transition. Publishing this report would not, of course, resolve all the underlying political issues. And while not a given, the Afghan government may fear it would put many of its key allies and partners at risk of prosecution (although the Amnesty law likely would prevent that) or disqualification from upcoming elections. However, ignoring this issue for so many years has created much larger consequences that might be better addressed in this transition period than left to fester. The Afghan government has a credibility problem both with the Afghan public and with the international community (whom it relies upon for continued aid). Past efforts to ignore these issues has to widespread, popular disillusionment with the Afghan government, undermining efforts on stabilization, rule of law development, and reconciliation. If the Afghan government embraced this report (which it originally commissioned) as an opportunity to begin a national conversation on these issues, it might be a concrete way to show the Afghan population and international donors that it meant all of the commitments about reforming government institutions and protecting rights that it made at events like the recent Tokyo conference. It would show that while there are many challenges on the horizon, Afghanistan's leaders and political system have moved beyond where it was in the 1980s and 1990s. There has never been a more critical time for such a statement.
Erica Gaston is a Senior Program Officer on Rule of Law in Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace.