Not for nothing: The fight to improve human and women’s rights in Afghanistan

International human rights lawyer and activist Georgette
Gagnon spent five years in Afghanistan and saw first-hand the contribution made
by Canadians. Here she shares her takeaways from her time as director of human
rights for the UN in Afghanistan.

By: /
28 July, 2016
An Afghan woman walks past a wall with graffiti encouraging public to vote in Kandahar province March 30, 2014. REUTERS/ Ahmad Nadeem
Catherine Tsalikis
By: Catherine Tsalikis
Former Senior Editor, Open Canada.

From 2010 to 2015, Georgette Gagnon was the director of human rights for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and representative of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Kabul. She recently sat down with OpenCanada in Toronto to discuss the state of human rights in Afghanistan today, the fallout of the detainee scandal and her ideas for a more robust Canadian foreign policy towards Afghanistan.  

How would you assess the human rights situation in Afghanistan today?

For many Afghans, the human rights situation has improved since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001. For example, there’s democracy – there was no democracy under the Taliban, they don’t believe in democracy. There’s been a number of elections since then. Yes, there have been reports of fraud and other problems, but many Afghans have been able to vote, and for candidates of their choice, by and large, and the election process has evolved and developed. Canadians were very involved in the electoral process over the years, from the first elections in 2004, so that is a positive development on the human rights side.

On civilian casualties and protection of civilians, which was a huge part of our work in the United Nations, civilian casualties overall continued to increase over the five years I was in Afghanistan, but they increased by a lower proportion year on year. We saw a decrease in the number of casualties caused by international forces over time, and that was because the NATO/ISAF forces, and certainly the Canadians, became very aware that killing civilians during military operations as “collateral damage” did not help their effort; in fact, it harmed it, in a big way. Through increased UN and other documentation, reporting and advocacy on civilian casualties, we saw all parties to the conflict pay much more attention to the civilian protection imperative – including the Taliban, whose somewhat encouraging words and messages did not however translate into sustained positive changes on the ground for Afghan civilians.

Empowering Afghan women and girls is high on the list of priorities for Canada’s policy towards Afghanistan now, as it was during our war effort there. How have Afghan women’s lives changed since the fall of the Taliban in 2001?

Women living in remote, rural areas under Taliban or other forms of control face many of the same restrictions and human rights abuses they faced when the Taliban were in power. Outside of that, many Afghan women, and Afghan women’s human rights and advocacy groups, would say the situation for women is better now than it was. There are still many instances of violence against women and harmful practices – forced marriage, giving away girls [to settle] disputes, child marriage – but those practices are now criminalized and not accepted by large parts of Afghan society.

There has been a real effort by Afghan women’s groups, supported by internationals, to enforce the Elimination of Violence Against Women law. What we’ve seen since [it was introduced in] 2009 is much greater awareness by all elements of Afghan society that these types of abuses are crimes, that they’re inconsistent with the basic principles of Islam, and that the government needs to provide accountability. The Afghan media has really profiled violence against women over the past few years – as soon as there’s a serious case and someone knows about it, it’s front and centre, and there’s a real cry for justice by not only women’s groups but large segments of the Afghan population.

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot more to be done, because there is, for women and girls to be seen and treated as fully equal to men and to not face discrimination in all facets of their lives. There are many more girls going to school, but mainly primary school. Much more needs to be done to ensure girls and young women can attend secondary school and university, though the situation has improved. 

My team at the UN documented the situation of Afghan women police further to an effort by both internationals and Afghan women’s groups to make the police more representative of the communities they serve. That has been really difficult. Among most elements of Afghan society, policing is not viewed as appropriate for women. So there’s a very small percentage of women who have gone into the police force and become police officers. We found that police women faced high levels of sexual harassment, abuse of authority and discrimination. Afghan women’s groups have been at the forefront of working with the Ministry of the Interior to address those concern and increase the number of women in the police, which would also help how violence against women is addressed throughout society. If Afghan police women themselves are facing sexual harassment, abuse of authority and discrimination, how can they effectively serve the women who come and report such violence to police?

Finally, on women’s rights, there has been increased reporting of violence against women. More and more women are going to police, going to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and saying, I was abused, I was beaten up, there needs to be accountability.

What isn’t happening is increased prosecutions for acts of violence against women. There are still high levels of mediation, which may be an appropriate resolution in some cases but not for serious crimes of violence. A main reason for mediation is that often if a male relative is jailed, there is no breadwinner, and the rest of the family suffers. So often women do not want to see the husband or male relative jailed, because then what are they going to do? So there needs to be that extra step, they need other kinds of support, in addition to having the male relative imprisoned.

 Canada, in the five years I was in Afghanistan, was very vocal on the issue of violence against women. Canada had a female ambassador, Deborah Lyons [recently appointed as Ambassador to Israel], for several years and she led the charge on this.

What do you say to people who question whether international forces and NGOs should really be the ones to push for a women’s rights agenda in Afghanistan?

In my experience, what many Afghan women’s groups, Afghan women politicians and others in the communities would say is that what the internationals did was accompany them in their efforts to empower and enable themselves. 

For example, on the issue of women police. We questioned whether we [the UN] should do something about the allegations of high levels of sexual harassment and abuse of women police, because that would clearly cause concern and serve as a barrier to women who were thinking about entering the force. And it would also put in danger many women already in the police force who might face retaliation and further abuse from male colleagues for reporting abuse.

So we went to Afghan women, including some police women and others in the NGO and advocacy community, and said what do you think about this, should we do this? And they said, yes, you should, because we need to have a record of what’s actually going on, we don’t have the security to do that work properly, and we’re concerned that something might happen to us or our families if we pursued it. But the UN can go in and do that fact finding.

So the research was done with several Afghan women human rights officers accompanied by internationals – we didn’t do the interviews, but we were there as back up if needed. And then we put the report together. Afghan women’s groups and the AIHRC did not want the report to be public for security reasons, although some of the international women’s groups did. We said well, this is the approach [the Afghans] want to take, and that’s how we did it.

The findings were presented to the Minister of the Interior and other Afghan officials. A group was brought together [made up of staff from Afghan ministries and Afghan women’s NGOs] and they asked the UN and the EU to be observers. The group drafted an action plan to address the issues Afghan police women encountered as documented in the report, sought funding and support from internationals (in addition to the Afghan government) to implement the action plan, and they are taking it forward.

That’s just an example. We took our marching orders from our Afghan colleagues, we were not imposing anything. That was our approach.

Georgette Gagnon, director of human rights for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, speaks during a news conference in Kabul July 31, 2013. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

The Liberal government has announced it won’t open an inquiry into the Afghan detainee scandal. Do you think the attention at the time had any concrete effects on the ground?

Our UN team interviewed some 2,000 detainees in dozens of facilities across the country over a five-year period. By the time I got to Afghanistan [in 2010], the Canadians on the ground were very concerned about allegations of torture and handing over to torture, and they had put in place [a] monitoring program to follow detainees they transferred (which the Americans never did). I remember one detainee saying to us in 2011 that, you know, everybody who went in and out of Kandahar’s detention centre was tortured, except those guys that were transferred by the Canadians. 

In response to the 2011 and 2013 UN reports on torture, NATO/ISAF established and refined their detention facility monitoring, inspection and training program and stopped transferring detainees to Afghan facilities the UN identified as using torture on alleged insurgents to force confessions. My view is that, at least for NATO/ISAF, and perhaps for the Canadians as well, the lesson has been learned: when working with a local security or armed force that you’re supporting, which uses torture, you’ve got to face up to it and deal with it. 

There’s a number of ways to do that. The UK has court cases still going through their system. The U.S. response has been muted. Canada and the UK did bring forward monitoring regimes where they tried to follow detainees they transferred to Afghan custody through the Afghan system. There were serious questions about how robust those monitoring regimes were and whether they ensured Canada and UK were not transferring to torture, because that’s a violation of their international legal obligations. But there was also a serious question about how states deal with the issue and whether and when it is appropriate and legal to themselves detain rather than hand over to local, national custody.

Another key problem for international forces was the lack of accountability for torture by Afghan forces – internationals took allegations and reports of torture by Afghan security or police they received or had information on to the relevant Afghan minister or leader for investigation and prosecution – and often nothing was done. So what should the international forces do? Ultimately the response might be to withdraw technical support, funding and cooperation.

 It would be useful to know all the measures the Canadian Forces have taken to address the issue: have they been transparent enough about what they’ve done, including through the entire chain of command? Have the results of whatever investigations they’ve undertaken been properly released? And critically what are or would be their current policies and procedures on detention practices in similar circumstances (for example as part of the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq, should a situation of detention arise)? Hopefully, this is an issue the ongoing defence review will address.

Justin Trudeau recently renewed Canada’s commitment of more than $150 million per year to help with development and security in Afghanistan – what more would you like to see Canada do?

Many NGOs have called for more political pressure on the Afghan government and army to take greater steps to protect civilians in the context of their military operations. With Afghan forces in the lead, it’s their responsibility to take all necessary measures to protect civilians. The Canadians could be supporting this effort, highlighting specific measures that Afghan forces could take to reduce both the number of civilian casualties they cause and those caused by the insurgents, to reduce civilian harm and to provide compensation to victims. What is being done to ensure that, for example, widows and families of Afghan civilian men killed in the conflict are supported? These families are among the most vulnerable and marginalized in Afghan society. Canadians could be looking at this particular group of women and children and providing different kinds of economic social and political support.

There are calls for NATO to create a special envoy on the protection of civilians. Canada should fully support such an office with a robust mandate, and even put forward a candidate. 

President Ashraf Ghani is struggling to keep his National Unity Government (NUG) together – are you optimistic about what he can accomplish?

My view is that President Ghani and the NUG are attempting to make real efforts to maintain the human rights gains made over the past years, build a professional, functioning effective government that delivers for all Afghans, and obtain a political settlement with the Taliban and Pakistan. All that is a very tall order in a country that is experiencing very difficult economic and political challenges, as well as dealing with longstanding pervasive corruption, warlord-ism and armed conflict. 

One issue that I personally believed, and many have said, has been a real disappointment in Afghanistan over the entire international engagement since 2001 is the failure to alleviate both extreme poverty and high levels of poverty. The country hasn’t advanced economically by that measure, because huge amounts of money and donor assistance went into the military and security. That needs to be adjusted and President Ghani has said he will do that as a matter of high priority. But making that happen is a huge challenge.

How do you view Canada’s legacy in Afghanistan?

Canada and Canadians made a real investment and commitment in Afghanistan and Afghans. Many Canadians worked in Afghanistan in the army, with the Canadian government or with NGOs and the UN. I personally find it very sad and frustrating that Afghanistan has dropped off the map for Canadians. It shouldn’t be viewed as, oh, it was all for nothing. That’s absolutely not the case. The Canadian public and many Canadians supported the effort there and supported Afghans. There were gains and losses, but is it right to leave and forget about it? I don’t think so. Of course, things could have been done better, but in my view, there should be no shame about the efforts of Canadians in Afghanistan. I would like to see Canadians’ support and concern for Afghans reinvigorated, with the recognition that in such situations it’s often three steps forward and two steps back. Let’s support Afghans in moving another two steps forward, because we had a big commitment and largely positive role there. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. The views expressed here are Georgette Gagnon’s personal views and do not represent the views of any organization, including or particularly the United Nations.

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