Human Rights Defenders and the Future of Multi-ethnic Democracy in Afghanistan

Minority ethnic and religious groups and women in Afghanistan have led the movement for democracy and human rights. Discrimination and violence against these groups in Afghanistan are not new. But under the new Taliban regime, they suffer the most. 

The human rights situation in Afghanistan and surrounding countries is dire. This article reports on human rights violations identified in research by the Afghanistan Human Rights Coordination Mechanism, a consortium of national human rights-oriented civil society organizations (CSOs) and international organizations. It was established in response to the emerging challenges faced by human rights defenders (HRDs) after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in August 2021. The article looks toward a future of multi-ethnic democracy to improve the human rights situation.

Under Taliban rule, minority groups in Afghanistan are experiencing systematic discrimination based on their gender, ethnicity, language, and religion. The Taliban are Sunni Muslims and have a long history of persecuting minority religious groups including Hindus, Sikhs, and Shiites. The Taliban are mainly from the Pashtun ethnic group and speak Pashto. Minority ethnic groups include Hazaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks, many of whom speak Dari. There have been reports of extra-judicial killings of minority groups all around the country. The Taliban are killing members of minority groups, in particular the Hazaras and Tajiks, each day. The Taliban have excluded women from all public roles and restricted girls’ education beyond grade six. 

During the early Taliban rule in the 1990s, there were brutal attacks on minority groups and women. Between 1996 and 1997, for example, the Taliban massacred over 2,000 Hazara people in Kabul and Bamiyan. They carried out a similar massacre and forced migration of Tajiks from the north Kabul (Shamali) valleys.  Another brutal genocidal attack on Hazaras took place in 1998 in Mazar-e Sharif, where more than 5,000 Hazara and Shiite minority members were killed in 48 hours of continuous Taliban attacks on their homes. Since the August 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, these minority groups and women leaders are experiencing increased levels of public discrimination and are disappearing, being arrested, tortured, and assassinated. Afghan HRDs, especially women human rights defenders from minority groups, have been facing kidnapping, gang rapes and imprisonment, physical and psychological harm, defamation and house searches, arbitrary arrest and torture, and physical threats and violence against their family members by the Taliban. Local HRDs from regions such as Daikundy, Sar-e Pul (Balkhab), Uruzgan, Panjshir, Ghazni, and Andarab in southeast Baghlan are reporting ethnic cleansing, massacres, forced displacement, and war crime incidents that occurred in the past 12 months. 

Other conservative groups such as Hezb-ut-Tahrir, Jamiyat-e-Eslah, warlords, and religious actors build on the Taliban’s position against these minority groups. They view these minority groups as democratic actors in the country.  In this sense, the struggle is between those who desire a multi-ethnic democracy that protects the human rights of all minority groups and genders and those who do want a country run by a small group of conservative men primarily from one ethnic group.

The state of lawlessness in the country has been a major challenge to the safety and security of vulnerable groups.  The absence of a legal protection framework and protection structures is having a widespread impact on human rights and HRD protection in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban takeover, the civic space is strictly controlled by the Taliban, who have canceled the Constitution and turned to a radical interpretation of Islamic jurisdictions. The absence of a judicial system leaves no guarantee or space for citizens to exercise their social and political rights through protest, limits access to information, and controls the press.

Protection strategies for minority groups, women, and HRDs are also limited due to the deteriorating economic conditions in Afghanistan. Afghan HRDs are having a difficult time providing food for their families, and many are facing a loss of future work and financing prospects. The economic downfall of Afghanistan also precipitated a huge migration outflow, crowding asylum and resettlement prospects for HRDs due to the overloading of the foreign countries’ asylum system.  

A majority of Afghan HRDs in neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkey report suffering psychological harm. These originate from harassment by the police, risk of forced deportation, and a lack of access to visas, visa extension, and other basic living provisions. Despite the lower risk of deportation and police harassment in Western countries, HRDs in exile also report high levels of psychological harm and face serious financial problems, as well as the uncertainty of the success of their applications for asylum and the complicated approval processes. 

Within Afghanistan, HRDs report growing hostility against HRDs due to a rise in ethnocentrism, ethnic/religious/gender/age discrimination, increasing religious radicalization, and growing conservatism. This social context exposes HRDs to social ostracization, if not criminal punishment as their human rights backgrounds have been associated with treason, infidelity, spreading immorality, blasphemy, or apostasy. 

A variety of policy recommendations emerge from this analysis

  1. HRDs need access to immediate remedy and legal accountability for the atrocities committed by the Taliban and other armed groups against HRDs, minority groups, women, and people in the general population.  
  2. Vulnerable groups need access to protection services inside the country and access to internal relocation.
  3. HRDs outside the country need a comprehensive coordination platform and network to have collective action and advocacy to address the rapid decline of international community support. This is particularly true for Women Human Rights Defenders and protestors.
  4. Afghans need to continue articulating the promise and possibility of a multi-ethnic democracy with a non-centralized system emphasizing local governance.

Written by a Senior Human Rights Defender from the Shia Community with over 20 years of experience as a civil society leader, using this pen name to avoid retributive threats to family inside Afghanistan.

Human Rights Defenders and the Future of Multi-ethnic Democracy in Afghanistan