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Human Rights Defenders

Country Profile:  Afghanistan


Afghanistan has been the site of great geopolitical struggles since Alexander the Great occupied parts of the territory in 328 B.C. The current struggle for democracy and human rights is taking place beneath the shadow of this history and is being waged by men and women of extraordinary courage.

  1. Our summary of Afghan history
  2. International Crisis Group
  3. Department of State Background Notes

After the violent attacks on the United States that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government had the support of most nations to oust the Taliban regime in power in Afghanistan because it provided a safe haven for Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda movement.

"Our attention span is sometimes limited. We deal with a crisis, we focus on it, but then something else happens and then we are gone. I think we need to make every effort to sustain our interest in Afghanistan and help them get it right this time."

Kofi Annan, PBS, Voices from Confronting Terrorism
Since then, the U.S.-led multinational force has assumed responsibility for maintaining security and helping the new government stabilize the country.  Although early moves toward elections and the establishment of democratic institutions were made by the interim and then elected President Hamid Karzai, rising violence and the resurgence of the Taliban threaten to reverse these early gains.
For more on Afghanistan's history, please check:

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A donkey transports ballot boxes in a path between the Koh-i-Sarki-Khan's mountains toward Som Darreh's village in Faizabad, 320 km (200 miles) northeast of Kabul, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2004. Donkeys are the only means of transport to distribute the electoral kits in the inaccessible areas of the Faizabad district due to the craggy geography.  (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Current Human Rights Conditions

In October 2004, Afghanistan held its first democratic presidential election in which more than 8 million Afghans voted.  It was reported that 41 percent of the voters were women. Hamid Karzai was announced the winner and inaugurated for a five-year term as Afghanistan's first democratically elected president. However, in the years following the first elections, increased violence from the Taliban as well as animosity for the government led to a less successful second presidential election.

In the 2009 presidential election, there was a drastic decrease in the number of people voting from 2004, as only an estimated 38 percent of 7 million registered voters cast a ballot, whereas the 2004 elections saw a 70 percent of 8 million voter turnout. This decrease can be partially attributed to the Taliban's threats to bomb polling stations and kill people who were caught voting, which resulted in a very low voter turnout in regions of the country with a strong Taliban presence. Despite the threats, violence on election day was relatively low. The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit found another factor in the decline of voting was cynicism over the promises of democracy and feeling the government is corrupt, thus making some believe voting is useless. In the aftermath of the election, cries of voter fraud delayed official results. According to European Union election observers, 1.5 million votes were questionable. About 20 percent of polling stations had to re-count their votes, and 200,000 votes were disregarded.

"We cannot allow human rights and women's rights to be sacrificed in Afghanistan or anywhere in the world in the name of anti-terrorism... As we now know, what happens in Afghanistan affects the world."

Sima Samar, Human Rights and Women's Rights in Afghanistan. Brown University, May 28, 2005)

Institutions of Democracy

The police force and judicial system have not seen genuine reforms. The level of corruption in police and judges prevents people from seeking redress for simple grievances. The corruption is usually attributed to small salaries and lack of security for people holding these positions. The ineffective justice system also suffers from inadequate infrastructure, lack of funding, pressure from armed groups, and limited oversight mechanisms. It is unable to meet the demands of a post-conflict society to provide accountability for perpetrators of gross human rights violations or provide for minimum protections. Many people in Afghanistan do not trust the judicial system and are unable to afford the cost of a lawyer or court costs, making accessibility of courts difficult, especially for women.

"District authorities often [constitute] a source of, rather then succor from, fear for the local population."

International Crisis Group

As a result, Afghan human rights organizations fear that a culture of impunity has emerged due to a lack of accountability for gross human rights violations. Regional officers and the militia continue to engage in human rights abuses without any repercussions. The National Directorate of Security and the Afghan National Police practice arbitrary arrests and detentions as well as torture, including exposure to extreme temperatures and withholding food. Those detained are also unable to contact people on the outside, including their family or a lawyer.

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Afghan and Pakistani prisoners wait in a corridor beside their cells before leaving the Shiberghan prison, some 370 kilometers (222  miles) north of the capital Kabul on Thursday, May 6, 2004. The last 434 alleged Taliban and al-Qaida detainees were transferred out of Afghan's most notorious prison on Thursday after a weeklong hunger strike to protest their jailing for more than two years without charge, prison officials said.   (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Although the justice system in Afghanistan does not meet international standards, approximately 80 percent of all disputes are settled using informal tribal councils known as jirgas and shuras. These tribal councils do not work within the traditional justice system and do not assure fair trials for those who participate, according to Afghan human rights organizations.

Prison conditions remain poor as facilities are seriously overcrowded and conditions do not meet international standards. Lack of adequate food, sanitation, and insufficient supplies, such as blankets to guard against the cold, are among the problems. Prisoners with contagious conditions are not isolated, and prison authorities reportedly torture prisoners. Existence of secret and private prisons, under U.S. and Afghan control, was reported by several human rights groups. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) stated that it was successful in closing 36 such detention centers over the past four years and improving the conditions of prisons in several different regions, allowing greater access to lawyers and faster trials as well as establishing health centers and creating greater access to clean water. The AIHRC and the International Committee of the Red Cross received permission to visit all prisons under government control, but both groups were denied full access to some prisoners. 


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An Afghan woman wearing a burqa carries her child while walking with a relative, also dressed in a burqa, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Tuesday, April 24, 2007.  Despite advances in women's rights since the fall of the Taliban regime over five years ago, most Afghan women, especially outside the capital, still opt to don the all-enveloping cloak. (AP Photo/Farzana Wahidy)
According to AIHRC, basic rights such as right to food, education, primary health care, housing, and access to water are unattainable at present for a majority of the Afghan population. In June 2008, the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) was created to conduct research and help reduce poverty. According to ANDS, 42 percent of people are below the cost of basic needs (CBN) poverty line, while 20 percent of people live close to the line. The majority of the poorest people are from rural areas or are part of the Kuchi nomadic population. ANDS declares the following are causes of poverty: a weak asset base, the lack of adequate social and political institutions, poor economic environment, and vulnerability to conflict. The poorest people are often farmers who depend on livestock, while those who engage in trade and service fare better financially. ANDS hopes to fulfill the Millennium Development Goals and reduce poverty through sustainable development in a private-sector-led market economy.

"If we can create an environment where the average Afghan can go about his or her business in peace, where children can go to school, where women can choose either to put on … the veil or not, where they can decide to earn their way and have many and full jobs open to them, if we have an Afghanistan that has an established government which has authority over its territory, an Afghanistan that has managed to tame the regional warlords, and they're all working together in the interest of Afghanistan, then we can say we have a change."

U.N. Secretary-Genera Kofi Annan, PBS, Voices from Confronting Terrorism: Turning the Tide

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An Afghan woman cooks Halwa (a sweet Afghani food) at a shrine in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Wednesday, May 9, 2007.  (AP Photo/Farzana Wahidy)

Rights of Women

Women and girls continue to face widespread violence and discrimination in public as well as private settings. According to AIHRC, 85 percent of girls and women are illiterate, and many women have no access to acceptable health care. Only 46 percent of girls who were of primary school age attended school.

Forced marriages, family violence, sexual harassment, and the prevention of women from participating in the social and political life of the nation are conditions that are widespread throughout the country.  Human Rights Watch reported a number of brutal killings or imprisonment of women who chose to flee abusive and forced marriages. According to the U.S. State Department 2008 report, a women's shelter in Kabul averaged 50 new cases a month. A Womankind report stated 87 percent of women suffer from violence. In addition, marriage can be forced onto women, sometimes to pay off a debt. About 57 percent of these marriages involve a bride who was under the age of 16. Women and girls face constant restrictions on their mobility. They are not free to travel without a male relative or without wearing a burqa, or head scarf. Women who are active in the public often face threats and violence from people with very traditional views of women. Less than 25 percent of government positions are held by women.

Rights of the Child

The Ministry of Work and Social Affairs reported that 5 million children are living in grave need of humanitarian aid. The government has made some attempts to increase the well-being of Afghan children by creating the National Strategy for Children at Risk in 2006. In 2007, the Ministry for Public health trained 500 workers on strategies to stop child abuse and violence. Despite these efforts, the situation facing children in Afghanistan is still critical. Children are often victims of sexual abuse from extended family members. In 2008, there were 36 reported cases of boys being raped; however, rights groups claim many cases go unreported. The government has also done little to stop the practice of keeping boys as personal sex slaves, known as bacha bazi. The U.S. State Department reported that only about 24 percent of sexual predators are incarcerated.

AIHRC reported that "child laborers in Afghanistan are lacking all forms of protection and care by the state and their number is increasing on a day-to-day basis."  The commission found that 31 percent of Afghan child laborers work an average of nine to 15 hours per day — their workday begins at 6 a.m. and is finished between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.  Approximately 43 percent of child laborers are under the age of 12, and 35 percent are aged 12-15.  Children as young as 6 sometimes work up to 12 hours per day. Only 35 percent of child laborers attend school, with an education quality rated by AIHRC as "too poor."

Schools are inadequate and even dangerous for children. In an attempt to disrupt society and rebel against the government, the Taliban has resorted to bombing schools. According to UNICEF, between June 2007 and June 2008, 311 schools were attacked, with 115 people injured and 84 deaths. Most of this violence is located in the southern and border areas of Afghanistan.

Orphanages are below standards as well, with many children reporting mental, sexual, and physical abuse while in these institutions. Children have limited access to running water, health care, recreation, or education. It was also reported that children from state-controlled orphanages were taken and trafficked to other areas.


Returning Refugees

In 2008, refugees living in Iran and Pakistan returned to Afghanistan, totaling 276,000 returnees for the year. Although the number of people returning home is increasing, they face great challenges upon their arrival, including the lack of jobs, scarce resources such as clean water, and limited access to essentials, like health care and education. Those who owned land before leaving returned to find their property was confiscated by local forces. Within Afghanistan, approximately 235,000 people are internally displaced and live in regions difficult for humanitarian agencies to reach, resulting in desperate conditions.

Working Conditions for Human Rights Defenders

Human rights defenders, especially those willing to speak against the government, operate under fear of threats, harassment, and death. In September 2006, Safia Amajan, a senior Afghan official specializing in women's rights, was gunned down on the way to work. Witnesses stated that the gunmen appeared to be members of the Taliban.  In 2008, Sayed Parviz Kambakhsh circulated information advocating a more modern view of the role of women in Islam. He was arrested and sentenced to death. During his trial and detention, Kambakhsh suffered cruel treatment and had little access to lawyers. His sentence was later reduced to 20 years in prison, still a harsh punishment for what is protected speech under international law. In August 2009, Kambakhsh was secretly pardoned by President Karzai and now no longer lives in Afghanistan.

While the Afghan Constitution guarantees the right to association, assembly, and free press, in reality, human rights groups face numerous hurdles. The rising insurgency, lack of security, and interference from local authorities infringe on the freedoms of these organizations. According to Amnesty International, health workers, election officials, candidates, and humanitarian aid workers are often the target of violence by the Taliban and other armed groups.

Freedom of the Press

Media is severely restricted in Afghanistan, and although several private media outlets exist, many limitations are put on them by the government. According to the U.S. State Department, the Iranian government also exerts power over different media outlets in Afghanistan, influencing what is written by giving money to the media and secretly paying salaries. The Iranian government does this to limit anti-Iranian sentiments in the news. The State Department also noted that Iran used intimidation methods in the western region of the country to limit the number of negative articles on Iran. In addition to Iranian and Afghan governmental pressure, journalists must also worry about threats from violent groups, such as the Taliban.

"As the eyes of the world focus elsewhere, we should not forget that the experience of Afghanistan is a proving ground for whether the international community can stay the course beside a fragile country as it builds itself up from the aftermath of conflict."

James Wolfenson, World Bank president, Feb. 27, 2003

Journalists are often arrested, threatened, harassed, and killed. In July of 2008, a private TV program that accused the government of corruption was shut down. A young journalist, Abdul Samad Rohani, who worked for the BBC, was found dead from multiple knife stabs and gunshot wounds. The Afghan government did little to investigate the case. The difficulty of reporting accurate information increases when journalists attempt to report from the southern and eastern regions of the country, where violent conflict is greatest. According to Nai Media, of the 45 acts of violence, intimidation, and arrest of journalists reported between May 2007 and May 2008, 23 were perpetrated by the government. The National Directorate of Security and the Ulema Council attempt to restrict media more than any other sector of the government.

U.S. Policy/Other Concerns

The U. S. government has provided around $40 billion in financial and military assistance and now has 68,000 troops stationed in the country. However, there are growing concerns that this commitment has not resulted in progress. According to Integrity Watch Afghanistan, two-thirds of Afghans feel there is corruption involved with the spending of money and that less than 40 percent actually reaches the people who need it.

"Today, along with many allies, we are helping the people of Iraq and Afghanistan to build free societies. And we are working with the people of the Middle East to spread the blessings of liberty and democracy as the alternatives to instability, hatred, and terror. This work is hard and dangerous, yet it is worthy of our effort and our sacrifice. The defeat of terror and the success of freedom in those nations will serve the interests of our Nation and inspire hope and encourage reform throughout the greater Middle East."

Condoleezza Rice, April 8, 2004

In June 2008, a donor conference in Paris brought together pledges of aid for Afghanistan. Although the government originally requested $50 billion to implement their National Development Strategy, Afghanistan received approximately $20 billion. The United States promised $10 billion, with additional aid coming from Britain, Germany, Japan, and other countries.

The mounting violence from insurgents is usually attributed to successful regrouping and financial assistance coming to the Taliban from Pakistan as well as to a growing resentment from the local population toward the Afghan government for its failure to improve their lives.

"Despite President Bush's promise to provide a 'Marshall Plan' for Afghanistan, international assistance to Afghanistan is just a fraction of the per capita assistance provided in other recent post-conflict situations, for instance in the Balkans and East Timor. The United States has provided nearly 10 times more troops and economic resources in support of Iraq than Afghanistan, although the two countries have the same size and population and Afghanistan is vastly poorer."

Human Rights Watch, September, 2006

Apart from human rights violations committed by the Afghan government, reports state that the United States and international forces are also committing human rights abuses. The most recent example occurred at Bagram prison in northern Kabul, where in July of 2009, prisoners protested their inhumane treatment by refusing to leave their cells for showers or cooperate with the International Committee of the Red Cross. According to the New York Times, prisoners at this base have fewer rights than the detainees of Guantanamo Bay.

NATO Assumes Control

Since January 2002, a number of foreign peacekeeping troops began arriving in Afghanistan, first under auspices of the U.N. International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF); however, NATO assumed control in August 2003.  As of 2009, there are more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan from 42 countries, 28 of which are NATO members. The primary responsibilities of the ISAF are to provide security and stability to Afghanistan as well as help with the reconstruction and development of the country. They help build up the capacities of the Afghan National Army by providing training and equipment. ISAF also supports the Afghan National Police, creating a more efficient force. In addition, they attempt to curtail the presence of illegal weapons by disarming groups and individuals, then destroying the weapons. Humanitarian efforts, such as handing out food and medications, are also carried out by the ISAF. 

Opium Trade

Approximately 90 percent of the world's opium supply comes from Afghanistan.  The production of opium has decreased 22 percent since 2008; however, Afghanistan is still the largest producer of opium. An estimated 1.6 million people are involved in its production, which is concentrated in the southern and western regions of the country, where the Taliban has the strongest presence. Although production is down, the United Nations claims attempts to end the farming of poppy in Afghanistan have failed, with 99 people losing their lives in the fight to end production over the past two years.


*In writing this profile, materials of Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch, and U.S. Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, and Background Notes were consulted.

  1. Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission
  2. Afghanistan Relief Organization
  3. Joint Electoral Monitoring Board
  4. International Crisis Group
  5. NATO (Afghanistan)
  6. Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)
  7. Shuhada Organization (Women's Rights Group)
  8. U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan
  9. UNHCR
  10. UNDP
  11. USAID
  12. U.S. Afghan Reconstruction Council
  13. U.S. Department of State
  14. U.S. Department of State Background Notes
  15. Women for Women

Breaking News:

  1. Afghan Daily
  2. Press Agency
  3. Afghanistan News Network
  4. Afghanistan Newspapers & News Media Guide
  5. AlertNet (Reuters) (Afghanistan Reconstruction Web site)
  6. Center for International Disaster Information
  7. Human Rights Watch
  8. IRIN News Service
  9. RFE/RL
  10. ReliefWeb

Human Rights Reports:

  1. Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission
  2. Amnesty International
  3. EurasiaNet (Afghanistan Human Rights links)
  4. Human Rights Watch
  5. Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan(RAWA)
  6. U.S. Department of State

 Updated November 2009