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Afghanistan Grapples With Human Rights Abuses - 2002-03-09

Afghanistan's interim leader has called for an investigation of human rights abuses in his country. The call was echoed by the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner. But coming to grips with Afghanistan's often violent past is a touchy question.

Speaking in Kabul Saturday at a United Nations-sponsored human rights forum, Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai said a "truth commission" should be established to look into past human rights abuses.

Mr. Karzai said he does not believe his interim government has the authority to institute such a body. But he urged the government that is to be chosen by an emergency Loya Jirga, or grand council, in June to do so.

U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson said Afghanistan cannot rebuild, until the issue of security is addressed. "It means that the personal security of every man, woman and child is paramount. It means a system of government, in which respect for human dignity, individual human rights, and the rights of minorities are, in practice, guaranteed. And, yet, you cannot speak of rights, when most Afghans are still unable to live freely and without fear. So, I welcome the emphasis on security," Ms. Robinson said.

U.N. Special Envoy on Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi said a new government must be formed that is respectful of human rights. "Only a broad-based, multi-ethnic government, respectful of human rights and guided by the rule of law, can hope to restore to Afghanistan the stability, the prosperity, and the hope that the people of this country have so long been denied," Mr. Brahimi said.

But, Mr. Brahimi added, it is for Afghans themselves to work out their human rights framework. "In the end, of course, it is not the grand rhetoric of written accords, speeches, and solemn declarations that will restore human rights to a country. It is the hard work and the courage of the people claiming their rights," he said.

During 23 years of war, human rights norms were ignored or flagrantly disregarded. The offenders included, not only the Taleban, but members of the communist government that was deposed in 1992, and various factions who fought a bloody civil war afterward.

Even now, reports are emerging of attacks on Pashtuns in the north, at the hands of Tajiks and Uzbeks.

As has often happened, when internal conflicts finally end, digging up the past can be a messy business when so many of the offenders have slipped back into society, such as happened in Cambodia. Many people are reluctant to reopen old wounds. But others clamor for justice, and some for retribution.