The webinar invited key actors to discuss the situation of human rights defenders and media workers in Afghanistan, with three renowned women human rights defenders from Afghanistan, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, the Senior Advisor to the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression, and Ambassador Trine Heimerback representing the Norwegian delegation to the United Nations. The panel was moderated by Professor Emeritus of Journalism, Elisabeth Eide.
Shrinking space for journalists and defenders in Afghanistan
Discussing the dire situation of both female media workers and human rights defenders in Afghanistan, Dr. Sima Samar, Member of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Advisory Board on Mediation and former Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) emphasized the need to end the culture of impunity ruling in Afghanistan. She highlighted that although there are some progresses – such as an increase in the number of female media workers after the fall of Taliban - this number has again decreased after the many targeted attacks and killings following the signing of the peace agreement with Taliban in February 2020. There has been an increase of killings and targeted attacks against journalists and human rights defenders in Afghanistan lately, but also for women in general who works as doctors, police officers and in other professions. The increase in violence has led to a drop of female participation in the society, as many women are encouraged to stop working by their family members who fear for their lives. leading to several of their colleagues resigning from their jobs. Dr. Samar brought up the example of the three Afghan women journalists who were killed in Jalalabad, Afghanistan on March 2, and said that several of their colleagues quit their jobs following the killings.
“We should all call for ending the culture of impunity and bringing the perpetrators to justice” Dr. Sima Samar
Also Shaharzad Akbar, Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, emphasized the problem of exclusion of women from the public space. Working in the AIHRC all across Afghanistan, she experiences an environment of fear and censorship, where many of her staff members are hesitant to participate in public gatherings. She called for advocacy for inclusion and public participation of women and all defenders in Afghanistan so that the commission can continue its work to monitor human rights violations in Afghanistan.
Horia Mosadiq, founder of NHRF’s grantee Safety and Risk Mitigation Organization, brought up that there are not only non-state actors such as the Taliban who are targeting human rights defenders, but also state actors such as local government officials and members of the parliament. Defenders experience judicial harassment, smear campaigns and violent attacks all across the country. She calls for an improvement in the investigations of the perpetrators of the crimes, as well as asking the international community to be ready to condemn attacks. She also asked for emergency visas for human rights defenders under attack.
“In the past 20 years, we have made so many achievements, […] including freedom of expression, freedom of media, human rights and […] democratic values that we were managing to uphold so far. Now all of them are at risk. The gains that we all made together, now they are all at risk. We should make sure that we are not losing what we have achieved in the past 20 years.” Horia Mosadiq, founder of Safety and Risk Mitigation Organization
Watch the full webinar below:
Following the remarks from the three human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, agreed that the problem is to make the Afghan government to take responsibility of the situation and investigate the attacks properly. She called for better protection of human rights defenders – not only emergency visas for temporary relocation abroad but also to offer safe-houses for the defenders to prefer staying in Afghanistan, continuing their work as human rights defenders. Also Judit Arenas, Senior Advisor to the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression, raised the issue of censorship and attacks on media workers, and specifically called for better international media cooperation and improved protection of freelance journalists, who are often more vulnerable to attacks than international correspondents.
Ambassador Trine Heimerback highlighted the concern for increased violence in Afghanistan, and emphasized that this is taken seriously by Norway and the UN Security Council, who recently released a statement condemning the attacks of civilians in the country. She also emphasized the importance of female participation in the Afghan peace process, and aims to work to make the UN Security Council more inclusive, including women human rights defenders to brief the Council.
The panelists in the webinar widely discussed the lack of capacity to investigate attacks properly, and the fear of normalizing a culture of attacks and impunity. However, Horia Mosadiq emphasized that it is not only a lack of resources leading to poor investigations and impunity, but also a lack of political will. The webinar concluded with the note that human rights defenders and other civilians facing risks in Afghanistan need to be offered better short-term, medium-term and long-term protection.