“Human Rights Was Not a Priority for Former Leaders”; Exclusive Interview with Sima Samar

Interviewer: Amin Kawa

Dr. Sima Samar, former director of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and special envoy of Ashraf Ghani for human rights and international affairs, has been one of the most influential women in Afghanistan’s politics over the past two decades. She believes that human rights cannot be secured without collective awareness. Miss Samar believes that human rights were not a priority for the previous leaders, whom she calls the rulers of the wartime. She believes that lack of awareness of rights, lack of access to quality education, and lack of rule of law are all factors that have violated the basic rights of Afghan citizens in the past two decades. She also believes that compulsion and the culture of exemption, political and cultural obstacles, and misuse of religion are all challenges that prevent the implementation of human rights values in Afghanistan, and that well-known leaders in Afghanistan have not taken human rights values seriously.

Amin Kawa, one of Hasht-e-Subh’s analysts, conducted an interview with Simar Samar in which they discussed human rights issues in Afghanistan in depth.

Hasht-e-Subh: Thank you, Dr. Samar, for providing us with this opportunity. To begin, could you tell us where the concept of establishing a human rights commission in Afghanistan originated?

Sima Samar: Thank you for having me. I would like to pay tribute to the victims of the wars in Afghanistan. The creation of the National Human Rights Commission was part of the Bonn agreement, as there had been serious human rights violations during the wars 23 years prior to the Bonn conference. Therefore, the proposal to create a National Human Rights Commission had already been made and recorded in order to prevent further violations in the country.

Hasht-e-Subh: What did human rights mean to the future leaders and rulers of Afghanistan after and during the Bonn Conference?

Sima Samar: The rulers of wartime in Afghanistan did not seem to prioritize human rights, and it is up to them to explain why. It appears that they did not take human rights into consideration.

Hasht-e-Subh: What were the biggest challenges to implementing human rights values in Afghanistan? Were political, cultural, and religious factors seen as obstacles at that time?

Sima Samar: There were several challenges to implementing human rights values in Afghanistan, but some of the major ones included a lack of awareness of people’s rights, a lack of high-quality education, a lack of rule of law, and ongoing civil wars and dictatorial regimes. People had been struggling to survive the wars before, which contributed to their lack of knowledge about their basic rights.

The monarchy regime did not have the support of the majority before the communist coup, which resulted in an absolute dictatorship of the leaders of Khalq and Parcham. During this time, serious human rights violations occurred with no accountability or legal action. The culture of coercion and impunity began with the civil wars, and political and cultural barriers, as well as the misuse of religion, have been major obstacles to the implementation of human rights.

Hasht-e-Subh: Dr. Samar, do you have any examples of laws in Afghanistan that have violated human rights, since laws have not been made based on human rights values? Could you explain further?

Sima Samar: Many strange things occurred while laws were being passed. Many legislators were not in line with human rights values, so they tried to disregard many values when passing the laws. For example, the law preventing violence against women was one of them. This law was held back for years because they argued that it was not in accordance with Sharia. Certain extreme parliament members specifically mentioned several articles of the law preventing violence against women. The laws that were passed were very contentious. Another law that became and stayed contentious was the children’s protection law, which was approved once due to the efforts of women but was later revoked due to the pressure of some extremists.

Hasht-e-Subh: Who was mostly opposed to the implementation of human rights values?

Sima Samar: Those who profited from the absence of the rule of law and coercion, particularly those who acquired power and material wealth through human rights abuses, must not be forgotten. War, even in its simplest form, can have a devastating effect on the social relations and culture of countries, destroying the public foundations of accountability and access to justice.

It is a lengthy process to restore the social and moral order of a society, and it requires a well-thought-out plan and ample time, especially in this case where those with military power think they are above the law and take advantage of the absence of the rule of law.

Hasht-e-Subh: Can you please name some people who violated human rights during the previous government?

Sima Samar: During the Afghan civil wars, most of the tyrants and commanders were not in favor of upholding human rights values. For instance, when a court in Holland released a list of 5,000 people who were killed unlawfully under the rule of communist parties, I proposed to Hamid Karzai, the former Afghan president, to declare a day of public mourning and organize Quran recitations in mosques as a way to comfort the families of the victims of the civil wars. I also asked him to lower the country’s flag, apologize to the families of the victims, stand with the families of the victims, and console them. Despite being a relative of victims of the wars, he did not do any of this. Therefore, I suggested to Mr. Karzai to look into the cases in Afghanistan and build a museum of victims in the Pul-e-Charkhi prison. I offered to manage the fund, but we were not given any land. A few days later, President Karzai held a meeting with political leaders who decided to construct a mosque in Pol-e-Charkhi. Unfortunately, everyone soon forgot about the mosque.

Hasht-e-Subh: When did you begin your efforts to create the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, and what has been the outcome so far? Have you achieved any satisfactory results?

Sima Samar: I began the formation of the commission from scratch. On March 9th, 2002, I held a workshop on human rights and was given the task of establishing the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). All Afghans, both nationally and internationally, had faith in the AIHRC. Discussions about human rights spread throughout Afghanistan. Despite the difficulties in the country, the AIHRC did its best to restore the human rights of Afghan citizens.

Hasht-e-Subh: You mentioned the AIHRC’s credibility among Afghans specifically, while most people in the media kept criticizing it. What are your thoughts on this?

Sima Samar: Several people spoke out against human rights values, including government officials. Of course, a few people who criticize us in the media, either intentionally or unintentionally, do not represent the majority of Afghans who support us.

Hasht-e-Subh: Why were the human rights values recognized in the Afghan constitution not put into practice? Where did the problem originate: the law, the Afghan presidential palace, or somewhere else?

Sima Samar: The human rights values outlined in the constitution were followed to some degree. However, it is not a simple task to fully implement all of these values in a country with conflicting interests. It is not the responsibility of one organization or a few people, but rather requires the public to be aware, particularly of the rule of law and the enforcement of justice. It takes a collective effort from society to put these human rights values into practice; most importantly, it requires political dedication. In the past, there were ministers of education during the republic, but now half of the population is denied access to literacy and education. Furthermore, there is no longer anyone advocating for education.

Hasht-e-Subh: Why was the investigative report on the implementation of transitional justice conducted by the commission not made public? What was the main reason for this?

Sima Samar: All Afghans are able to identify those who have committed human rights violations, particularly those who have been harmed by their own countrymen throughout Afghanistan. No one should be allowed to harm anyone else outside of Afghanistan. Therefore, I believe that people should be held accountable.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) produced a report detailing the Afghan government’s actions from the rise of the communist regime to the interim government. The report attempted to capture as many major issues as possible, but unfortunately, the government failed to publish the report and neglected to ensure the safety of our colleagues. Nevertheless, I am pleased that the report, which represented a small part of the documented history of violence in Afghanistan, was published under my direction at the AIHRC.

Hasht-e-Subh: Do you think that the report would have had any effect on human rights in Afghanistan?

Sima Samar: I don’t believe that’s the case. Most Afghans are already aware of people who have committed human rights violations.

Hasht-e-Subh: Which government official did not support the process of transitioning to justice?

Sima Samar: Despite high-ranking officials not taking human rights values seriously, I am thankful to my colleagues in the commission for their efforts to promote human rights in Afghanistan. We could have achieved more if the country had been more secure and politically stable. Unfortunately, the Afghan parliament made a strange decision in 2007 by passing a law that exempted people from accountability and provided justice.

Hasht-e-Subh: What are some of the most significant challenges that the Human Rights Commission has faced in the last 20 years?

Sima Samar: Despite budget limitations and insecurity, our colleagues were able to establish and equip ten branches in ten provinces of Afghanistan, despite the challenges they faced in monitoring the situation throughout the country.

Hasht-e-Subh: Many people have criticized your work in the commission, claiming that you have shown ethnocentrism and have given people of your own ethnicity major roles in the Human Rights Commission. What is the reason for this?

Sima Samar: Critics are entitled to their opinions, and I respect them. However, we should not accept false opinions from people who are not aware of the responsibilities and capabilities of a national human rights organization. We have been criticized in the past, so I don’t want to engage in a debate and defend myself, as I am not ashamed of my actions. I have never dishonored myself, Afghans, or Afghanistan.

Hasht-e-Subh: The selection of commissioners and their views on human rights was highly contentious. Was the issue stemming from the presidential palace or the law?

Sima Samar: The selection process used to be based on orders from Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, rather than the law or values, which was highly controversial. We resisted, but the wrong commissioners were chosen, who did not believe in any human rights values. Fortunately, not all of our colleagues were like them. These types of issues are not exclusive to Afghanistan, and while I am not trying to justify them, they are real problems.

Hasht-e-Subh: During your tenure as head of the Human Rights Commission under Presidents Karzai and Ghani, which of them was most supportive of promoting human rights values?

Sima Samar: Hamid Karzai was willing to listen, but Mr. Ghani believed he knew everything and did not take into account the opinions of others. According to psychology, insecure people create a fearful atmosphere to prevent anyone from speaking. However, I never held back my opinions in conferences, which is why people close to Mr. Ghani often did not allow me to attend conferences.

Hasht-e-Subh: What do you mean when you say that Mr. Ghani acted like he knew everything? When did his people stop you from going to the meetings?

Sima Samar: All Afghans are aware that Mr. Ghani had an inflated sense of his own knowledge. He acted as if he knew everything and did not need any advice or input from others; he disregarded other people’s opinions. He failed to fulfill his promises to promote human rights in Afghanistan.

Hasht-e-Subh: What are some of the challenges to human rights that have occurred in the last 20 years?

Sima Samar: I have already highlighted the issues. Nevertheless, I am hopeful for the future. It is now up to the Afghans to take the initiative and assume responsibility in order to shape their future, as the only way forward for Afghanistan is to uphold human rights and ensure equality for all. Otherwise, the entire nation will be plunged into a human rights crisis.

Hasht-e-Subh: Do you believe Afghans are capable of fulfilling their duties in this oppressive and frightening environment? They have lost everything. What duties are you referring to?

Sima Samar: Only people can bring about change. According to Afghan history, no force has been able to remain in power for a long period of time without the support of the people.

Hasht-e-Subh: What human rights violations have occurred in the last 20 years?

Sima Samar: History has proven that oppressive governments cannot remain in power or be accepted by the international community without the backing of the people. If this were not the case, the communist government in Afghanistan would still be in place. The most significant failures in the past two decades have been tyranny, the absence of a legal system, and a culture of impunity, which were all supported by those who violated human rights in Afghanistan.

Hasht-e-Subh: What was the most significant accomplishment of the Human Rights Commission in Afghanistan?

Sima Samar: I do not believe that the AIHRC was unsuccessful. In my opinion, the concept of “human rights” was one of the AIHRC’s accomplishments. Prior to its formation, it was common to torture people, but afterwards, we stopped public torture in the nation. Since then, the amount of torture has decreased, as it is seen as an inhumane and un-Islamic practice, as well as a violation of human rights.

Hasht-e-Subh: What is your opinion on the prospects of human rights in Afghanistan?

Sima Samar: Unfortunately, the human rights situation in Afghanistan is unacceptable. Half of the population of the country has been deprived of their basic rights simply because they are female. The current rulers have taken away girls’ right to education, which is contrary to the Islamic principle of “read!” It is strange that women are not required to wear a hijab in Mecca, the holiest place among Muslims, but Afghan women are forced to cover themselves.

Hasht-e-Subh: What are the implications of the current situation for Afghans, human rights, and the global community?

Sima Samar:  A country with a history of human rights abuses cannot experience peace and prosperity. War cannot bring about peace, so Afghans must protect their rights and freedoms and ensure that all citizens are treated equally. Everyone in Afghanistan deserves to live a life free from discrimination.

Hasht-e-Subh: Thank you for your time Ms. Samar.

Sima Samar: Thank You.