UN Afghanistan Envoy’s Sacking Highlights Abuses, Secrecy

Cherif Bassiouni, the top U.N. human rights investigator in Afghanistan until his job was eliminated at Washington’s behest, has caused a stir by accusing the United States of obstructing, then ousting him in a bid to cover up abuses by its personnel. Even so, he delivered a grim report on the Asian country.

The Egyptian-born law professor and 1999 nominee for the Nobel peace prize accused U.S. and coalition forces of detaining prisoners without trial, refusing to allow him to interview alleged Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners at the Kandahar and Bagram U.S. bases, and barring independent human rights monitors from visiting these bases.

His report, based on a year’s visits to Afghanistan and extensive interviews with Afghans, international agency staff, and the country’s human rights commission, estimated that some 1,000 Afghans had been detained without trial. It also accused troops from the U.S.-led coalition of breaking into homes, arresting residents, and abusing them.

The report said that U.S. and coalition forces and special units of the Afghan security agencies and police “act above and beyond the reach of the law by engaging in arbitrary arrests and detentions and committing abusive practices, including torture.”

Bassiouni said he had received testimony from former detainees about such abuses and had “communicated his concerns to officials of the governments of Afghanistan and the U.S.”

Coalition forces have a special mission as “a role model for managing security issues and militarized authority in Afghanistan,” Bassiouni stated. “When these forces directly engage in practices that violate or ignore international human rights and international humanitarian law, they undermine the national project of establishing a legal basis for the use of force.”

“The impact of abusive practices and the failure to rectify potential problems create a dangerous and negative political environment that threatens the success of the peace process and overall national reconstruction,” he added.

The report said accounts of “serious violations” by coalition forces had come from victims, non-governmental organizations, and the Red Cross.

“These acts include forced entry into homes, arrest and detention of nationals and foreigners without legal authority or judicial review, sometimes for extended periods of time, forced nudity, hooding and sensory deprivation, sleep and food deprivation, forced squatting and standing for long periods of time in stress positions, sexual abuse, beatings, torture, and use of force resulting in death,” the report said.

Acknowledging the difficulty of confirming many of the allegations, it said “a number of incidents have been publicly reported.” Of special significance, it added, “are the cases of eight prisoners who have died while in United States custody in Afghanistan.” Bassiouni urged immediate investigations.

He charged that coalition forces “detain individuals at American bases at Bagram, Kandahar and outposts, and are believed to hold individuals at a number of additional undisclosed locations.” More than 1,000 individuals have been detained, “often after being arrested with excessive or indiscriminate force,” according to the report.

The report said that detention conditions fell below human rights standards set by the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations. “While the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visits detainees at Bagram and Kandahar, they do not have access to individuals held at other locations,” it added.

An internal U.S. Defense Department investigation of detentions in Afghanistan, conducted by Brig. Gen. Charles H. Jacoby, has been completed but the report remains classified, unlike similar reports on Iraq.

Bassiouni also voiced concern about the alleged transfer to Afghanistan of prisoners from the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and about the handing over of detainees to third countries known to use torture to get prisoners to talk.

Noting that “Afghanistan is currently experiencing a justice deficit at almost every level of society,” the report further expressed concern about the treatment of women detainees and conditions in Afghanistan’s national prisons.

“Cells are often overcrowded, prisoners are inappropriately shackled, medical facilities are rudimentary and medical supplies and ambulance services are dangerously limited. The independent expert witnessed poor general conditions, including inadequate sanitation, open electrical wiring, and broken and missing windows during freezing temperatures,” it said.

“The country’s future depends on strengthening the rule of law, improving the administration of justice, and promoting and protecting human rights, a process which requires the development and implementation of a comprehensive strategic plan,” the report concluded.

For that to happen, it said, coalition forces must stop “placing themselves above and beyond the reach of the law.”

Bassiouni delivered his report last week and was informed by e-mail the same day that the 53-member U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva had decided not to renew his mandate.

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the report and Bassiouni’s termination highlighted the need for a top U.N. investigator despite Washington’s hostility to the post.

“The human rights situation in Afghanistan remains critical,” Adams told IPS. “There is no excuse for there not being a high level, independent U.N. Human rights voice (but) the U.S. appears to want to sweep human rights problems in Afghanistan under the carpet.”

Appointed a year ago by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Bassiouni is a law professor at U.S.-based DePaul University, president of the International Institute of Higher Studies in Criminal Sciences in Siracusa, Italy, and honorary president of the International Association of Penal Law, based in Paris, France.

Bassiouni often had assailed the United States’ actions in Afghanistan. With his job of “independent expert” eliminated, primary U.N. responsibility for monitoring the rights situation now falls to the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights.

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.