INTERVIEW: Top Afghan rights expert: No compromise on women’s rights

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By Shabtai Gold

Berlin – Afghanistan’s top human rights expert has said openly that her country is not where she wants it to be nine years after the Taliban was overthrown, and promises the long road ahead will be a difficult journey.

As the United States announced this week it was looking to end combat operations by 2014, Sima Samar, the head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, says she is looking for a different type of commitment from the international community.

‘For me the number of troops is not important. A workable strategy is more important,’ Samar told the German Press Agency dpa during a recent visit to Berlin. She is worried that her country is plowing ahead without a clear objective.

Later this week, a NATO summit in Lisbon will try to agree on a roadmap for a troop wind-down.

If people like Samar get their way, the summit will also include a long-term commitment from the international powers to help Afghanistan lift itself out of poverty and onto the road towards better education and greater freedoms.

For her, though, the plan is straightforward, yet monstrously difficult: make sure people, and especially women, put up a fight for their basic rights.

‘Women need self confidence to stand up for their rights. I did not give in to (any) pressures because I have confidence,’ Samar says.

What gives her the incentive and motivation to keep struggling in a country like Afghanistan?

Sitting on a small patio in the suburban Berlin home of friends, surrounded by plants, flowers and empty tea cups, she leans back in her chair and then forward again.

‘My beliefs and my achievements. I believe I am right,’ Samar says firmly.

And she believed she was right long before she could prove it in Afghanistan.

A member of the often persecuted Hazara minority, she became the first female member of her people to graduate from Kabul University with a degree in medicine in 1982, with war raging around her.

Nearly three decades later, the subject of women’s rights is still a concept struggling to enter the local dialects and she fears many leaders might quickly negotiate away hard-won freedoms, such as access to education and the right to vote, in return for a political rewards.

As a rights activist, Samar says she craves stability in her country, but also draws a red line, refusing to negotiate on fundamental liberties.

‘The women’s issue is a political issue, and it is easy to drop women’s rights and human rights, when you have to negotiate,’ she says with a sigh, reflecting on the challenges of the Afghan government.

Talks are ongoing between Afghan officials and members of the Taliban, in an effort to see if a compromise can be reached to end the country’s bloody insurgency.

Alarmed rights groups have warned that President Hamid Karzai might end up giving up on rights for women if diplomacy so required.

‘Karzai has sold women short when it was politically expedient,’ Human Rights Watch wrote earlier this year, in a scathing criticism.

Without a clear plan for the country, however, Samar feels that it is easy to blame the government but harder to offer solutions.

The trick, she says, is to build on what has been gained and never allow the situation to slip backwards. She has a particular disdain for negotiating away human rights in return for short-term stability.

‘This will not be peace. Peace without justice is not peace. Peace without respect for human rights is not peace. Without freedom there is no peace,’ Samar says.

She said the International Criminal Court should investigate possible war crimes in the country committed in recent years, as part of her campaign to end a culture of impunity in Afghanistan.

That might be hard, given that the government is allied with militia leaders accused of committing vile crimes prior to the US invasion in 2001, including using rape as a weapon of war.

Moreover, Karzai has said some of these men are ‘respectable Jihadi leaders’ and earlier this year the government moved to give blanket immunity to perpetrators of the worst offenses.

‘We are at the beginning of the road,’ Samar says, urging whoever might listen in Kabul and at NATO ‘not to give up on human rights and women’s rights … and complete the job in Afghanistan.’

© Deutsche presse-Agentur

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