International Pressure and Human Rights in Afghanistan: The Women's Shelter Case

A battle is ongoing between Afghanistan's women's rights organizations and the government. At contention is the fate of the dozen-plus shelters that house women who have suffered abuse and violence. The government wants to take over the shelters, alleging 'mismanagement' and 'misconduct,' while human rights organizations are trying to prevent the takeover of the only asylums for battered women.

These organizations are calling on the international community for help, citing the government's lack of experience in running shelters and the possibility of subjecting the women to new forms of abuse after takeover.

If Afghanistan's previous experience with human rights cases is any guide, international pressure supplementing local efforts is going to be key. Karzai has relented on several occasions when pressed by the international community on human rights issues.

When Afghan scholar Ali Mohaqeq-Nasab published an article on women's rights in his magazine of the same name, he was imprisoned for blasphemy and faced possible execution. He was eventually sentenced two years in 2005, which was later commuted to six months and, ultimately, he was released before the full term.

The primary reason? Pressure on Karzai that came from several foreign embassies and nongovernmental organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists and Afghanistan's Independent Journalists' Association.

A year later, when Abdul Rahman -- then 41 and father of two -- was discovered to have converted to Christianity, he was given the death sentence. International pressure -- including intensive backchannel diplomacy from several embassies in Kabul and mobilization from religious organizations abroad -- saved his life. He was secretly taken out of Afghanistan's notorious Pul-e Charkhi prison and then flown out of the country. Rahman now enjoys asylum in Italy.

In 2008, journalism student Pervez Kambakhsh was jailed and sentenced to death on charges of blasphemy for having printed and distributed among his classmates articles from the internet about women's rights. His case, like that of Rahman's, received massive publicity both at home and abroad. Again, Kambakhsh was released after pressure on the Afghan government from foreign embassies, mobilization from Afghanistan's human rights and other organizations, and 100,000 signatures on a petition from The Independent. He, too, is now living abroad.

These stories show that when it comes to human rights cases, President Karzai and his government are amenable to pressure.

In all three of the cases, Karzai also faced significant pressure from within Afghanistan. Clerics and other conservative elements, including members of parliament, called for the deaths of each of these individuals. Karzai faced the dilemma of keeping his international allies happy at the cost of appearing weak-kneed and losing support at home.

The freedoms of these individuals have been as legally ambiguous as the circumstances surrounding their arrest and sentencing, indicating that the Afghan government is willing to fudge law and procedure when it has to.

The women's shelter case, however, is not a legal question; it's an executive decision to bring them under government control. But the battle lines are drawn and Karzai has the support of conservative elements, including clerics and some MPs.

What is absent this time around is concerted international support, including from the US, for human rights activists fighting for the independence of these shelters.

Granted, Karzai's attitude toward the US has changed and US relations with his government are more tenuous than before, but the women's shelter issue represents as grave a human rights question as any. Una Moore at UN Dispatch describes the human rights dimension best:

[After government takeover] women and girls seeking protection will have to plead their cases before an admissions panel of government employees and undergo medically dubious "examinations" to prove they are not guilty of adultery or prostitution. If a woman passes both tests and is admitted, she will not be allowed to leave without official permission. In effect, Afghanistan's few refuges for abused women are about to become prisons.

Under the new shelter regulations, if a woman's family comes to claim her, she must be handed over. If enforced, this rule will cost lives. Nearly all women living in Afghanistan's shelters are survivors of violence inflicted by members of their own families. Some have been disfigured and permanently disabled by abusive fathers and husbands and have fled with their children. Others, including young girls, have been sold or given away to settle disputes and erase family debts. Forcibly returning these women to the homes they fled from will amount to a death sentence for some.

The Afghan Women's Network, Women for Afghan Women and other organizations are actively involved in this issue. As of this writing, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley has issued a statement expressing "concern" over the takeover. US Senators Boxer, Cardin and Shaheen sent a letter to President Karzai urging him to "reconsider" his decision.

Karzai seems to have moderated his position as a result. He reversed previous statements, saying only those shelters that "are found in violation of the established standards and the rules and regulations" will be taken over.

But the government's concerns regarding these shelters can be addressed without their full takeover and without instituting abusive regulations.

Despite the ability to tip the balance in this issue, the American Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, his counterparts from other nations and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) have been silent thus far.