Women’s rights activist says the world should talk to the Taliban

Sima Samar, the chairwoman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, has had a long career as a champion of the oppressed. She was born in Afghanistan and in 1982, she earned a medical degree from Kabul University. In 1984, the communist government kidnapped her husband, who never returned, and Samar and her son fled to Pakistan. There, she established the Shuhada Organization to provide reproductive health care to Afghan refugees. After the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, Samar returned to Afghanistan, where she served as the minister of women’s affairs in the interim government of Hamid Karzai. She went on to serve the United Nations as a special representative on human rights in Sudan. Since 2004, Samar has been the chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, the country’s national human rights organization, which is independent from the Afghan government.

Early this year, the Trump Administration announced that it had a framework for a peace deal with the Taliban, which would eventually lead to the withdrawal of U.S. and nato forces. Yet the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, and women’s rights activists fear that an American-led deal would undermine their interests and that the Taliban would be unlikely to abide by it in the long term. Though Afghanistan has made progress on human rights during the past two decades, it is still one of the most dangerous places in the world for women. Samar is not opposed to peace talks but has said that such talks should include women and address past human rights violations.

I recently reached Samar by phone in Kabul. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how Afghanistan’s current human-rights record compares to earlier eras, what peace talks can and cannot accomplish, and how the country can avoid a state of permanent conflict.

What is the state of human rights in Afghanistan today, and how does it compare to where it was before the American-led war?

We have lots of achievements in human rights. If we look at the situation in the nineteen-nineties in Afghanistan, there were violations of the human rights of everyone, but particularly women. Women were not allowed to go to school; women were not allowed to walk on the street or go to the shop and buy a piece of bread because they had to have been accompanied by a male member of the family, and they had to wear the burka. It denied the dignity and identity of people in the country. This was the same for men—they had to wear the turban. And the children were not allowed to play with toys that had music or looked like things. Imagine that; they were not allowed to run a kite because it was like a bird.

So, if you compare that to today, you have around nine million children going to school, boys and girls—although access is still limited because of the war goon on, in some parts of the country and also because of the war culture, which was implemented not only by the Taliban but also before the Taliban, by the mujahideen, and also during the war with the pro-Russian government in our country. During conflicts, women are more vulnerable to abuse, particularly sexual abuse, so families were controlling them. Political groups were controlling women’s mobility, women’s rights, and freedom of expression. Freedom of expression and freedom of the media are now two of the biggest achievements in this country. If you compare it to neighboring countries, we are on top on that issue.

Do you think the current government is committed to human rights?

Yes, of course. The government after the Taliban, which was ruled by President Karzai, was committed to human rights, and, of course, the human rights defenders were also fighting for this, including myself and the Human Rights Commission. And the current government continues to do that. Of course, the opposition to the Afghan government, the armed opposition, is not happy with the freedom of expression and freedom of media in the country. And also, some illegal armed groups that are not with the Taliban put pressure on the freedom of media and freedom of expression in different parts of the country.

You’ve explained why things have gotten better, in terms of human rights, than they were during Taliban rule. Do you think that continues without the American military presence? Or do you think that a constant occupation and constant war are not only bringing human rights abuses but also the only way to preserve the advances that have been made?

I think that recent history—the 41 years of conflict in Afghanistan—shows that full withdrawal, without looking at the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan, will be a failure. This is what happened with the withdrawal of the U.S.S.R. Sudden withdrawal will deteriorate the situation. American and nato forces are partners with the Afghan government and the Afghan people. And this partnership should be based on the understanding that the withdrawal of the troops or the rejection of the troops should be based on the condition on the ground.

We are very grateful for the support of the American people and the American government, but I think that this partnership and this support should continue until we stand on our own two feet. And we’re going in that direction.

So you think progress is being made?

Yes. In 2002, we didn’t have an army. We didn’t have police. We didn’t have intelligence services. After that, the militias who came to Kabul were acting as an army; they were acting as the police. Now we have established our army, and they’ll need to be trained and supported. We have our own national police. We have a better intelligence service. Again, I insist that it is not perfect, and they might not be able to continue without the support of nato and the U.S. as our partners.

Recently, the Trump administration has been trying to negotiate some sort of end to the conflict with the Taliban. What do you make of these negotiations, and do you think that they are a good idea?

All the conflicts around the world need negotiation; there is doubt about that. In Afghanistan, regimes came and went, and, unfortunately, with all the support of the international community, we’re still in conflict, to be very honest and frank. So one of the ways to end the conflict is to negotiate. It cannot be negotiated. But if negotiation actually accepts the democratic process that we have in Afghanistan—as I mentioned before, it’s not perfect, but it’s still a process that people have paid a price for—then they can come and stand for elections. Let me give an example. In 2005, Mullah Muttawakil and Mullah Qalamuddin Muttawakil was the foreign minister of the Taliban, and Qalamuddin was the minister for Vice and Virtue, the one who was beating people on the streets, saying, “Why are you walking without mahram [a male relative]?” or “Why don’t you have longer hair?” or “Why do you have a short beard?” “Both of them stood for elections and failed. So that shows the desire of the Afghan people. If they accept theprocess—thee democratic process—letet them come.

But, for me, as a human rights activist, I think we have to have accountability—we should not undermine justice. Because, in the previous agreements, including the Bonn Agreement, we forgot about accountability. We forgot about justice. We forgot about the victims of war. Then what? Then the war continued. And the war continues.

But does the government have enough power? Or does the Taliban have so much power that those terms cannot be forced because the bargaining position of the United States or the Afghan government, which seems somewhat wary of these talks, isn’t strong enough?

Well, it is a concern because, once again, we undermine accountability and justice. I’m not promoting revenge. I’m not promoting that they should be executed or so on, but we should have a mechanism to heal the wounds of the victims. At least these people should be pushed to apologize to them. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives during these conflicts. They were civilians and, of course, there was the army as well. The other side also lost a lot of people, of course. There’s no doubt about that. But we should have a mechanism in order to reduce the repetition of revenge, the repetition of killing people, and the repetition of civilian casualties in the country.

A lot of women’s rights activists have been concerned about these negotiations because they feel that women’s rights are going to get sold out in a deal with the Taliban. How concerned are you about that?

I am very much concerned, because, of course, they keep saying that women will be included, but, in all the negotiations going on these days, in the talks between different groups, including the special envoy of the U.S., there are no women. The day before yesterday, there was a meeting that included Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. A year ago, or a year and a half ago, he was fighting against the people of Afghanistan and fighting against the U.S. He was in the meeting, and women were not.

This is the former warlord?

Yes, yes. We are all concerned. I have to say that Ambassador [Zalmay] Khalilzad [the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation] had some meetings with women. But I think it should be more. They should be included, not only in the talking but in action, in reality and in practical means and ways. Women are the victims of the conflict.

It seems, from what you’re saying, that it’s hard to imagine a time when Afghanistan doesn’t have either a lot of war and a foreign-military presence or real repression.

Well, honestly, the people are really worried because they have had experience with the negotiations before. They are very, very worried, and that’s why we demand, and I personally demand, that it should be inclusive and women should be an active part of the whole negotiation, not only at the negotiating table but also in the Afghan government, or your government, in making plans. And also people with disabilities. There are hundreds of thousands of disabled people in this country because of the conflict and the continuous war in the country. So these people have the right to say something, and their rights should be heard in the negotiation.

What does the Commission do on a daily basis? What is your average work day?

Well, we have different departments working on human rights education and on the monitoring and investigation of human rights. We have field monitoring that covers twenty rights, beginning with the right to life and the right to education. We have a department for women’s rights, we have a child-rights department, and we also have one for the rights of people with disabilities. One small department looks only at civilian casualties and violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. We train the police on human rights, and we train the army, the judges, the prosecutors, and the teachers. We are working on the curriculum for the schools. And, these days, we are working on the National Inquiry on Women’s Peace and Security. So we have public hearings. We invite officials, women’s groups and activists to discuss the role of women in peace and security. And we interview people with very long questionnaires in order to have evidence-based reports.

My final words would be that if we undermine human rights and women’s rights during the negotiations and continue to discriminate between people of different beliefs or ethnicities, then that will fuel the conflict. It is not going to end the conflict.