The United Nations mission in Afghanistan in a report on Monday said that at least 11 human defenders and media workers were killed in targeted attacks in the country from 12 September 2020 when the peace negotiations started in Doha through to 31 January 2021.
The report says human rights and media space have contracted as a result, with many professionals exercising self-censorship in their work, quitting their jobs, and leaving their homes and communities with hopes it will improve their safety.
Many, including high profile personalities, have fled the country, the report says, adding that the killings have had the broader impact across society of also diminishing expectations around efforts towards peace.
“The Afghan people need and deserve a flourishing civic space - a society where people can think, write and voice their views openly, without fear,” said Deborah Lyons, head of UNAMA in Afghanistan.
“The voices of human rights defenders and the media are critical for any open and decent society. At a time when dialogue and an end to the conflict through talks and political settlement should be the focus, the voices from human rights and the media need to be heard more than ever before, instead they are being silenced,” Lyons said.
The report records a total of 65 human rights defenders and media professionals killed in the period from 1 January 2018 to 31 January 2021, 32 from the human rights sector and 33 from the media. Of these, 11 (five human rights defenders and six media) were killed in the four-month period from 1 October 2020 to 31 January 2021 alone.
The report notes that as they work to provide timely information to the population of Afghanistan on a range of issues (including violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law), human rights defenders, journalists and media workers are far too often exposed to threats, intimidation, harassment, surveillance or arbitrary detention.
The report underlines that all actors have an important role to play in preventing such killings and intimidation, promoting accountability and preventing impunity. Investigations into killings must be independent, impartial, prompt, thorough, effective, credible and transparent, the report says.
The report suggests that the prosecution of suspected perpetrators should strictly follow due process and fair trial standards.
It also says that the use of charged rhetoric against the role of civil society and the media, threats or actions taken against whistleblowers, and the circulation of “target lists” all contribute to perpetuating the conditions in which civic space can only shrink further and exacerbate the unsettling effect on the population, especially human rights defenders and media professionals.
The report outlines some recommendations to both state and non-state actors as follows:
The Government of Afghanistan
Operationalize an effective and cooperative national protection mechanism, building on the recent establishment of the Joint Commission for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders under the leadership of the Second Vice President of Afghanistan.
Put in place an adequate preventive framework, including special protective and proactive security measures for human rights defenders, journalists and media workers subject to threats or other types of intimidation.
Ensure that human rights defenders, journalists and media workers enjoy their legitimate rights to life, freedom of association, freedom of expression and access to information, as well as other fundamental freedoms, without fear of reprisal or attack.
Counter impunity, including by conducting independent, impartial, prompt, thorough, effective, credible and transparent investigations into killings.
Promote genuine accountability, including by prosecuting suspected perpetrators of targeted attacks strictly following international due process and fair trial standards.
Protect and promote civic space, including refraining from adopting restrictive laws on freedom of association and freedom of expression, as well as avoiding a public discourse where civic space is unnecessarily challenged or targeted.
Cease all killings of human rights defenders, journalists and media workers, in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law.
Condemn at the leadership level killings of human rights defenders, journalists and media workers.
Investigate cases where Taliban members are alleged to have been involved and hold to account Taliban members that order or implement the killings of human rights defenders, journalists and media workers.
Adopt, publicize and enforce policies that prohibit the killings of human rights defenders, journalists and media workers.
Repel existing policies (and refrain from adopting new ones) limiting civic space, including restrictions to freedom of association, the work of civil society and humanitarian actors, freedom of expression.
The international community
Continue condemning the killing of human rights defenders and media professionals, underscoring the importance of the role of human rights defenders and independent media for a unified, sovereign, peaceful and democratic Afghanistan, in line with the Communiqué adopted at the Geneva Conference on Afghanistan on 24 November 2020.
Continue to engage with human rights defenders, journalists and media workers at risk and increase support to programs that provide security, travel, financial, capacity building and other assistance to them.