Afghan HRDs concerned about shrinking space for civil society

Intensified peace negotiations with the Taliban in the recent months have raised alarm over the protection of civil rights and freedoms among civil society and especially women's rights groups across the country. Civil society strongly denounced their exclusion from the series peace talks meetings with Taliban in the first months of 2019, led by the USA in Doha and separate, parallel peace efforts brokered by Russia in Moscow in February 2019. CSOs fear that their rights and freedoms might be compromised in a potential peace agreement with the Taliban. During Taliban’s rule of Afghanistan the group imposed through harsh punishments strict restrictions on individual freedoms and women's rights including banning women’s right to education, work and freedom of movement.

In February-March 2019, the CIVICUS Monitor team conducted a number of interviews with Afghan civil society actors to gather their views on the state of civic space in Afghanistan in the context of ongoing peace negotiations and the upcoming presidential elections set for September 2019. Below two of these interviews are published.

Two prominent civil society members, leading organisations with networks among CSOs and operations in Afghanistan’s provinces, highlighted the following as the main factors contributing to a "shrinking civil society space" in Afghanistan: insecurity and armed groups opposing civil society’s work and values; political interference that undermine civil society; exclusion of civil society, and in particular women’s groups, from the peace talks.

Due to concerns about the ongoing threats to journalists and human rights defenders, who face extreme risks including murder, and current immediate restrictions around the peace talks and its negative impact on the already shrinking civic space in Afghanistan, Afghanistan was added in March 2019 to the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List. The Monitor Watch List highlights countries where there is an urgent, immediate and developing threat to civic space.

Ms Liah Jawad, Director of Feminine Solidarity for Justice Organisation in Afghanistan (FSJO): peace talks are concerning for rights of women and women human rights defenders 

FSJO works on the rights of war victims and mobilises communities to advocate for accountability for past human rights violations in Afghanistan.

Ms Jawad told CIVICUS Monitor (the interview can be viewed above) that civil society and human rights defenders in Afghanistan face a number of restrictions and suffer not only due to the lack of security but also due to the lack of rule of law, especially in remote areas. She noted that harassment and threats of persecution against CSOs has been committed not only by armed groups but also by authorities "on a daily basis".

Ms Jawad further said that the lack of protection mechanisms by the Afghan government and the international community has a negative impact on civil society to freely conduct their work to protect and promote human rights.

Echoing the widely held concerns among women's civil society groups and activists, Ms Jawad viewed the peace talks between the Taliban and the USA as a threat to the rights and freedoms of Afghan women, that have been gained in the past two decades after the ousting of the Taliban in 2001, pointing to the repressive policies during the Taliban regime against women. 

Mr Aziz Rafiee, Managing Director of Afghan Civil Society Forum Organization (ACSFo): civic space is shrinking due to political interference, undermining and weakening civil society 

ACSFo is a membership organisation with a network of members from across Afghanistan, seeking to "identify, raise and incorporate the needs, concerns and views of Afghan citizens into the political, social and economic development processes".

Similarly to Ms Jawad, Mr Rafiee told the CIVICUS Monitor that the space for civil society in Afghanistan is shrinking not only due to the war and armed conflict but also due to a lack of government support and impunity for violations that fails to provide a safe space for civil society to operate.

Further Mr Rafiee raised concerns over different parties to the conflict exerting their influence within civil society. Additionally, Mr Rafiee said that the government increasingly has been politically influencing and exploiting vulnerability of civil society groups to use CSOs against each other, which counters civil society space and undermines CSOs' values, cooperation and solidarity among CSOs.