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Issue Date:  May 13, 2005

Rights mandate for Afghanistan to end

U.N. envoy says U.S. seeks to stifle inquires into abuses


Cherif Bassiouni, the outgoing U.N. human rights investigator in Afghanistan, said U.S. efforts to do away with his position are a transparent attempt to restrict U.N. oversight of human rights conditions and may be related to a secret transfer of Afghan and al-Qaeda detainees from Guantánamo Bay naval base in Cuba to Afghanistan.

Within days of hearing a report that offered a devastating portrait of human rights conditions in Afghanistan -- including allegations that U.S. military, CIA operatives, or surrogates working for both may have been involved in abuses of detainees in their custody -- the 53-member board of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) voted in April in Geneva not to extend the mandate for a special U.N. human rights investigator in Afghanistan. The decision came after what has been described as intense lobbying by U.S. officials to end the mandate.

According to media reports, U.S. representatives to the commission argued human rights conditions in Afghanistan had improved so markedly since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban regime that a U.N. special rapporteur was no longer needed.

The outgoing rapporteur argues otherwise. Bassiouni, a professor of international law and president of DePaul University’s International Human Rights Law Institute in Chicago, describes conditions in Afghanistan’s prisons as “medieval.” In an interview with NCR, Bassiouni said that Afghani women are treated little better than chattel. He charges that many of the one-time warlords now assuming new roles as government ministers in the Karzai administration or as provincial governors should more properly be on their way to trial than to government offices because of their involvement in years of human rights abuses, extrajudicial killing and the nation’s $28 billion drug trade. The May 2 explosion of a hidden weapons cache beneath the compound of one such warlord in a village in Baghlan province took the lives of 25, and suggested that at least some new members of the Afghan civil authority have not changed their ways.

But Bassiouni’s most startling charge concerns the possible secret transfer of detainees from Guantánamo Bay naval base in Cuba to Afghanistan.

According to Bassiouni, during the past two months some of the 17 Afghans recently returned by the United States to Afghanistan from Cuba have told tribal leaders that other Guantánamo detainees are already in Afghanistan and still being held and that more are on the way.

Because of continuing reports of detainee abuse while in U.S. military custody, the United States is under mounting international pressure to allow U.N. investigators into its “Gitmo” detention facility in Cuba. Bassiouni speculates that the U.S. military may have already concluded that Guantánamo will eventually have to be opened to U.N. special rapporteurs. “Now this is the usual shell game,” Bassiouni said. Guantánamo detainees will be moved to Afghanistan where they will again be out of reach.

Ending his mandate, according to this analysis, is merely part of the strategy. “They figure, ‘If this guy’s going to stay here another two years, he’s going to increase the pressure on us to get inside one of these prisons and talk to one of the Guantánamo detainees, and then the cat’s going to be out of the bag [on human rights abuses in Cuba].’ ”

U.S. officials have refused to comment on Bassiouni’s charges, and a spokesperson for the U.S. Southern Command in Miami said he could not comment on detainee transfers. State Department spokesperson Kurtis Cooper described the decision to end the mandate a matter of “normalizing” the U.N. human rights review process on Afghanistan, given “ongoing improvements on human rights.”

As a UNCHR special rapporteur since April 2004, Bassiouni attempted to get inside U.S.-run detention facilities to check on conditions inside and the treatment of Afghani detainees. American officials refused to admit him, and Bassiouni said he was not surprised to learn that some U.S. resistance had been expressed against the renewal of his U.N. mandate to monitor human rights in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, he expected the mandate to be extended for two years.

“I thought, well, if it’s just something personal against me, some resentment to me, than I can just step aside and let someone else take over,” Bassiouni said. The work in Afghanistan had been grueling, and “I was planning to step down in six months anyway.” A U.N. official told Bassiouni that U.S. representatives were unenthusiastic about continuing the mandate itself. Bassiouni speculates that U.S. authorities on the ground in Afghanistan do not want the United Nations meddling in their treatment of detainees. Eight detainees in U.S. custody have died in Afghanistan.

Bassiouni worries that if Cuban detainees are indeed transferred to Afghan control, like hundreds of Afghans already imprisoned beyond any human-rights monitor’s reach, they face a grim outcome at the hands of secretive Afghan security forces or private “freelance” operatives working for U.S. or Afghan authorities. “If people end up arrested, tortured, or killed [by such operatives], then the United States has plausible deniability,” he said.

Born in Egypt, the 68-year-old Bassiouni was schooled by Jesuits in Cairo. He is married to a Catholic and has taught at DePaul for more than 40 years. “I am a Muslim with many coats of Catholic paint,” he said.

Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, Bassiouni previously helped establish the International Criminal Court and served as chairman of the U.N. war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia, helping to try Balkan war criminals, including one-time Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, and undertaking “the biggest rape investigation in history.”

“I interviewed 220 rape victims,” he recalled. “As a result of that work, rape has now become recognized as an international war crime.”

Some of the human rights abuses Bassiouni noted in the two reports he submitted to UNCHR include extrajudicial execution, torture, rape, arbitrary arrest and detention, inhuman conditions of detention, illegal and forceful seizure of private property, child abduction and trafficking in children, and crimes against women.

According to his report, the uncertain security conditions within Afghanistan are a major contributing factor to the ongoing human rights abuses there. To Bassiouni it seems that the roots of that insecurity can be traced to the United States’ reliance on the Northern Alliance to contain the Taliban in 2001. As a result, a warlord remnant remains in power. His prognosis for the future of Afghan civil society is not optimistic. “The warlords have 80,000 men,” said Bassiouni, offering a frustrated shrug. “The government has 20,000.”

Kevin Clarke is a Chicago-based writer, senior editor for U.S. Catholic magazine, and managing editor for Salt of the Earth, an online resource for social justice (

National Catholic Reporter, May 13, 2005

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