Afghanistan, which ratified the ICCPR in 1983, was last reviewed by the UN Human Rights Committee in 1995 – and it was a truncated review at that. The Afghan head of delegation was unable to be present due to delays en route, so the Chair suspended the review that had barely begun, saying that consideration of the report would be resumed at a subsequent meeting.
No subsequent review has ever taken place. Instead, there has been one postponement after another, as shown by the timeline below. Why the neglect by the premier human rights treaty body authorized to monitor compliance with civil and political rights?
Prompted by concerns we heard from Afghan women human rights defenders and Afghan human rights defenders more broadly, three of us wrote to the Human Rights Committee last week urging them to schedule a review of Afghanistan without further delay: Felice Gaer, Former Vice Chairperson and member, Committee against Torture, and Director, Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights; Karima Bennoune, Professor of Law, University of Michigan, and immediate past UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights; and yours truly, Stephanie Farrior, professor of international law for 30 years and past Legal Director of Amnesty International. We await a response. The Committee has reportedly already set its calendar of reviews for the next several years. If a review of Afghanistan is not already scheduled, it should be, and without yet more delay.
Afghanistan has seen significant political turmoil in the years since that partial Committee review held in 1995 – from the Taliban, to the Karzai government after the US invasion and now, back to the Taliban, which is not recognized by the United Nations as the official representative of Afghanistan. This has not prevented other UN human rights treaty bodies from holding a review of the implementation of their treaty in Afghanistan (see below).
The Human Rights Committee did schedule review of Afghanistan for March 2000, but the government requested and received a postponement.
The review was next scheduled to take place in October 2001, and in the preceding session in May, the Committee developed its “List of issues prior to reporting.” However, the events of 9/11 intervened, and the Committee decided “to postpone review of implementation of the Covenant in Afghanistan to a later and more favorable date.” A concern expressed in that meeting by the late Sir Nigel Rodley and shared by other Committee members at the time was that their statement postponing the review “should not be interpreted in such a way as to suggest that the Committee will henceforth no longer consider the reports of States Parties in which an armed conflict is taking place.” Christine Chanet added that the presence of armed conflict does not only not prevent consideration of a state party, but it actually “adds to the concerns of the Committee.”
It was not until a decade later, in July 2011, that a review of Afghanistan was once again on the table, when the Human Rights Committee announced it would develop a “List of issues prior to reporting” at its July 2012 session. It did indeed adopt a list of issues at that 2012 session, but in the ensuing ten years, no review of implementation of the Covenant in Afghanistan was ever scheduled or held.
Today, the human rights situation in Afghanistan is dire. For women and girls, as a journalist quoted in Amnesty International’s recent report has stated, “it’s death in slow motion.” For some, it’s more than one can bear. According to UN News: “The situation for women is so desperate in Afghanistan that they are committing suicide at a rate of one or two every day, the Human Rights Council has heard.”
In light of the dire situation in Afghanistan, the Human Rights Committee could take action and schedule a long overdue review of the civil and political rights situation there. The Committee’s Rule of Procedure 70 allows for review of a state party in the absence of a report. In this case, the last report submitted by Afghanistan could be updated with the significant body of information documented by UNAMA, the UN Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan, and human rights NGOs. In addition, Afghan human rights defenders are keen to submit shadow reports. They are also keen to see every human rights mechanism engaged to the extent possible, to keep up international attention and pressure.
In a situation where the de facto entity in control of a state’s territory is not a recognized government, the Committee could nonetheless follow normal procedures and send an invitation to participate in a review to the office of the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan in New York. The UN-recognized (former) government officials could attend, present an oral (or written) report – or not. It should be noted that Rule of Procedure 68.2 allows for consideration of a report if the state party does not send a representative.
The timeline below shows year after year after year of postponements of a review of Afghanistan by the Human Rights Committee. Other treaty bodies have engaged in periodic reviews of Afghanistan in the years when the Human Rights Committee was not scheduling a review, most recently the Committee against Torture in 2017-2018, and CEDAW in both 2016 and 2020.
It is time for the UN Human Rights Committee to re-engage, and schedule a review as soon as possible, given the critical situation there and the importance of continued international scrutiny. The record of neglect by the Human Rights Committee means that there has been no authoritative analysis of the implementation of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in Afghanistan for 27 years. The Committee should correct this situation promptly.
October 1991: Afghanistan submitted 2nd periodic report to the UN Human Rights Committee.
October 1995: Committee began review of the 2nd report, but soon suspended the review due to the absence of the head of delegation caused by travel delays. “The Chairman said that consideration of the report of Afghanistan would be resumed at a subsequent meeting,” and the Committee requested the Government of Afghanistan to submit information updating the report before 31 May 1996 for consideration at” its session in July 1996. No additional information was received.
The next mention of Afghanistan in Summary Records after October 1995:
October 1999: The Committee invited Afghanistan to present its report at its March 2000 session. The State party asked for a postponement.
November 1999: The Committee discussed and adopted a list of issues to be taken up in connection with the consideration of the second periodic report of Afghanistan. Materials used in the preparation of the list included the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan and a report by Amnesty International on the situation of women in Afghanistan.
May 2001: The Committee decided to consider the situation of Afghanistan during its session in October/November 2001, applying Rule of Procedure 68.2, which allows for consideration of a report if the state does not send a representative.
October 2001: The Committee decided to postpone consideration of Afghanistan to a later date, “pending consolidation of the new Government.” “The Committee has very serious concerns regarding the implementation of the provisions of the Covenant in Afghanistan, particularly with regard to the situation of women in Afghanistan, public and extrajudicial executions, and religious intolerance. . . . Despite the fact that, with the current situation of armed conflict in Afghanistan, other serious concerns concerning the protection of the rights guaranteed by the Covenant have been added, the Committee considers that reviewing the report would not be productive in the current situation. [The Chairman] has therefore decided to postpone consideration of the report to a later and more favorable date for the purposes of article 40 of the Covenant.”
Continued postponements: In succeeding annual reports, the Committee duly recorded the previous postponements, but never scheduled a review:
May 2011: “Afghanistan accepted the new optional procedure on focused reports based on replies to the list of issues prior to reporting. It is thus waiting for the Committee to adopt a list of issues prior to reporting.”
July 2011: The Committee report notes: “The timetable for consideration of reports posted on the Committee website would . . . take account of the States parties for which a list of issues prior to reporting was to be adopted in July 2012, namely Afghanistan, Croatia, Israel, San Marino and New Zealand.”
July 2012: The Committee adopted a list of issues prior to reporting on Afghanistan with a deadline of 31 October 2013 for its response. In the Committee’s July 2012 LOIPR includes the following “Please provide any other information on measures taken to disseminate and implement the Committee’s previous recommendations (CCPR/C/AFG/CO/2), including any necessary statistical data.”
For those interested in seeing what those previous recommendations were: Per the UN Library Services, “despite the fact that document CCPR/C/AFG/Q/3 clearly mentions CCPR/C/AFG/CO/2, this document symbol is not recorded in any other source or index and according to the historical research above, the second report issued in 1992 was never fully considered – so no formal documented outcome must have been issued.”
Over the ten years that have passed since it adopted the list of issues, the Human Rights Committee has never reviewed implementation of the Covenant in Afghanistan.
2013-2014: The Annual Report notes the Committee’s adoption of a list of issues prior to reporting on Afghanistan with a deadline of 31 October 2013 for its response. “This report has still not been received.”
Note: The Human Rights Committee’s Rule of Procedure 70 allows for consideration of a State Party in the absence of a report.
2014-2019: The next five Annual Reports of the Human Rights Committee stop giving the prior history of postponed reviews, and only mention Afghanistan in the list of states that are 10 or more years overdue in submitting a report.
There is no further mention of Afghanistan in Annual Reports or Summary Records.