Appeal for Urgent Action to Protect Human Rights Defenders at Risk
Front Line Defenders is appealing for immediate action to protect the lives of human rights defenders including women human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers in Afghanistan. The capture of large parts of the country and the capital Kabul by Taliban on 15 August 2021 has placed defenders and journalists, especially women, in an extremely dangerous situation without a clear path of escape or protection. Front Line Defenders salutes the courage of human rights defenders, especially women human rights defenders, in Afghanistan who have spent their lives advocating for accountability and justice and contributed to immense progress on human rights these past years, often at great personal cost. We stand in solidarity with them, and call on the international community, especially the US, UK, Canada, Norway and EU member states, to urgently facilitate safe passage out of Afghanistan for those human rights defenders who need this.
The need for support and protection is more urgent than ever before. Preserving the right to life and dignity of human rights defenders has to be a key priority. Over the past years human rights defenders in Afghanistan, including their family members, have faced threats, intimidation, harassment, surveillance, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Those in the provinces and women human rights defenders have been especially vulnerable. The lack of respect for international humanitarian law and the absence of accountability for attacks against human rights defenders and activists have only increased the danger to defenders and emboldened perpetrators. We have previously appealed for an end to the violence, accountability for crimes and the meaningful inclusion of women and defenders in the peace process. The escalation of violence, culminating in the crisis faced today, is directly linked to the failure of years-long peace talks and the hasty withdrawal of US and allied troops.
We are deeply concerned by reports from areas under Taliban control including the capital Kabul, of violence and abuses against civilians. Human rights defenders are being forced into hiding, and frequently changing their locations to escape door-to-door searches by the Taliban and armed groups. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and national human rights groups have shared disturbing reports of the human rights situation in the country. We are conscious that reported incidents of revenge attacks against human rights defenders and abuses against civilians do not fully reflect the scale of the violence, given the difficulties in documenting and working on the ground. Human rights defenders in the provinces, especially those from ethnic and religious minority groups women defenders, are especially at risk and need immediate support and protection. We are especially concerned for the safety of women human rights defenders, women journalists, and women who held official and public positions who will be targetted for their work and profile under Taliban control.
We are alarmed by the images and first-hand reports of the crisis at Kabul International Airport, and by accounts that some airplanes are taking off while not at full capacity, despite the evident crisis and the fact that they represent the only life-saving gateway for human rights defenders. We are receiving increasing testimonies that access to the airport is restricted, even for those who are in possession of authorized travel documents, both by Taliban forces and by US and UK troops.
Front Line Defenders calls for urgent international action to proactively assist human rights defenders and their families seeking to leave Afghanistan. We welcome the efforts already undertaken including the opening up of spaces for human rights defenders to access visas, and visa exemptions by neighbouring countries and the US, Canada, Ireland, Chile and other EU member States. However, given the scale of the crisis and the need for support, much more must be done and in a manner that is coordinated and responsive to the needs of human rights defenders on the ground. We welcome the recent call by European Union Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson’s to EU member States to “step up their engagement on resettlement, to increase resettlement quotas to help those in need of international protection and to offer complementary legal pathways” to reaching European soil. This must include expediting visas, supporting safe passage for human rights defenders out of Afghanistan including from Kabul airport, providing relocation and resettlement, and suspending all deportations and forced returns to Afghanistan.
Front Line Defenders calls on countries engaged in evacuations to urgently focus on securing access to the airport and creating an effective humanitarian corridor allowing anyone who wishes, including human rights defenders, to leave from the Kabul airport. All land borders should be reopened, which would reduce the bottleneck on Kabul airport and provide those seeking to flee alternative options to leave the country.
The international community must also urgently focus on exerting pressure on the Taliban to abide by its pledge to allow access to the airport, to not engage in any reprisals and to support human rights, including women’s rights and media freedom, and for this to be done in full compliance with international human rights law. International action should include practical measures to document and record violations and hold those responsible to account.