Afghanistan has been at war for 40 years. During this time every party to the conflict has been responsible for a range of human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war. Many Afghans, including refugees and the larger Afghan diaspora, consider themselves victims of a conflict that has consumed generations. While Afghanistan has seen a number of efforts to negotiate peace, human rights concerns, including addressing grievances that have motivated fighters to take up arms, have not played much of a role in any of them.
The talks that culminated in the 1988 Geneva Accords, the agreement under which the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, did not mention human rights except to affirm the right of Afghan refugees to return. There was no effort to reform security institutions and no provision to account for war crimes by any party to the conflict. Through the 1990s, international efforts to bring warring Afghan factions to the table amounted to little, while foreign support for the belligerents by Afghanistan’s neighbours and other powers continued.
The purpose of the December 2001 Bonn Conference, organised under UN auspices, was to broker a power- sharing arrangement among the major Afghan anti-Taliban armed factions, principally those known as the Northern Alliance, and determine the composition of an interim government, a roadmap for drafting a new constitution, and a timetable for holding elections.
The Bonn Agreement said little on human rights. Despite widespread condemnation of the Taliban for their treatment of women, the agreement said only that women should be represented in government and participate in planned political processes. In the absence of explicit demands by any political group at the conference with respect to past crimes, there was no impetus to pursue transitional justice. In closed sessions, former mujahidin leaders vehemently rejected
a proposal to prohibit an amnesty for serious war crimes. Barnett Rubin noted in 2003 that during closed sessions negotiators had discussed such a proposal, but it caused a serious rift when some faction leaders suggested that the motive behind it was to dishonour and disarm the mujahidin.
Nor did the Bonn Agreement address the question of how to demobilise various militias, or vet them for any future role in the security forces. In the end, the agreement included only some very basic requirements on human rights, including establishing a national human rights monitoring body and pledging that the government would abide by the provisions of international human rights instruments to which Afghanistan was a party.
It was not a surprise that the Bonn negotiations failed to address contentious issues surrounding rights, disarmament and accountability. The Afghan factions represented there were concerned with the allocation of power. They had no interest in pursuing questions that could undermine that power and cost them the support of their men. There was no Afghan civil society at the talks to push for such measures and no international presence to enforce them.
The US sought an agreement among the main anti-Taliban groups that would allow it to continue the fight against al- Qaeda and the Taliban, and the UN and other international participants feared pursuing issues that could spark confrontation among the Afghan factions. The Taliban were not present at Bonn, and were not party to the bargain on which the post-2001 Afghan state was built. Thus, many of the conflict dynamics that had characterised the war for years prior to Bonn have since continued to undermine efforts toward peacemaking. If serious negotiations were to get under way, they would need to address these contested issues, including the legacy of the post-2001 transition and the security structure it created.