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The Role of the International Community
Afghanistan had attracted l ittle international attention since 1992, when resistance forces succeeded in toppling the communist government and then embarked on the bloody civil war. Efforts in early 1998 to restart a process aimed at resolving the conflict took on new urgency after the Taliban’s mid-year offensive, and the executions of ten Iranian officials in Mazar-i Sharif, raised the prospect of war with Iran. Humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and to the 1.2 million refugees in Pakistan remained the principal basis for most countries’ relationship with Afghanistan. Most neighboring countries also provided financial or military support to one or more of the Afghan factions, as did Saudi Arabia.

The Taliban’s gender policies continued to attract widespread international condemnation, particularly from the European Union and from women’s organizations in the U.S. In response to pressure from such organizations, the U.S. also stepped up its criticism of the Taliban.

United Nations
Despite the Taliban’s demands for U.N. recognition, member states continued to refuse to recognize it as a legitimate government. As of October, the ousted government of Burhanuddin Rabbani regime still held Afghanistan’s U.N. seat — a fact that contributed to problems between the U.N. and the Taliban.

The Group of Six-plus-Two, composed of all the countries bordering Afghanistan (Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China) plus the United States and Russia, and operating under the auspices of the U.N., stepped up efforts early in the year to initiate talks aimed at a settlement between the UF and the Taliban. During a visit by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson—the most senior U.S. official to visit the country in twenty years— in April, a cease-fire was announced, but plans for further talks between the two parties foundered almost immediately. The Taliban’s mid-year offensive scuttled further efforts.

Throughout the year, the humanitarian effort in the country was plagued with problems as the U.N. and nongovernmental relief organizations confronted new security concerns and the Taliban’s restrictive gender policies. A stalemate between the U.N. and the Taliban over security and freedom of movement for female workers achieved some resolution in May when the Taliban agreed to guarantee the security of U.N. personnel working in the country. However, in a concession that appeared to undermine its own principles, the U.N. also agreed that women’s access to health care and education would be “gradual.” Although the Taliban also agreed to allow for the construction of schools for boys and girls, and to permit women to work in the health sector, it provided no assurances that girls would be allowed to attend the schools or that female health workers would be allowed to travel freely to work. In the weeks following the agreement, the Taliban closed all home-based schools and vocational training centers for girls and women in Kabul and ordered doctors not to treat women who were not accompanied by a male relative.

In a dramatic development in July, thirty-five international NGOs operating in Kabul withdrew their expatriate staff from the country rather than comply with a Taliban demand to relocate to and rehabilitate a dilapidated dormitory that lacked electricity and running water. The Taliban ultimately agreed to allow the NGOs to return to their former offices, with the understanding that the relocation would take place in the near future. Among the groups affected were Save the Children, Care International, and Doctors of the World (Médecins du Monde). Some groups, including Care, were able to keep some programs running using local staff.

Further negotiations between the NGOs and the Taliban were put on hold following the U.S. airstrikes on alleged training camps near the Pakistani border and the subsequent shooting by unidentified assailants of two U.N. workers in Kabul, one of whom died. In the aftermath of the U.S. action, the U.N. and virtually every relief group evacuated its staff from the country. The International Committee of the Red Cross maintained limited protection services and undertook the first visit to Mazar-i Sharif in August. As of October, the U.N. and the NGOs were negotiating the terms of their return. The U.N. was also negotiating to send a humanitarianmission to Bamiyan, which fell to the Taliban in September, as it was reported to be in urgent need of food and other relief supplies. As of mid-October, no agreement had been reached, and the Taliban claimed that the airport was too damaged to permit such a delegation to land.

In his March report, U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Afghanistan Choong-Hyun Paik stated that the human rights situation had continued to deteriorate, that people in Kabul lived in fear of arbitrary punishment and harassment by the religious police, and that a large number of people, particularly from minority groups, had been imprisoned in Kabul. Paik also visited the sites of mass graves of 2-3,000 Taliban prisoners who had been summarily executed in Mazar-i Sharif during a failed attempt by the Taliban to capture the city in May 1997; he recommended that a full investigation take place. The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights also sent a mission to Afghanistan in May to assess the feasibility of conducting an investigation into the massacre. The team visited sites where bodies had been thrown into wells, buried in mass graves, and left lying in the open in remote desert areas. The subsequent massacre of civilians in the city in August 1998 was carried out largely in revenge for the killings of the captured Taliban troops.

In a resolution passed on April 21, the U.N.Commission on Human Rights noted with concern the “ongoing further deterioration of the situation of human rights in Afghanistan,” in particular violations of the human rights of women and girls and combatants’ mass killings of civilians and prisoners of war. The resolution condemned interference by all factions with the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population.

On August 28, the U.N. Security Council passed resolution 1193, expressing its grave concern at the continued Afghan conflict, which it said had caused “a serious and growing threat to regional and international peace and security, as well as extensive human suffering, further destruction, refugee flows and other forcible displacement of large numbers of people,” and noted the “increasingly ethnic nature of the conflict, [and] reports of ethnic and religious-based persecution, particularly against the Shi'ites.” The Security Council demanded “that all Afghan factions stop fighting, resume negotiations without delay ... and cooperate with the aim of creating a broad-based and fully representative government, which would protect the rights of all Afghans” and called for an end to all “outside interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan,” asking states to prohibit their “military personnel from planning and participating in military operations in Afghanistan and mediately to end the supply of arms and ammunition to all parties to the conflict.” On September 15 the Security Council “strongly condemned” the murder of the Iranian officials and called for prosecutions of those responsible for those killings and for the attacks on U.N. personnel. On April 6 the Security Council expressed concern at the increasingly ethnic nature of the conflict and called for all outside states to cease their interference. The Security Council also stated that it “support[ed] the steps of the Secretary-General to launch investigations into alleged mass killings of prisoners of war and civilians in Afghanistan.”

The massacres in Mazar-i Sharif and the killings of the Iranian officials spurred Iran to mount military exercises along its borders. Escalating rhetoric between Iran and the Taliban led U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on October 9 to urge both countries to “exercise maximum restraint.” On October 14, U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi traveled to Qandahar to meet with the head of the Taliban, Mullah Muhammad Umar, in an attempt to defuse tensions with Iran and also to press for action against those responsible for the attacks on U.N. personnel in Kabul. Umar agreed to a face-to-face meeting with Iranian leaders. Brahimi also held meetings with officials in Iran before arriving in Afghanistan.

Relevant Human Rights Watch report:
Afghanistan: Massacre at Mazar-i Sharif , 11/98





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