While lauding social and political progress made in Afghanistan during the past year, Afghan human rights activists say much vigilance and international support is needed to protect human rights in what remains a very insecure, and in some cases hostile, environment.
Even so, in recent interviews after the one-year anniversary of the US-led military campaign which resulted in the fall of the Taliban, a regime that wanted to create the world's purest Islamic state, several activists said changes in Afghanistan should not be overlooked.
"There has been a kind of restoration in Afghanistan," said Sarwar Hussaini, director of the Co-operation Center for Afghanistan (CCA), an Afghan human rights organization that has support from US church groups and relief agencies. He pointed to a sense of hope among Afghans, particularly those who had suffered under Taliban rule, and hailed progress that included a fledgling press, which he believed was freer than the press in neighboring Iran and Pakistan.
"The situation is much, much better than it was a year ago," said Sima Samar, who heads the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and is the director of Shuhada Organization, an Afghan relief organization that also has ties to US churches and relief groups.
Nonetheless, both Samar and Hussaini said they remained troubled about the problems experienced by women, who despite the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, still face serious discrimination in education, employment and health care. "There are still many barriers for women," Hussaini told the reporters.
The economic situation in Afghanistan remains dire, Samar said, with women and children feeling particularly vulnerable. "The country is in a bad situation," she said of Afghanistan's still-teetering economy.
The activists said the lack of a national army, police force and judiciary system remained a grave problem; they also echoed concerns by international human rights groups that the United States and its allies need to expand peace-keeping forces in Afghanistan.
So far, peace-keeping forces have limited their role to work in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital. As a result, Afghanistan's national government remains far too dependent on local warlords to maintain security, according to Human Rights Watch, the New York-based human rights organization.
Curiously, one of the remnants of Taliban rule, the much-hated "Vice and Virtue," a police-like religious force to maintain public morality, has re-emerged recently, though in a much tamer form than before. It still tries to exert public pressure to maintain conservative social decorum, though it is no longer taking men to task for the length of their beards or berating (or physically harming or even killing) women for their choice of dress.
Nonetheless, its continued existence is a troubling sign to the activists that the social conservatism that was unthinkable in Afghanistan 20 or 30 years ago retains a strong pull on the country. "Don't we need police rather than 'Vice and Virtue'?" Samar said.
By Albert H. Lee