An Afghan Human Rights Activist’s Long Fight for Justice

The human rights community in Afghanistan came under attack last Thursday when President Hamid Karzai refused to renew the contracts of three members of the country’s human rights commission –effectively firing them. One of the three commissioners removed from the panel was Nader Nadery, arguably Afghanistan’s most respected and well-known human rights advocate, a tireless and often provocative voice for transitional justice. It was Nadery’s conviction that the powerful be held accountable for their actions that ultimately cost him his job.

For several years, he had led a team that quietly gathered evidence attesting to mass atrocities committed by various armed factions over three decades of war. That evidence, along with the testimony of thousands of witnesses, was being turned into an expansive written history of crimes of war in Afghanistan, a report the palace was determined to quash.

Nadery began his career as a dissident early. He was only 22 years old when, in the spring of 1997, the Taliban government summarily imprisoned him for advocating an end to the conflict that had killed almost two million people since 1978 and gutted Afghan society from within. Then a Kabul University law student and peace activist, Nadery and other students incensed the Taliban leadership by drafting a peace plan and approaching representatives of the United Nations for help putting it into action.

Incarcerated in a bare, hilltop prison, Nadery was bound, kicked, beaten on his feet and interrogated for weeks by Taliban guards. During the cold Central Asian nights, he slept on plastic sheeting and huddled with other prisoners for warmth. Relief came after three months, when his parents bought his freedom.

Exiled to Pakistan, Nadery immediately began planning his return to Afghanistan and making secret forays across the border to document the regime’s repression. His relatives vainly begged him to follow his siblings to the West, but the months Nadery had spent as a political prisoner had only sharpened his convictions. He believed it was only a matter of time before the Taliban government fell, and its victims would then need advocates.

Afghanistan’s history lurched on October 7, 2001, when American jets appeared in the sky and commenced a bombing campaign in retaliation for the Taliban government’s hosting of Al Qaeda.  Nadery had come to believe the war wouldn’t end without outside intervention, but the fact that the intervention wasn’t triggered by humanitarian concerns worried him. A little over one month later, Kabul fell to US-backed anti-Taliban militias. American and European soldiers emerged onto the streets of Afghanistan’s ruined cities to the bewilderment of the frail population. A new era had begun, and Nadery headed home.

With the Taliban deposed and Afghanistan’s exiled professionals returning to rebuild their shattered homeland, Nadery and his fellow reformers were hopeful.  In the prisons, secret schoolhouses and disease-riddled refugee camps, Afghans had clung to hope of better days to come. Surely now, there would be an overdue reckoning for the political and military leaders responsible for filling the mass graves and mandating that half the population disappear into the shadows. Power would change hands through peaceful elections instead of violent coups. The rule of law would replace the way of the gun. Human rights would be protected, and the international community would invest in Afghanistan’s long-term recovery.

The interim government appointed Nadery a commissioner of the newly-established Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). Previously a hunted dissident working through clandestine wartime networks of human rights defenders, Nadery was now a civil servant with his own staff and office. Less than a decade before, he other student activists had risked their lives to shove hand-written atrocity reports under the gates of the UN compound in Kabul and secretly send faxes through Kabul’s only working fax machine. But the world had changed. Diplomats now knocked on the former dissidents’ doors.

Nadery and his fellow commissioners pushed hard to hold the powerful to account and they soon found the new ruling class barely more amenable to criticism than the old one. When Nadery publicly denounced a brazen land grab by government officials, including the then-minister of justice, one of the minister’s bodyguards threatened to chop him into five pieces (one for each of the minister’s new land plots.) The land grab went ahead. An impoverished Kabul neighborhood was razed and its residents made homeless. Gaudy mansions commissioned by warlords replaced the humble mud brick homes of the newly-displaced. To Nadery’s growing dismay, the international community looked the other way, refusing to move against the men whose fighters had routed the Taliban.

Early on, Nadery had believed the international community would politically sideline the warlords at the end of the interim administration. Instead, it allowed men responsible for bloodshed across two decades to entrench themselves in every state institution, consigning Afghanistan’s progressives to the margins once again. The human rights commissioners quickly became despised figures among the country’s powerbrokers and threats against their lives, including Nadery’s, multiplied. Avoiding assassination required Nadery and other commissioners to travel with armed guards.

Raising nine sons and daughters amidst the brutalities of the civil war, Nadery’s mother had often told her children, “No wrong goes unpunished forever.” Her words never left activist son. Inspired by the conflict mapping project that created a record of crimes against civilians during the war in Sierra Leone, the AIHRC began its own conflict mapping project in late 2005 with Nadery leading the effort.

As the decade advanced, the international mission in Afghanistan continued to falter. Unchecked corruption rotted the Afghan state from within. The Taliban captured large areas of the south and southeast and reappeared in the north, bringing their brutal rule with them. Old militias began rearming and new ones formed. Civilians were besieged from all sides. The lofty ambitions of the early 2000’s gave way to ever lower expectations for the Afghan government and security forces.

Nadery pressed on. After evidence of insurgent detainees being tortured in Afghan and international custody surfaced, he unhesitatingly condemned the abuses. Memories of his own torture by Taliban agents did not override his desire to see the cycle of repression and revenge broken. When Nadery spoke with equal intensity against Taliban crimes against civilians –assassinations, attacks on public schools, summary executions—the Taliban threatened to kill him.

I first met Nadery in January of 2010, at the London Conference on Afghanistan, where he expressed fear of a Taliban return to power and of the increasing conservatism of the government in Kabul. He saw the international community preparing its endgame and stated that he expected the most powerful members of the coalition to ensure his country did not fall into all-out mayhem following their departure.  In his eyes, they had a moral obligation to do no less.

During his time as a human rights commissioner, Nadery earned a reputation for being firm, impatient, confrontational, even “unreasonable” with diplomats and foreign military leaders.  The international community’s catch-all phrase for lowered expectations –‘Afghan good enough’— and the policy decisions embodying it appalled him. He insisted, again and again, that international standards for democracy and human rights be applied no differently to Afghanistan than to any other state. During the run-up to the 2010 parliamentary elections, I watched Nadery wreck himself physically as he worked long hours pushing the Afghan government, the United Nations and the diplomatic community to guard against another fraud-ridden poll. Already a slight man, he became painfully thin, his hair greyed and he often appeared as though he was living in his office.

Then, in January, Nadery’s close friend and fellow commissioner Hamida Barmaki was killed by a Taliban suicide bomber along with her husband and four children. Their deaths devastated Nadery, now the doting father of a young daughter. Yet, when I asked him about his own future, he told me he had no intention of leaving Afghanistan. “There are many fights left,” he said.  The palace made a grave mistake in firing Nadery, and his dismissal from the commission will not end his activism. He is bound to his land to the end.

Disclosure: I worked on the 2010 election observation mission led by the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, an organization for which Nader Nadery serves as voluntary chairman.