Deliberate attacks against human rights defenders and journalists in Afghanistan

A war reporter in a destroyed building A war reporter in a destroyed building © Photo by South_agency on iStock

This article is a brief presentation of UNAMA’s report on human rights defenders and media workers killed in Afghanistan between 2018 and 2021.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) published a report last month on killings of human rights defenders, journalists and media workers in Afghanistan, with data collected between January 2018 and January 2021. The report’s objective is to shed light on the risks these workers face and to denounce the numerous attacks and violence against them. Because of their role as human rights protectors or professionals in charge of providing accurate information, they are exposed to threats, intimidation, surveillance and arbitrary detention; many are deliberately targeted and killed in scenarios characterized by high insecurity, like the Afghan one. Such attacks against civilians are contrary to international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes. 

UNAMA’s paper underlines how the loss of these workers causes great damage for the Afghan people too, who are deprived of human rights activists and subsequent access to quality and timely information. The loss is further aggravated as many journalists’ decide to self-censor to some degree to avoid threats or intimidation or to leave the country. As a consequence, human rights’ violations are less likely to be denounced, and the people in Afghanistan are left without the chance of being heard by the international community. The  circumstances are similar for human rights defenders, many of whom request special support (31 only in the month of January 2021) because of their adverse working conditions and risky situations.

The UNAMA special report explains that between 2018 and 2021, there have been various trends regarding human rights defenders and journalists’ deaths. In 2018, they were mainly victims of ISIL-KP attacks that aimed at maximizing casualties. Therefore, the offences were not explicitly directed towards those categories of professionals, who died instead of incidental harm. That year, 13 human rights defenders and 17 media workers lost their lives. Subsequently, in 2019, the number of deaths decreased: four deaths of human rights defenders and six of journalists were registered. However, in 2020, there has been firm growth compared to the previous year, with the number of deaths reaching high levels again.

It is important to analyse these data and distinguish between the first eight months of the year and the last four. Indeed, during the first period, ten human rights defenders and four media workers were murdered. Yet, as the Afghan Peace Negotiations began in September 2020, violence did not decrease; on the contrary, human rights defenders and journalists lived in an increasingly insecure environment, with nine deaths registered in the last trimester of the year alone. Together with these alarming figures, another aspect that causes concern is that over the last year, human rights defenders and journalists’ have been targets, and their deaths have been intentional and premeditated acts. Moreover, it is still not clear who is to be held accountable for their murders, as no actor has claimed responsibility. These factors further destabilize the people and contribute to the climate of fear and insecurity in the country, which could also impact the peace process.

To prevent future attacks or human rights violations against the mentioned professions, UNAMA offers various recommendations. Some of the main ones are to adopt an adequate preventive framework, to condemn killings and counter impunity, to investigate the deaths, and to protect and promote civic space, while emphasizing the significant role of human rights defenders and independent media in building a peaceful and democratic Afghanistan.


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Author: Laura Manzi; Editor: Andrew Goodell

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