ISLAMABAD — Afghan rights workers warned Tuesday that the U.S. national security adviser’s blistering attack on the International Criminal Court investigating war crimes allegations will strengthen a climate of impunity in Afghanistan, prolong the war and embolden those carrying out acts of violence.
In a speech Monday, John Bolton said Washington would not co-operate with The Hague-based court and threatened it with sanctions, saying it put U.S. sovereignty and national security at risk.
War crimes allegations in Afghanistan include those allegedly committed by the CIA and U.S. forces.
“It’s very unfortunate because delivering justice to victims will help to facilitate the peace process in Afghanistan,” said Sima Samar, head of Afghanistan’s Human Right’s Commission, on Tuesday. “Justice is not a luxury. It is a basic human right.”
Bolton’s speech came as an ICC judge was expected to soon announce a decision on a request from prosecutors to formally open an investigation into allegations of war crimes committed by Afghan national security forces, Taliban and Haqqani network militants as well as U.S. forces and intelligence officials in Afghanistan since May 2003.
The 181-page prosecution request, dated November 2017, said “information available provides a reasonable basis to believe that members of United States of America (US) armed forces and members of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) committed acts of torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, rape and sexual violence against conflict-related detainees in Afghanistan and other locations, principally in the 2003-2004 period.”
Washington’s unequivocal rejection of the court seems likely to embolden Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed government, which refused Tuesday to respond directly to Bolton’s outburst, but similarly dismissed war crimes allegations against Afghan National Security Forces as well as its intelligence agency.
President Ashraf Ghani’s deputy spokesman, Shahussain Murtazawi, said the Taliban, the Islamic State group affiliate and as many as 21 other anti-government groups are the perpetrators of war crimes. He dismissed allegations against security forces saying “government forces are always trying to save the people. It is the insurgents who are the killers of civilians.”
Yet the prosecutor’s request says there is “a reasonable basis to believe that members of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), in particular members of the National Directorate for Security (NDS) and the Afghan National Police (ANP), have engaged in systemic patterns of torture and cruel treatment of conflict-related detainees in Afghan detention facilities, including acts of sexual violence.”
During a three-month period that ended in January, the International Criminal Court received a staggering 1.7 million allegations of war crimes from Afghanistan, although some involved entire villages alleging a war crime.
Still, thousands of individual statements as well as statements filed on behalf of multiple victims, were received by the ICC in The Hague. The statements were collected by organizations based in Europe and Afghanistan and sent to the court.
For human rights activists in Afghanistan, Bolton’s assault dealt a punishing blow to their relentless efforts to end a culture of impunity that has bedeviled efforts to bring perpetrators of crimes to justice.
“The solution to put an end to war is by making everyone accountable, whether it is the Taliban or the Haqqani network or whether it is the Americans or the Afghan army or Afghan government,” said Ehsan Qaane, of the Kabul-based Transitional Justice Coordination Group, which represents 26 organizations working for transitional justice in Afghanistan.
The co-ordination group assisted many victims who wanted to file a claim with the international court.
Victims need to see justice done if they are to begin to heal, said Qaane. He said some insurgents turned to the Taliban after being picked up, tortured and released. Their fight is more about revenge than ideology, he said.
“These people will perhaps stop fighting if they feel they have justice,” said Qaane.
In The Hague, the ICC simply stated it was aware of Bolton’s comments. In a statement issued Tuesday it did not address Bolton directly but rather reiterated its mission and that it was supported by 123 countries who have signed on to the Rome Statute that created the court. Afghanistan is a signatory.
Samar said rights groups cannot dispense justice.
“There is a difference between a human rights defender and a judge,” thus the need for the ICC, she said in a telephone interview. “My concern is that to deny justice is to deny a basic human right and human dignity.”