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The truth can help set Afghanistan free

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — The coming meeting in June of a “loya jirga,” or national council, that will name members of a transitional government to rule the country for the next 18 months, offers hope for a return to normalcy in beleagered Afghanistan. An essential component in this process should be the creation of an independent judiciary, adequate judicial institutions, and a truth commission to deal with past crimes in the country.

Amnesty International recently issued a series of recommendations for the establishment of an independent criminal justice system, the building of adequate detention facilities, the establishment of a civilian police force and the combating of impunity. At all stages of judicial proceedings, it should protect the rights of those suspected of unlawful actions.

The creation of an independent and impartial judicial system will guarantee the rule of law in a country long ravaged by lawlessness. It should follow an early assessment of the number of prosecutors, judges and other legal professionals that are needed. Appropriate actions should be taken to ensure that people with adequate qualifications are selected for office and that they follow a code of ethics based on international standards.

The enormous amount of money pledged for rebuilding Afghanistan raises the possibility of corruption by government officials. Concern that donations for rebuilding the country are going to be pilfered or wasted was raised during the two-day ministerial conference on Afghan reconstruction held in Tokyo this past January. The interim head of the Afghan government, Prime Minister Hamid Karzai, has promised to create a transparent and accountable government to avoid misuse of reconstruction funds. The formation of an independent judiciary is an essential part of this process. In addition, donor nations should have appropriate monitoring mechanisms on how their aid is spent.

Human rights activists worldwide are increasingly demanding the creation of a truth commission similar to those created in Argentina, South Africa and other countries that experienced civil wars. The commission should address human rights abuses that were committed in the past as well as those that have taken place during the present transition period in Afghanistan.

The creation of a truth commission will face serious obstacles in a country that for several years has been ravaged by serious internecine conflicts. But it can also be part of a healing process desperately needed by Afghan civil society. As South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has stated, “There can be no healing without truth.” This commission could later lead to prosecutions of those responsible for large-scale human rights abuses.

There is initial agreement for the creation of such a commission. Karzai has expressed interest in it, stating, “We must have a truth commission . . . to find out more about the atrocities committed and to address those people who have been violated.” And U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson has indicated that sustainable peace and reconstruction require accountability.

Robinson, however, has stated that to be effective such a commission has to look at abuses committed by all sides in the Afghan conflict. “It is not acceptable in the context of Afghanistan to look at a partial truth,” she recently said.

This is a particularly difficult task. When Northern Alliance members were in power from 1992 to 1996, they participated in factional fighting that killed thousands, including many civilians.

With Afghanistan at one of its most critical periods in recent history, the creation of an independent and efficient judiciary system and the formation of a truth commission are critical to its rebirth as a proud nation.