(Editor’s note: readers also may be interested in Jasmine D. Cameron’s look at the risks faced by human rights and anti-corruption lawyers globally in “Lawyers Under Threat: Highlighting Their Plight.”)
When the Taliban took Kabul in August 2021, Afghan champions of the rule of law and human rights were caught in the crosshairs. Practically overnight, lawyers, judges, prosecutors, and other professionals working within the legal system to advance justice – especially women –became targets of the new regime due to their perceived association with the former government or simply due to their gender.
Now, 17 months later, many of them remain in highly precarious and unsafe situations, and those lawyers who still practice face an incredibly challenging environment. With this week marking the international Day of the Endangered Lawyer, the international community has an opportunity to reflect on its urgent moral obligation to do far more going forward to support these individuals.
Targeting the Afghan Legal System
Women have undoubtedly borne the brunt of efforts to target and marginalize those in the legal profession. The Taliban have attempted to effectively ban all women from participating in the legal system. These de facto authorities removed more than 260 women judges – more than 10 percent of the bench – and women lawyers have been deprived of permission to practice law via a discriminatory relicensing process open only to men. Under grave threat, many women judges fled the country or remain in hiding. Not only are women lawyers in danger and their livelihoods upended, but the valuable services they provided – including to address gender-based violence – have been largely wiped out.
Officials who investigated, prosecuted, and sentenced members of the Taliban face extremely serious risks to their safety and wellbeing as a result of their previous work. Reports indicate that convicted members of the Taliban, as well as other criminal offenders who were released by the Taliban, have sought to carry out reprisals against prosecutors and judges. Many prosecutors remain in hiding, and although it is difficult to verify precise numbers, we have received extensive and gruesome documentation of more than a dozen killings by unidentified individuals.
These purges and attacks have occurred amid a broader dismantling of the independent legal system, and its replacement with a de facto system that flagrantly violates international standards, including the right to be presented before a judge soon after detention, the right to a fair trial, and prohibitions on gender discrimination. The Constitution has been suspended, prosecutors have been sidelined, and judges have been replaced primarily by Taliban members with basic religious education and little to no legal training. There are currently no procedural or substantive legal statutes on which lawyers and judges can rely. Some specialized courts, including those devoted to handling gender-based violence, have been dissolved entirely. What is left is an all-male legal system implementing the Taliban’s version of Sharia law. In sum, it is a debacle for human rights.
Despite these immense obstacles, lawyers and other legal professionals still in the country are striving to defend rights and provide legal services to Afghan people. Women lawyers are persevering, finding new ways to provide much needed legal assistance. Some have reportedly taken on advisory roles, offering advice and drafting documents for male colleagues, and others have reportedly been able to work at legal aid organizations and law offices.
The International Community Should Support Lawyers in Afghanistan
In this context, international actors can and should do far more. Ad hoc efforts, some carried out by professional associations, have done very impressive work to organize the evacuation of a significant number of people under threat and offer support to those in exile. The International Association of Women Judges worked to relocate women judges. Bar Associations in many places organized to help Afghan lawyers and judges in exile. However, a far more systematic and concerted approach is needed.
At a time when the international community is withdrawing support from abusive de facto authorities in Afghanistan, legal actors who are still working to advance justice and defend human rights deserve more support, not less. These lawyers, legal aid providers, and non-governmental organizations need more resources, including increased and accessible financial support. Donors and partners should pay particular attention to addressing the situation faced by women lawyers, and to efforts to support the realization of women and girls’ rights, and take these issues into account in their programming, provision of financial support, and engagement on the issue broadly. This will require creativity and persistence given escalating restrictions on women’s participation in public life and associated risks.
Countries, including those in the region, should provide safe passage and protection to actors involved with the legal system who are at risk of reprisals. Many who have already fled the country remain in insecure positions, legally and financially. They should receive secure legal status, social protection, and assistance with obtaining the necessary training and credentials in order to find employment. Many who are exiled are poised to make career-long contributions, and their training and knowledge should not be lost.
Moreover, much more advocacy and persuasion need to be done to convince the Taliban to change their policies to comply with international human rights treaties that the State of Afghanistan has ratified. At the very least, they should reinstate the rights of women lawyers and allow them to re-register and practice alongside their male colleagues. And they should ensure the protection of lawyers and judicial officials who are being harassed and worse for pursuing their professional duties.
For two decades prior to the fall of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the international community encouraged, trained, and supported Afghan judges, lawyers, and prosecutors to stand up for the rule of law and human rights. It cannot look away now. Instead, it should undertake commensurate efforts to assist these professionals to uphold these universal tenets, whether they remain in Afghanistan or not.