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Afghanistan Must Bolster Its Capacity to Identify the Missing, PHR Declares in New Report

For Immediate Release

A new report by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) released at a conference in Kabul today on Truth Seeking and the Role of Forensic Science outlines steps that Afghanistan can take if it is to make progress in addressing the right to truth of victims of more than three decades of violent conflict by identifying missing and disappeared persons.

“Since 1978, Afghans have continuously lived through protracted cycles of violence that included massive human rights violations and war crimes with virtual impunity for many of the perpetrators,” said Stefan Schmitt, who directs PHR’s International Forensic Program and was the report’s lead author. “Healing such deep wounds is a complex and lengthy process. For the country to achieve peace, one essential element must be a concerted attempt to learn what happened to more than a million people still unaccounted for, many of whom are believed to be buried in mass graves.”

Since 2009, PHR has helped Afghans develop the local capacity to document and secure mass graves, while preventing the destruction of evidence; introduced forensic concepts of such work to government and civil society; and reported on steps needed to begin developing scientific and technical capabilities to identify the missing. One outcome has been the creation of the Afghan Forensic Science Organization (AFSO), which helped to organize today’s conference in Kabul.

PHR’s latest report, Securing Afganistan's Past: Human Identification Needs Assessment and Gap Analysis, documents the challenges faced by any effort in identifying the country’s missing and highlights important steps for going forward despite all these challenges. Among the report’s recommendations:

  • The Afghan government must draft, enact, and implement legislation addressing the rights of the missing and disappeared, as well as their families, while criminalizing enforced disappearances. Such legislation must include an acknowledgement that families have a right to know the truth about the fate of their missing relatives.
  • The Afghan government has yet to establish the scope or acknowledge the reality of the missing persons issue in the country in any meaningful way. The publication of the highly anticipated Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) Conflict Mapping Report would be a critical first step towards achieving this. This report yet has to be published. The AIHRC should convene a working group to define a comprehensive strategy for release of the Conflict Mapping Report, identifying key conditions that must be met to ensure its release.
  • The Afghan government needs to enforce existing legislation for the protection of mass grave sites, which must be preserved as crime scenes and protected from destruction until all relevant forensic evidence can be collected.
  • Afghan scientists and scholars have been isolated from modern education and the academic world throughout Afghanistan’s decades of conflict. International donors and the government of Afghanistan need to identify and prioritize funding for the increased and sustained development of Afghanistan’s higher education system, particularly for those who must play a role in its forensic future, such as judges, prosecutors, attorneys, scientists, and medical professionals.

 “With the anticipated withdrawal of much of the international community’s support from Afghanistan in 2014, the country will continue to face many serious challenges.” Schmitt said. “What is needed from both the government of Afghanistan and the international community is a serious commitment to a vision for a better future — and that includes addressing the wrongs of the past.”

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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