UN Will Help Afghan Authorities Preserve Mass Grave Sites

Today the UN announced its commitment to preserving mass grave sites in Afghanistan.

KABUL, 15 December 2008 (IRIN) – Amid growing concerns about a reported excavation at a mass grave site in northern Afghanistan, a senior UN official has said the organisation is committed to help Afghan authorities preserve such sites in order to protect evidence of crimes committed over the past three decades of war in the country.

“The United Nations remains ready to assist all Afghan stakeholders, including victim groups, to take immediate and concerted action to preserve grave sites,” Norah Niland, representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Kabul, told IRIN.

“At a minimum, victims have a right to the truth, and the preservation of evidence is a critical element in understanding and addressing the legacy of past atrocities,” said Niland, who also works as head of the human rights unit at the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

The UN announcement makes specific reference to the human remains removed from the Dasht-e-Leili mass grave site and to PHR’s call for an investigation.

The UN has confirmed that at least one grave site in the northern province of Sheberghan, where thousands of men allegedly associated with the Taliban were dumped in late 2001, has recently been disturbed.

It is unclear who took away human remains from the Dasht-e-Leili gravesite but many accuse Abdul Rashid Dostum, a powerful Uzbek warlord, because of his alleged involvement in the massacre of Taliban prisoners in 2001-2002. Dostum has denied the charges.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) – a Washington-based NGO investigating human rights violations – has called for an immediate investigation into the reported disturbance.

“Removing evidence of an alleged mass atrocity is itself a war crime and must be investigated… this destruction is a devastating blow to the effort to learn the truth of Dasht-e-Leili,” Frank Donaghue, chief executive officer of PHR, was quoted as saying in a press release on 12 December.

According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), active efforts to block investigations of Dasht-e-Leili and other mass graves have been obstacles to a full accounting of the dead and to learning what has happened in these possible war crimes.

Little or no effort has been made so far to shed light on the identities of victims and those responsible for the crimes.

Zia Langari, a commissioner at the AIHRC, told IRIN: “Some powerful people block investigations into mass graves because they fear this would jeopardise their positions.”

Langari’s concern was echoed by Niland of UNAMA: “There are powerful elements that do not want investigations into mass graves.”

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