Judges at the international Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague are set to consider whether the prosecutor Fatou Bensouda will be allowed to open a case into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan after she filed her request last November. With her request the court also opened the procedure for victims’ representation where those who may be directly concerned by the specific situation can register to have their views and concerns regarding a possible investigation heard. But on the eve of January 31 – the deadline for such submissions – victims’ organizations and observers on the ground say the court is not doing enough to reach the thousands of people affected.
“There is a massive information gap,” says Horia Mosadiq, a journalist and human rights activist. During her recent visits to Afghanistan she met with a number of people and organizations who were not aware of the ICC procedure and the deadline.
“These were high-profile individuals and human rights organizations and they were not aware of the ICC deadline (this week). If this is the situation in Kabul how is it in the provinces where the majority of the victims live, many of whom cannot read or write?” she asked in an interview with IJT.
The ICC has no physical presence in Afghanistan and its victims’ participation and reparations section (VPRS) is collecting the views- known as representations in ICC jargon- from potential victims of the alleged crimes on the prosecutor’s request to open an investigation. According to ICC spokesman Fadi El Abdallah the VPRS has “conducted information and training sessions and video calls, in various locations across the world, with a number of Afghan civil society representatives and Diaspora members and with lawyers working closely with potential victims”.
Weeda Ahmad of the Social Association of Afghan Justice Seekers (SAAJS) says her NGO and many other human rights groups were invited to a three-day training given by the ICC outside of Afghanistan. The SAAJS prints out registration forms and has distributed them among victim’s relatives and helps upload the data for them unless the victims do so directly online. This way they have filed some 80 registrations including both individual victims and groups of victims, she told IJT.
Mosadiq says there are only around 30 people actually going around the countryside and helping people register on a population of over 34 million. Those who venture outside of Kabul are all local NGO’s who face specific risks because neither the Afghan government, nor the Taliban, nor international forces want an ICC investigation.
“The human rights activists (helping victims register) are very vulnerable because there is no support. Anyone working on such complaints could become a target for any group,” she explains, adding that the majority of the victims of the crimes alleged by the ICC are living in the Afghan countryside in remote locations and not in Kabul or abroad.
Ahmad says the ICC should do more. “They are working through the government and civil society of Afghanistan, but the government denied any help, which is very understandable because the majority of the government posts are run by war criminals of the last four decades,” she said in an e-mail interview.
“The court as an international body with a prominent reputation can do more, especially to put pressure on the Afghan government and its international allies.”
In terms of broader outreach and contact with local media to inform people how to register the ICC says it has responded to “numerous media requests” and answered hundreds of e-mail queries. Mosadiq in turn says there is nothing in local media about the ICC. Her mail to the court asking about the ICC’s outreach and media strategy for Afghanistan remains unanswered three months on.
Afghanistan is not the first case where the ICC has received criticism over its outreach and its lack of information for victims; similar complaints were made in the Georgia and Kenya situations. But while observers agree that outreach remains difficult for the court under any circumstances, they insist the ICC should make more of an effort in the Afghanistan case.
“Afghanistan stands out because it is the first Asian case and the other ICC investigations were at least supported by the US and the international community if not also by at least one side in the conflict,” says Mosadiq. “Here there is no such support and that makes it a test case and a way for the ICC to show they are independent,” she adds.
What happens with the victims representations after the deadline?
After Wednesday’s deadline the court will gather all the representations it received and they will be sent to the ICC judges who have to decide on the prosecutor’s request to open an official investigation in the coming months. The ICC will also put together a report reflecting the views and concerns of victims. A redacted version which leaves out any identifying information of individual victims will be made public as well.
It is important to note that victims who register in this phase of the probe can not automatically participate in the court case or be eligible for any reparations. Only if the judges authorize an official investigation victims can apply in a separate procedure to be represented and eventually receive reparations. But even if this victims registration at this point is only the beginning of a possibly lengthy process with many other chances for victims to be heard if the court moves forward with the probe, Mosadiq insists this early phase is important. “I think it is a failure on the part of the ICC to underestimate the problems with outreach. If this is the situation now what will it be like when they do open an investigation?” she wonders.
(c) 2018 International Justice Tribune