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Ending a climate of impunity

Interview: Gabriel Domínguez
February 26, 2015

While Kabul's efforts to prevent the torture of detainees have shown some progress, much more remains to be done, especially as there is a "persistent lack of accountability," UNAMA's Georgette Gagnon tells DW.

Symbolbild Afghanistan Entlassung von Häftlingen
Image: Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday, February 25, the United Natio­­ns Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a joint report stating that the Afghan Government has made progress in eliminating the practice of torture and ill-treatment in Afghan detention facilities.

But despite the progress, the report also says that more than a third of conflict detainees interviewed suffer torture or mistreatment. Moreover, many Afghan security personnel reportedly still view torture as an acceptable means to gather valuable intelligence, even though the practice is prohibited and criminalized under the country's Constitution and laws.

The UN findings are based on interviews with 790 conflict-related detainees between February 2013 and December 2014 and with Afghan authorities, as well as analysis of documentary, medical and other information.

In a DW interview, Georgette Gagnon, the director of UNAMA's human rights unit, says that the Government of President Ashraf Ghani can do more to ensure accountability - particularly the prosecution of both those who perpetrate and administer torture, and those who order or condone it - as it is a key means of signaling political commitment to end torture.

Afghanistan UN Menschenrechte Georgette Gagnon
Gagnon: 'A third of the detainees we interviewed experienced torture'Image: picture-alliance/AP

DW: How prevalent are torture and ill-treatment in Afghan government's detention facilities?

Georgette Gagnon: Our report interviewed 790 conflict related detainees held in numerous detention facilities across the country. Of those we found that 278 or 35 percent, a third of the detainees we interviewed, experienced torture or ill-treatment in the hands of Afghan officials. It is therefore a widespread practice.

However, it is a slight reduction in the number of incidents of torture documented from our previous report which found that half of detainees we interviewed had been tortured.

What factors have contributed to the government's ability to curb these abuses?

We found that improved directives and policies banning torture, including the training of Afghan officials on alternative interrogation techniques, putting surveillance cameras inside some interrogation rooms and increased inspections of detention facilities by external organizations, contributed to this decrease.

Why has the government resorted to the use of torture in the first place?

Torture is mainly used on conflict-related detainees. These are alleged Taliban or alleged insurgents, suspected of national security crimes. The main reason why Afghan officials use torture is to obtain a confession or information from these suspects.

What sort of torture techniques have they been subjected to?

We found 16 different types and methods of torture. They range from severe beatings with pipes, cables and sticks, to suspension by either the wrist or the ankles, electric shocks, near-asphyxiation, and putting detainees in stress positions. We have also found some cases of fingernail-removal.

What role has the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) played in these cases of ill-treatment?

The NDS is the main body responsible for gathering intelligence and dealing with national security issues in Afghanistan. We found that about 30 percent of the detainees we interviewed, who had been held by the NDS, experienced torture and ill-treatment either on arrest or in a detention facility.

But we also found that the Afghan national and local police, and also elements of the Afghan National Army have been using torture on detainees in detention facilities.

Aschraf Ghani bei Afghanistan-Konferenz in London 04.12.2014
Ghani's government 'should prosecute officials who use torture,' says GagnonImage: Dan Kitwood/WPA Pool/Getty Images

But just like the Ministry of Interior and other security bodies, the NDS has operated in this way with full impunity. There has been only one criminal prosecution for torture observed since 2010, when the UN began documenting these cases. It's our view that even prior to that there had been no prosecutions. We documented absolutely no accountability and no progress on accountability.

What more can President Ghani do to completely eradiate the use of torture?

Following the release of this report, President Ghani has put forward a proposed national plan to eliminate torture, which includes a number of elements such as improved training, more inspections and a number of legislative reform measures.

However, the best way for the president and the government to signal their political commitment to end torture is to prosecute officials who use torture and those found responsible are convicted, punished and lose their jobs. That would send the message that torture is not acceptable, is a crime and needs to end.

Georgette Gagnon is director of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan's (UNAMA) Human Rights Unit.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez