Taliban rout raises aid, rights issues

The arrival of the Northern Alliance forces in Kabul raises concerns Keystone

Geneva-based aid groups are poised to step up humanitarian assistance to Kabul and other Afghan cities, which have fallen to the opposition.

This content was published on November 14, 2001 minutes

The rapid advances by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance have raised the hope that a looming humanitarian catastrophe might be averted and that aid deliveries to remote regions might be resumed before winter sets in.

But the aid agencies have warned against unrealistically high expectations. Macarena Aguilar of the International Committee of the Red Cross says it is "too early" to talk about aid operations in the wake of the Northern Alliance offensive.

Security guarantees

"We're concentrating our efforts on starting a dialogue with the United Front (Northern Alliance) commanders to get the necessary security guarantees," Aguilar told swissinfo.

Those security concerns have been exacerbated by reports of looting in areas recently captured by anti-Taliban forces. For instance, some 90 tons of food in a World Food Programme depot in Mazar-i-Sharif have gone missing.

The Red Cross, whose expatriate delegates were forced to leave Taliban-controlled Afghanistan two months ago, has continued its operations throughout the American bombing campaign, thanks to its 1,000 Afghan employees.

One of their main tasks at the moment is burying the bodies of dead Taliban fighters to prevent the outbreak of disease.

Although ICRC's evacuated personnel will remain in Pakistan, Iran and Turkmenistan for the time being, it has managed to get one expatriate delegate - who had been in Northern Alliance-controlled territory - into Kabul. Other ICRC relief teams and convoys are at the border waiting for security clearance.

Some international relief agencies are ready to return to Afghanistan as soon as they get the green light: "We're hoping to get back into Afghanistan in the coming days," says Jennifer Clark, a spokeswoman for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

"It depends on the assessment of the UN security coordinator as to whether it's safe to go back," she told swissinfo.

Returning refugees

Clark said the UNHCR was also looking into how to help Afghan refugees return to their country should they wish to do so.

"We're also maintaining our preparedness for any refugees who still may try to leave the country," she said, while pointing out that, so far, there had been no reports of large-scale movements of people as a result of the Northern Alliance offensive.

"We don't want to see another exodus," Clark said.

The UNHCR has urged the Northern Alliance - which includes Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras - to show restraint as it occupies Pashtun-dominated regions. Memories of the atrocities committed by the mujahideen the last time they captured Kabul have tempered any feeling of joy at the flight of the Taliban from the capital.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, has pointed out that a number of Northern Alliance commanders have very bad human rights records, and she called on the United States and Britain to spell out in no uncertain terms that human rights abuses would not be tolerated.

Climate of impunity

Robinson said it was time to end the "climate of impunity" in Afghanistan. The country has been at war for more than 20 years, and whenever territory has changed hands, it has often been accompanied by massacres of civilians, the rape of women, and other rights violations.

There have already been reports of summary executions in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, which fell to the Northern Alliance on Friday.

"We should not think that only the Taliban have a bad human rights record," says Adrien-Claude Zoller, director of the Geneva-based International Service for Human Rights. "When they (Northern Alliance) were in power, they too committed crimes."

Zoller says he doubts how much the international community can do to reign in the Northern Alliance, since stability - and not international humanitarian and human rights law - will be of paramount importance.

by Roy Probert

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