Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence

Work of Front Line Defenders in Afghanistan: Discussion

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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Apologies have been received from Deputy Leddin and Senator Joe O'Reilly.

I am particularly pleased that today we are meeting with representatives from Front Line Defenders. I welcome Mr. Andrew Anderson, executive director; Ms Michelle Foley, memorial project co-ordinator; Mr. Hassan Ali Faiz, Afghanistan human rights defender; and Ms Olive Moore, deputy director. We very much look forward to hearing from them on their work, particularly in recent times. We are looking forward to an update from Mr. Faiz, with particular reference to the very challenging situation across Afghanistan. I want to particularly welcome our guests to an in-person meeting. We have not had one for quite a while. In that regard, they are most welcome, although they will have noticed that we are not back to full normality as yet. However, we would hope that as the term progresses, we can return to having members and guests at our meetings in person. It is appropriate that in one of our earliest meetings of this Oireachtas term we will have the opportunity to hear from the witnesses on their priorities, challenges and work.

The format of the meeting is that first we will hear the witnesses' opening statements. I understand we will be treated to a short video presentation on human rights defenders in Colombia, before going into a question and answer session with members of the committee. As we are quite time-limited due to Covid restrictions, I ask witnesses to be conscious of time constraints when initially addressing us. Following the opening statements, we will have a discussion of questions and answers with members. I remind the members of the need to be concise with questions in order to allow all members an opportunity to put their questions and our guests and witnesses to respond comprehensively to questions.

I remind witnesses of the long-standing parliamentary practice that we should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of any person or entity. Therefore, if any statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, witnesses will be directed to discontinue their remarks. I know that any such direction will be immediately complied with.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make that person identifiable. I remind members that they are only allowed to participate in the meeting if they are physically located in the Leinster House complex.

I thank the witnesses for joining us. I invite Mr. Anderson to make his opening statement.

Mr. Andrew Anderson:

I thank the Chairman and the members for the opportunity to engage with the committee today. As the Chairman stated, it is a real pleasure to be at an in-person meeting after so long. We have submitted to the committee a briefing document. I will not read all of it because I do not think that would be helpful. However, I will begin by reading some words from one of the human rights defenders we work with, Claudelice Santos, who is an environmental defender in Brazil. She said:

They cut down one, two trees, but a thousand, five thousand other trees will appear. This is how we will be able to make the world a place with hope, with people seeing the future with hopeful eyes and not afraid to lose their life for the chainsaw of greed and malice of those who do not agree with the idea that the environment is life and that those who defend it also deserve to live.

As members know, we live in a time with human rights challenges and very difficult contexts around the world.

One of the ways we can make a difference is by supporting those people working at the local level who are making a practical difference to advance and defend human rights. Unfortunately, those people, those human rights defenders, HRDs, who work peacefully for the rights of others and to defend the most vulnerable, are also those who are the most targeted in many countries.

This year, we have awarded 641 emergency protection grants already, and that is almost the same number as we managed in the whole of last year, so the level of practical support we are providing to human rights defenders at risk continues to rise. That €1.8 million has been delivered to defenders in 89 countries and 108 of those grants have recently been awarded to defenders in Afghanistan, which is clearly one of the biggest crises we are facing. We have also been giving big levels of support to human rights defenders in Nicaragua, Belarus, Turkey and Colombia.

I take the opportunity to publicly thank the Irish Government for its ongoing support, both in terms of the political priority it has given to the protection of human rights defenders at the UN, in other international fora and in the EU, and also bilaterally with a number of governments. There is also the key support we have had from Irish Aid, which has been a supporter of Front Line Defenders since our beginnings almost exactly 20 years ago, in 2001.

We want to raise three key issues with the committee this morning. There is a growing trend, unfortunately, of killings of human rights defenders around the world. My colleague, Michelle Foley, who runs our memorial project, will speak about that. We will talk about imprisoned defenders and we will speak briefly about Afghanistan, before passing over to Hassan Ali Faiz. I will pass over to Ms Foley to talk about the horrific trend in terms of the killing of human rights defenders.

Ms Michelle Foley:

I thank the committee for inviting us to appear. The HRD memorial project is a joint project initiated and co-ordinated by Front Line Defenders, working together with international NGOs, including Amnesty International and Global Witness, as well as local partners in the countries where targeted killings of human rights defenders are the most prolific. The project has been actively tracking and verifying the killing of defenders since 2016 and, just last year, we recorded the killing of at least 331 human rights defenders in 25 different countries. The most at-risk groups are those working on land, environmental or indigenous people’s rights, which make up 69% of the overall figure. The subgroup of defenders working specifically on indigenous people's rights accounted for 26% of killings, which is particularly egregious given indigenous peoples are estimated to make up just 6% of the world's population. While killings took place in 25 different countries last year, the vast majority took place in just seven, namely, Colombia, the Philippines, Honduras, Mexico, Afghanistan, Brazil and Guatemala.

There is no denying that it is the figures from Colombia that are particularly in need of urgent action. Our partners in Colombia, El Programa Somos Defensores, gathered and verified the instances of the killing of 199 human rights defenders because of their peaceful work last year. This figure accounts for well over 50% of the global figure. In consultation with defenders on the ground, we have conducted an extensive analysis of the context which is allowing these killings to take place and we have shared this with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and his Department. Ireland, as a long-standing supporter of the Colombian peace process, is in a unique position to address these issues. As it currently holds a seat at the UN Security Council, it is both opportune and timely for Ireland to champion peace-building, human rights defenders and security in Colombia as a key priority area for the Security Council during its membership term.

It is my pleasure to introduce a short video from Diana Sánchez of la Asociación Minga, who will speak on why Colombian human rights defenders are being killed at such a high rate, the impending elections in May, the expected rise in violence and what countries like Ireland can do through the UN Security Council framework.

The joint committee watched an audiovisual presentation.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I thank Ms Foley. I am sure members will wish to comment on the video and address questions to Ms Foley on it. I call Mr. Anderson.

Mr. Andrew Anderson:

I will add in follow-up to the video that we have had good discussions with the Department of Foreign Affairs regarding prioritising Colombia in the context of Ireland's membership of the UN Security Council. We are keen to go further in terms of what that can mean. Having an Arria-formula meeting is a way of bringing in the voices of human rights defenders, which is important, and consistent with Ireland's long-standing commitment to bringing in civil society and its work at the UN.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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It is a stark video, with strong comments made by the speaker. The committee has a regular engagement with the Colombian ambassador, H.E. Ms Cortés Ortiz, and I expect that we will invite her to appear before the committee to comment on the video. We are certainly happy to write to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, particularly in the context of Ireland's membership of the UN Security Council. The video was quite shocking in terms of the commentary. We are certainly happy to take matters further. I thank Mr. Anderson. I am sorry for intervening at this stage.

Mr. Andrew Anderson:

We also wish to raise the issues of long-term imprisonment and Afghanistan. As regards long-term imprisonment, it is interesting to note that Ms Mary Lawlor, our former executive director and now UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, is currently preparing to submit to the UN a report on the long-term imprisonment of human rights defenders. That is an issue that we have been seised of for quite some time. One of the challenges in some of these cases is that after the person has gone through initial detention and trial, there is little sustained attention because there are very few developments in the case. That is one of the reasons why we are trying to shine a light on some of those cases.

We have a personal commitment to this issue because Abdulhadi al-Khawaga, a human rights defender from Bahrain who worked with Front Line Defenders for three years up to 2011, has now been in prison in Bahrain for just over ten years. He recently celebrated his 60th birthday and his tenth anniversary in prison in Bahrain. Abdulhadi worked with us to support human rights defenders across the Middle East and north Africa, but stepped down from Front Line Defenders because he became engaged with the movement for democracy and human rights associated with the Arab Spring events in February 2011. He was detained and brutally tortured, requiring surgery to reconstruct his jaw, and subjected to an unfair trial before a military court. He was officially sentenced on charges of terrorism and overthrowing the state by armed force. Not a shred of evidence with any credibility has ever been presented against him on those charges. He is a prisoner of conscience adopted by Amnesty International. From prison, he continues to be an advocate for human rights and a peaceful resolution of the situation in Bahrain. We recommend his case to the committee and ask that it seek to redouble efforts to call for his release.

In the course of setting up this session, we spoke to the committee about the case of Fr. Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest who died a few months ago in India having been detained for nine months at 84 years of age and denied proper medical treatment. We are continuing to work on the case of Fr. Stan but it is important to highlight that 15 other human rights defenders arrested in connection with the same legal case are currently being held in India without trial on spurious charges. We encourage the committee to consider that issue and perhaps recommend that the Department of Foreign Affairs follow up on it.

Turning to Afghanistan, we are lucky to have with us Mr. Hassan Ali Faiz, who will share his thoughts on his experience of being forced to leave the country and of coming to Ireland. Before he does so, I note that we have had fantastic co-operation from the Department of Foreign Affairs. Front Line Defenders had access to approximately 50 visa waivers for human rights defenders at risk. Of those people, 14 are now in Ireland, while 23 others are in transit. That makes a real life-saving difference to some of those people who were at most extreme risk. The co-operation, particularly from Mr. Gerry Cunningham and others in the Department, not just in providing the visas, but also following up, being in touch with airline staff and border guards etc., and accompanying the human rights defenders on their journeys, has been phenomenal. We really appreciate the support and engagement of the Department on that issue.

Front Line Defenders has also been trying to help facilitate the relocation of other people from Kabul. In the past ten days, we have been able to get 168 human rights defenders who had visas for onward travel out to Islamabad. It is a fragile process, but we hope to have a third flight with people on it this week. The key issue in that regard is visas. We have been able to get some people out if they have onward visas for travel to a third country such as Ireland, Chile, Portugal or Canada. We have managed to secure visas for all of those countries. However, if a person does not have a visa, there is currently no way out of the country. Indeed, some of the people who were able to get across the land border to Pakistan were turned back. Our third ask of the committee is to recommend to the Department of Foreign Affairs or the Government more generally to consider increasing the number of visas available for those human rights defenders who are most at risk.

We continue to work with people who are in extremely difficult situations. I was speaking to a female human rights defender at the weekend. She is in hiding in Kabul as we speak. She went back to Afghanistan a week before the fall of Kabul because she was trying to help family members get out of the country. Many people have displayed that kind of selflessness and remained in Afghanistan to look after family members or colleagues. Some of the ten people for whom we have Irish visas but who have not yet left remain in the country because they are trying to look after their colleagues and family members who they have not yet been able to get out of Afghanistan. We hope that more of them will get out this week.

The support we have had from the Government on this issue has been fantastic but the support we have received from other European Governments has been quite depressing.

We have been disappointed in the European Union's response to the issue of human rights defenders in the country, particularly given that the EU and many European countries supported human rights projects and organisations in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. The EU has provided some funding to support human rights defenders but has been very limited in what it has been able to do in terms of co-ordinating the evacuation of people at high risk and the provision of visas. That is primarily an issue for the member states but they have, for the most part, not been helpful in terms of the provision of visas for human rights defenders at risk, with a few notable exceptions, including Ireland.

I will stop there and give an opportunity to others. It is probably more important for the committee to hear from Mr. Hassan Ali Faiz about the current situation in Afghanistan, the level of need and his own experience of the perilous journey to be here with us.

Mr. Hassan Ali Faiz:

Members of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, representatives of civil society organisations, ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted and honoured to be here to inform you about human rights and the situation of human rights defenders in Afghanistan. To begin, I express my gratitude to Front Line Defenders for its unwavering support in safeguarding human rights defenders during the recent crisis in Afghanistan. Several human rights defenders were evacuated to safer locations, sparing their lives, which were in grave danger. Front Line Defenders once again proved to be practically on the front lines, providing robust and timely protection to human rights defenders.

I also thank the Irish Government for its kind commitment to granting visas to me, my wife and our child, as well as all other Afghan human rights defenders, through the Irish refugee protection programme. I applaud the staff of the Department of Foreign Affairs for enabling the safe passage of human rights defenders through diplomacy as well as assisting some human rights defenders practically to ensure their smooth entry into Ireland. I experienced that in Frankfurt. The people from the consulate accompanied us to the airport and one of them talked to the people in Germany and convinced them that we had been granted valid visas. That help was fantastic and I appreciate it.

The collaboration between Front Line Defenders and the Irish Government yielded notable results. It gave Front Line Defenders prominence among other human rights organisations in Europe. The Irish Government, despite its limited military and economic involvement in Afghanistan, was a pioneer in harbouring human rights defenders and journalists, the most abandoned groups. No one really cared for activists and journalists whose lives were at grave risk compared to those on the lists for evacuation of different countries. Countries that supported human rights programmes in Afghanistan and exposed human rights defenders through their work left them behind and did absolutely nothing to save their lives when they were in grave danger. Unfortunately, by withdrawing militarily, some of these countries also withdrew from their moral obligations. Leaving human rights activists at the mercy of terrorists cast doubt on the good intentions of those who supported human rights work in Afghanistan. It not only enraged Afghan human rights defenders and raised questions about the motivation behind human rights efforts, but it will also have ramifications for human rights programmes around the world. What would be the takeaway for human rights defenders in eastern Europe, south and southeast Asia and Latin America who are fighting under repressive regimes? Will they have faith in the governments that support their human rights initiatives? Will they not fear being abandoned in their home countries if the political situation becomes tense?

I have not worked with the Irish Government or Irish-funded projects, but I have been supported to resettle in Ireland. That shows the long-standing commitment of the Government of Ireland to the great cause of human rights. I implemented projects for over a decade that were funded by some European countries but, at the end of the day, unfortunately, they left us behind without asking whether we were safe in that country. That did not only disappoint me, but it also disappointed many other human rights defenders in Afghanistan. I have not implemented projects for the Americans but the transport plan of the US Government allowed us to fly to Doha and from there to Ramstein in Germany.

What the Irish Government did during the current Afghan crisis to protect human rights defenders and journalists rekindled faith and belief in the great cause of human rights. It revived hope in human rights defenders that they are not alone and that there are still friends out there who will recognise their noble work when they feel helpless and hopeless. Many human rights defenders I spoke with expressed regret that they had worked for human rights rather than for an embassy or international troops when Kabul was on the verge of collapse and no one cared about them. I am stressing the point that civil society activists were very disappointed because they were left behind by those with whom they had worked. They were left at the mercy of the terrorist groups.

Now, as the Taliban tightens its grip on the country as a whole, horrifying allegations of human rights atrocities are emerging on social media. I have heard of these atrocities from friends who are still in Afghanistan. Millions of girls who used to go to school are no longer able to pursue their ambitions for the future. Girls schools have been shut down. Women who demonstrated for their rights in several cities soon after the fall of the government were brutally silenced. Journalists who covered the protests were detained and subjected to horrific torture. Despite the Taliban's pledge of general amnesty, there is adequate evidence of the crimes they have committed.

The Taliban has just announced that the harsh Sharia rule, which allows for the execution of individuals accused of theft and the amputation of their hands and feet, will soon be reinstated. The group is forcibly displacing thousands of members of ethnic and religious minorities. I have heard that more than 3,000 families from the Hazara community were ordered to leave the homes in which they have been living for decades. Their agricultural lands have been confiscated and redistributed to their fellow Pashtun Sunni Muslims. The Taliban is almost exclusively Pashtun ethnic and Sunni hardliners, whereas the Hazara ethnic minority is Shia Muslim.

Following the Taliban's capture of the Panjshir Valley, which committee members may have heard about on the news, there have been unsubstantiated reports of mass executions, forced displacement and extortion. Until two weeks ago, the valley was the anti-Taliban movement's last stronghold. The Tajik ethnic group, the Taliban's arch-rival, led the movement. No humanitarian aid was permitted into the valley and no journalists were allowed to enter. Residents of the valley who dared to leave were beaten up. Their phones were searched to ensure that no information, photographs or videos of the crimes in the valley were leaked.

The Taliban, which is made up of criminals, has no regard for human life and dignity, which are the foundations of human rights. They have demonstrated that in practice. Extrajudicial killings, torture, persecution of minorities and political dissidents, humiliation of women, extortion and expropriation of land and property will no longer be isolated incidents but will become the norm.

Just a few days ago, the Taliban killed four people in Herat province and hanged their bodies in the city squares. The Taliban claimed that those killed were kidnappers, but no one knows whether that is true or how they were killed because there are no checks and balances in place. The civic space in Afghanistan has almost completely closed. Over 150 media outlets have been shut down and more than 300 non-governmental organisations have been asked to quit their work.

Journalists were beaten up, arrested, detained and warned to discontinue their work. Human rights defenders and media workers, particularly female activists, have been the Taliban's favourite targets. Those who demonstrated for their rights and freedoms were harshly repressed. Some protesters were detained and severely beaten, and there are unconfirmed reports of enforced disappearances in various cities across the country. Activists and journalists are frequently insulted and humiliated.

What aggravates the situation is the enabling environment for other terrorist groups such as ISIS and other criminals who have disguised themselves as Taliban, making life a living hell for activists and journalists. There have been unconfirmed reports of activists being arrested and detained on false charges of holding secular ideologies or spreading secularism. Non-Pashtun ethnic activists are even more vulnerable to targeted attacks because the Taliban are largely belonging to the Pashtun ethnic group.

Women were categorically barred from civil, political and economic activities. All of the women-owned businesses were shut down. Female employees of government and private businesses were told not to come to work. Some days ago, a Taliban official stated that women are not permitted to work in municipalities and they are only permitted to clean women's toilets. Human rights organisations have been closed down. Neither their male nor female employees go to work. The homes of some human rights defenders have been searched, and the Taliban group's intelligence is keeping a close eye on them. A growing number of human rights defenders are seeking protection and assistance from the Afghanistan human rights defenders committee. I am a current member of the committee. All offices of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, the only national human rights institution established under the Paris Principles, were closed. Their assets, including vehicles, computers and property were confiscated. Taliban soldiers have taken over their offices.

The international community claims that tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from Afghanistan, but the proportion of human rights defenders evacuated is negligible because hundreds of human rights defenders remain there. What complicates matters is that many human rights defenders do not have valid passports. The national identity card database and the passport offices are now under Taliban control, so renewing or applying for a new passport is very difficult for human rights defenders. Most importantly, when hiring employees, NGOs must provide the Ministry of Economy in Afghanistan with their personal information because salary tax will be deducted from their pay. The Taliban have complete access to the Ministry of Economy's database, from which they will very well be able to obtain information on all NGO employees.

Last but not least, the rising level of unemployment as a result of many former government employees losing their jobs and many NGOs being forced to abandon their work in Afghanistan, combined with future uncertainty, has contributed to an increase in criminal cases across the country. With the regime's international isolation, there is a growing fear of acute poverty in the near future. The difficult days under the Taliban are, unfortunately, looming.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I thank Mr. Faiz for that stark and rather horrific presentation. We very much acknowledge his experience and his recent direct contacts with people who are still in Kabul and across Afghanistan. Does Mr. Anderson have anything he would like to add to his opening comment?

Mr. Andrew Anderson:

No, that is okay.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I will now open up the meeting to members, acknowledging the three issues that were raised at the outset, namely: the situation in Colombia as outlined by Ms Foley and on the video; the issue of the long-term imprisonment including one of the specific cases mentioned, which has been the subject matter of correspondence with our committee and with me, and we will be happy to deal with that; and then the more current situation in Afghanistan as outlined by Mr. Faiz. I acknowledge the words of appreciation of Mr. Faiz with regard to the Irish Government's involvement in the response.

Members will be aware, as are our guests, that the Department of Foreign Affairs is working closely with Departments of Justice and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, as well as with a number of NGOs, to ensure that they are in a position to provide the visa waivers, selecting a number of human rights defenders and particularly those who have been judged to be at high risk. Of a list of 49 persons, 15 cases have been prioritised by Front Line Defenders, some 14 have arrived in Ireland and a further six are due to arrive shortly via the Netherlands. I wish to assure our witnesses, as Mr. Anderson has sought at the outset and as Mr. Faiz has acknowledged, that the Departments, the Government as a whole and the appropriate embassies will continue to work closely with Front Line Defenders to find solutions for the remaining group. In this regard, Mr. Faiz's first-hand knowledge is most important in the context of those wishing to seek safe haven and shelter in Ireland. I understand there are approximately 15 people currently in Pakistan, together with remaining individuals in Afghanistan. This committee would be very pleased to convey Mr. Faiz's first-hand report directly to the office of the Minister, this afternoon or tomorrow, to ensure that we can continue to assist where possible. Mr. Faiz referred to visas at the outset. One of our committee members, Deputy Stanton, is a former Minister of State at the Department of Justice. He is an experienced hand in the issue of visas and visa waivers. I know that he has listened attentively to the presentation. I will now call on Deputy Stanton, then we will proceed to Senator Craughwell and Deputy Berry.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Chairman. I welcome our guests and thank them for their presence, their contribution and their work. When the Chairman and I were with the Department of Justice, we lived through the situation that obtained in Syria, which I often described as hell on earth. We now have another situation developing in Afghanistan which is the same if not worse. Horrific events are being reported. This morning I listened to Christina Lamb on "Today with Claire Byrne". Ms Lamb spoke about the people of Afghanistan as being particularly gentle and generous, and at the same time they are being subjected to this terrible abuse.

Mr. Anderson said something that struck me about reports across the world that democracy is in decline, and that the year 2020 was the 15th consecutive year of long-term global democratic decline. Is that Mr. Anderson's experience? Ireland is on the UN Security Council and we punch way above our weight in many places. What can we do about it?

Today is United Nations International Day for Universal Access to Information. Mr. Faiz spoke of journalists being persecuted, jailed and deprived of freedoms and liberty in Afghanistan. Will Mr. Anderson comment on that? We have seen reports across the globe where under certain regimes and in certain countries journalists are targeted because they are the people who get out the information and hold governments to account by telling everybody else what is going on.

Very often, journalists are one of the first points of contact for oppression when a regime takes power that is not democratic.

The issue of long-term imprisonment is, again, a major worry. There are more and more reports of people across the world being imprisoned without trial, cause or due process and who are just being left in prison. Does any of the witnesses have up-to-date numbers on how many people across the world are in that position at the moment, especially front-line defenders? I welcome the recognition that we in Ireland have been to the forefront in Europe and, possibly, the world in providing assistance and support. For a very small country, we are doing what we can. I know the people of Ireland want us to do what we can.

It is harrowing to hear what is going on. I sense we are only hearing some of it. What is happening in the Panjshir Valley has been alluded to, as has the total closedown of information. I am interested in that situation because I have watched it carefully and Mr. Faiz told us that all information has been shut down, so God knows what has happened there. I thank the Chair. I will leave it at that for the moment.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I will deal with more questions from members before proceeding to our guests again.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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I thank the guests for attending. It is not easy to come in and tell the stories they had to tell. I will deal first with Afghanistan. There are a couple of issues with it. One is that we have had many statements from sources like the UN Security Council expressing concern for women and girls. These are words. Words mean nothing, at the end of the day. There are thousands of young girls who started to experience education for the first time in their lives and that has now been taken away. That is a matter of grave concern to me. I ask Hassan, if he will forgive me for using his first name, what else we can do apart from use words. The countries with troops stationed in Afghanistan ran out of the place in such a panic they left armaments and infrastructure behind them and left women and girls, in particular, to the mercy of the Taliban who clearly have no regard whatever for females. What practical steps should the UN Security Council take when it comes to the plight of women and girls?

During the final hours of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, a young lady who had been working in a particular public area - I do not want to say where because there are always people watching what we say here and I do not want to expose her - who was deeply concerned. She had assisted a foreign force or government as a worker and wanted to get out of the country. She latched onto me via my social media account because she thought I was a United States Senator. I had an engagement with her for a few days. I have not heard anything in recent weeks. Her concern was that she had all the credentials allowing her to be withdrawn from Afghanistan for her own safety. She claimed, and I have nothing to prove or disprove this but I have to put it out here, the Taliban was actively involved in forging documents to get its members out of the country and into western democracies. If that is true, it is a serious security issue for every country that has accepted Afghanis. I am interested in Mr. Faiz's views on that. Is it likely that this has happened? If so, does he have any ideas on how we might try to rectify what went wrong there?

Does Mr. Faiz see a role for UN troops in Afghanistan? Could we, for example, set up enclaves under UN flags to allow girls to return to education? One doctor contacted me and told me she was not allowed to practise without a male member of her family being with her at all times. Apart from anything else, I cannot understand how she would be able to interact with a woman if she has to have a male member of her family with her all the time. That is a matter of grave concern to me.

The story Ms Foley and Mr. Anderson told of Colombia is in stark contrast to the official story from that country. The video was quite telling. I agree with the Chairman - I know he will rapidly follow up on what he said - that we should get the ambassador before the committee fairly quickly to put these facts before her because they are frightening. Since Colombia has come out of a period of internal turmoil, terrorism, etc., have former terrorists integrated into the official Government of Colombia? Is there then a loose wing that has remained outside the Colombian Government and is still behaving as terrorists in the region? Are some members of the official government side, for all intents and purposes, acting without control and could they also be regarded as terrorists?

As a country emerges into a peace process, it is very difficult to get everybody on board all of the time. Is that an issue? Is it the case that the likes of Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC, are still actively recruiting combatants in the region? If so, what is the impact of that? With respect to the long-term prison referenced by Mr. Anderson, what can I say? The stories about the priests, an 84-year-old man who has been in prison for nine months and a 60-year-old man who has been in prison for ten years, are horrendous. I support the Chairman's view on the matter and I am sure the committee will do everything it can when contacting the Department on it. I thank the witnesses for their time.

Photo of Sorca ClarkeSorca Clarke (Longford-Westmeath, Sinn Fein)
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I thank our contributors for their time and contributions. I do not think anybody could have seen the recent events, particularly in Afghanistan, that have played out in the media as being anything other than horrendously disturbing. I firmly hold the opinion that what we see in the media is the very tip of the iceberg of what is actually happening in countries. Even outside Afghanistan, what we see in the media does not tell the true story or give the full picture of what is transpiring on the ground.

How are human rights defenders in Afghanistan coping? How are they doing? On their day-to-day operations in the country, how do Front Line Defenders judge their safety and ability to continue to perform their role, which is vital in many respects? I will ask a very difficult question. In places such as Afghanistan where there has been a marked increase in oppressive action, including brutality in many cases, against human rights defenders, realistically, how long can they remain active on the ground? Is a predetermined level set at which it is deemed to be no longer safe for these people to physically remain in that environment? If such a level is set, how close are we to reaching it at the moment? How many more risks are they willing and able to take before they need to seek outside support and are removed from the area?

I echo the sentiments expressed by the Chairperson on Colombia. An invitation needs to be issued as soon as possible to the Colombian ambassador to return to the committee to address what was shown in the video. These are horrendous actions for which accountability is needed.

What would the witnesses like to see being made a priority for the committee in its work and for the Government as a whole?

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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That is a very good note on which to go back to the witnesses. I ask Mr. Anderson to deal with the questions he believes are appropriate to him. I ask Mr. Faiz to answer the questions on Afghanistan and Ms Foley those on Colombia.

Mr. Andrew Anderson:

To respond to Deputy Stanton's question on the issue of democracy in decline, that is broadly true. Broadly, the forces of democracy and human rights are under pressure in more places than ever before. Populist authoritarianism is growing. We are seeing an undermining of democracy and the rule of law in parts of Europe as well as across Africa, Latin America and Asia. It is important to understand it is not all one-way traffic. Many people are engaged in the struggle for human rights and democracy on the ground. There have been positive steps in Zambia and Malawi recently, where elections saw a transfer of power and authoritarian leaders left power.

A couple of years ago, there was the transition in Sudan. There was the worrying news of an attempted coup over recent days and the transition there is still very fragile. Nevertheless, one aspect that links Zambia, Malawi and Sudan is the important role of civil society. It was local people mobilising on the ground to push for free and fair elections in Zambia and Malawi that ensured that happened in a peaceful way. It was local civil society mobilised in Sudan that put pressure for the overthrow of a corrupt dictatorship. Although the current transitional arrangements are not ideal, they at least offer a peaceful path forward. It is important the Security Council and others remain seized of the need to support that transition in Sudan.

There is probably more bad news than good news out there, but we should recognise that nearly everywhere there is progress it is contested space. Where we are seeing progress, it is because of the actions of people working in local communities in a peaceful way through civil society organisations. Whether they call themselves human rights defenders might vary in different contexts but, broadly speaking, supporting local people working peacefully to advance human rights and democracy is, we believe, the way to continue to make a difference. Even in those countries going in the wrong direction, it is being able to continue to support those people who are continuing to work that offers some hope for the future in those countries.

As for journalists, it is true they are often the canaries in the coalmine, the first ones to be silenced in many places, together with other human rights defenders. We have seen that, for example, most recently in Belarus. One of our partner organisations is Reporters without Borders and we continue to work with it and others to try to support journalists at risk. Some of the people we have helped to get out of Afghanistan have been journalists. Mr. Faiz might comment on circumstances in that country and what we can do. I reiterate we have had a big focus in recent weeks, and will do for the next while, on helping people to get out, but we are also providing support to those who are going to remain inside.

One of the very impressive aspects of the actions of human rights defenders throughout the world is that - putting North Korea and Eritrea to one side - there is almost no country where there are not people working to advance human rights and democracy. In China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, people are continuing to work. One of the challenges in Afghanistan relates to the fact that many people were outspoken and high profile and they are extremely vulnerable at the moment. There will continue to be people who try to work in a more low-key way. There are people trying to keep open some of the refuges that were in operation for women and victims of domestic violence. It will be very difficult to do that and the space to do it has been narrowed greatly, but there will continue to be people who try to work inside the country. One of our objectives, working together with people such as Mr. Faiz who have been able to get out, will be to try to find safe ways to continue to support people who are working inside the country as well as helping those who need to get out to do so.

As for our priorities, given the role of Ireland on the UN Security Council, we think it should reiterate the recommendation to call an Arria formula meeting at the council. It is an opportunity to bring in the voices of human rights defenders from Colombia such as that of Diana, whom we heard so eloquently from earlier. We think that is really important, not only because the issues they are raising in regard to the failure to implement key parts of the peace agreement in the context of the protection of human rights defenders are important but also because it sends a strong message to the Colombian authorities, when those human rights defenders are engaged with, that these people are of real importance to the international community and the Security Council. It sends a message, I hope, that more needs to be done in respect of their protection.

Second, we encourage the committee to recommend that the Irish Government do more to follow up on certain cases. That of Abdul-Hadi al-Khawaja in Bahrain is one the Government has raised in the past, but we are keen for Ireland and the EU to do more. Eamon Gilmore, as EU special representative, has taken up his case but it is important to encourage the EU, as well as the UK Government, to push forward on that case as well as those of other human rights defenders such as Fr. Stan Swamey in India.

Our third priority in respect of Afghanistan in the immediate future is the provision of additional visas for human rights defenders at risk. Ireland is a relatively small country in the global scheme of things and we recognise there is not an unlimited supply of such documents, but we have made a specific request to the Department of Foreign Affairs for an additional 50 visas and we think that would make a very important difference in helping some of those who are most at risk. If Ireland could encourage more action at the EU level too, that would be of great value as well.

I will now pass over to my colleagues.

Mr. Hassan Ali Faiz:

I echo what Mr. Anderson said about journalists and human rights defenders. There are still people on the ground who are working on human rights but they definitely cannot work the way they did previously. One good aspect is that we have social media. Whatever journalists cannot say through their official media, they can post on social media. We need the Afghans who are deeply involved to use social media to provide this information. I had a meeting with a few Geneva-based human rights organisations and they asked whether I would continue my work. I responded that my work has just started. There was some room to manoeuvre to work with the previous government but there is none to work with the current regime. What I should do, therefore, is gather information and be a voice for human rights defenders in Europe. People in the West would not be able to get that information from the media but we can provide it because we have people there on the ground who can pass us that information, which we can give to others who can lobby and advocate for the cause of human rights and give people a real picture.

One of the questions was about what the UN could do practically that was not just words. The UN still has open hands and there is much that it could do. An important thing is not to recognise the regime. I understand that international isolation like that will put a great deal of economic pressure on the population. I have heard that approximately 17 children have died of malnutrition in one of the provinces of Afghanistan. I know that international isolation will have economic repercussions for the public but I believe that death with dignity is much better than living under that sort of repressive regime that has no regard for human life, human dignity or women's rights. I propose that the Irish Government not recognise the regime. Ultimately, the regime will fall to its knees under such pressure. I know, as I am from that community and country. I know that, under such pressure, the regime will surrender to what the world wants of it. When the US showed it was serious about how the Taliban should not attack US soldiers, the Taliban did not attack any for 18 months. The US told the Taliban that, if it attacked, the US would attack it in return. Something that Ireland can do now is to not recognise the regime.

As to whether Taliban members will board planes and land in Europe or the US, I have that concern as well. I have not met anyone who has said he or she is a member of the Taliban or something, but I have heard a great many sympathising with the Taliban. I met them in Doha when I was in the camp and while I was in the camp in Ramstein, Germany. That was unbelievable to me because they were still praising the people they were escaping. One of the bad things with the American evacuation in particular was that more than 90% of those the US evacuated were from the ruling ethnic group and the Taliban is from the same ethnic group. The over 90% of people who were evacuated from that one ethnic group sympathise with the Taliban. That is why I am proposing, not to Ireland, but to Europe and America, that they be as careful as possible with the people they are bringing in. I am afraid that it will create a headache for Ireland as well. No one told me that he or she was a member of the Taliban or a relative of one, but I saw people sympathising with the group. It was very unfortunate.

The Senator is correct. In many cases, women cannot go anywhere without a male family member as a companion. At the beginning, the Taliban wanted to show a positive picture to the public in order to say it had changed. Now that the Taliban is holding its grip on the country, it is showing its real face to the world, and that is one that has no regard for equality or human rights. It was just a few days ago that the Taliban stated it would reinstate Sharia rule, under which it will execute people and cut off hands, feet and fingertips. It is thinking about bringing back that sort of brutal law. The Taliban cannot be trusted. It is a liar. It has lied to everyone in the international community. The committee might have heard of the Doha negotiation. At every step, the Taliban has lied to the international community and others. The international community should be as cautious about and strict towards the regime as possible. I repeat that the international community should not recognise this brutal regime.

Regarding UN troops, if the UN is serious about women's rights and human rights, sending in troops could still work, but I do not know whether the international community would be supportive of that. For the past 20 years, billions of dollars have been spent in Afghanistan. That is the claim, at least, although those billions of dollars did not bring many changes to the lives of ordinary Afghans. Something that no one can deny is that thousands of international troops died in Afghanistan. It was an investment of blood and money. For the past 20 years, they brought in the best equipment and equipped and trained 350,000 soldiers. How could those troops not withstand fewer than 50,000 terrorists? Can committee members believe that? How could a country with that sort of equipment and that many soldiers fall to this terrorist group within a matter of days? I could not have imagined it. I was there before the fall of Kabul. I never thought that the then regime would fall to this terrorist group, given all the equipment and the very well trained army, but it happened. Ultimately, there was no regime because it could not resist the Taliban. It had major international support, but I am not sure whether there would be that sort of investment again in a UN force of troops. I do not know whether it is feasible. The international community is frustrated with Afghanistan. It is tired of the country. I do not see a possibility of UN troops being in the country, at least any time soon. If there is, though, I would be happy.

A question was asked about whether there was still room to work. There is, but we cannot work the way we did previously. We cannot work under the direct title "human rights". While we were coming here today, I spoke about changing the strategy. In the foreground, perhaps people could work with a focus on humanitarian activities or aid delivery services but in the background they would pursue their own human rights activities. This would need a very smart strategy, though, so that the regime would not detect what people were really doing. One strategy could involve people providing aid delivery services in the foreground. Economically, the country is in a bad situation, so the regime would allow people their humanitarian activities, including aid delivery services. Behind the schemes, people could then pursue their previous work. There could be other strategies as well.

Afghanistan is not safe for human rights defenders. The regime is slowly gathering intelligence and training its intelligence services. It has a staunch supporter in the Pakistani Government, which is training the Taliban in how to keep an eye on human rights defenders and journalists. Unfortunately, the country is not safe, but there is still room in which people can work and for them to get information out.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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In your opening comment, you mentioned that the Taliban comprised almost exclusively ethnic Pashtun with some hardline Sunni forces. To what extent have you experienced or heard of outside influence from places like Chechnya and Saudi Arabia or other forces that may in effect be pulling the strings?

Mr. Hassan Ali Faiz:

This morning, we spoke about the issue of ethnic politics in Afghanistan.

One important element in the collapse of the Government was that of ethnic dimensions. There are many ethnic groups in the country, but there are four prominent ones: the Pashtun, which has ruled the country for over 200 years; the Tajiks, the arch-rivals of the Pashtuns; the Hazaras; and the Uzbeks. Except the Hazaras, who are predominantly Shia Muslims, the rest are Sunni Muslims. The Taliban are almost exclusively from the Pashtun ethnic group. The previous Government was also of the ethnic Pashtun. The Taliban are hardliners and they belong to one ethnic group. Because of the historical enmity among ethnic groups, they will do what they want to other ethnic groups who are not in power.

In the cabinet they have announced, out of 33 senior positions, 30 belong to ethnic Pashtuns. They have symbolically given three lower seats to other ethnic groups. We do not know the exact population of the country, but it could be between 28 million to 38 million. Non-Pashtun ethnic groups believe Pashtuns form 38% to 40% of the population. However, they claim to be 50% or 60%. Even if the ethnic group is 50%, the number of seats they have allocated should be half for other ethnic groups and half for the Pashtun ethnic groups. Of the 33 senior positions, they have allocated 30 to themselves and only 3 symbolic positions to other ethnic groups.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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Would Ms Foley like to come in on Colombia?

Ms Michelle Foley:

Yes. Senator Craughwell asked a question on recruiting in the government and if the FARC are still actively recruiting. Concerning the neo-paramilitaries in the rural departments, even the human rights defenders on the ground do not have a clear understanding of the make-up of the groups. One of our asks of Ireland at the UN Security Council is to call for the formation of a group of experts to look at neo-paramilitarism on the ground. The Colombian Government often resorts to rhetoric that puts all the focus on drug-trafficking and neo-paramilitary groups and does not look at the responsibility of the Colombian state. Ultimately, the state is responsible for human rights defenders and their lives. If we keep passing the blame onto this neo-paramilitary group, it distracts from the fact 199 human rights defenders were killed last year and the Colombian Government is not doing enough to protect them. There are many mechanisms in place but the political will to make them function properly is not there, as human rights defenders on the ground tell us. There is a special investigations unit and there are lots of different programmes, and they keep creating more programmes, but they are not implemented effectively so they are not having any effect for defenders who are working on the implementation of the peace process.

We will be five years into the implementation process come November and it is defenders at the forefront of implementing it in rural departments who are most at risk. Those working in the juntas or community action boards are vulnerable to attacks and killings. The 199 killings do not take into account the huge number of attacks against defenders where defenders are not killed.The situation on the ground is incredibly tense. There is narco-trafficking and paramilitary groups but when the special investigations unit looks at the crimes, it tackles the material authors of the crime and not the intellectual authors. It keeps happening and is getting worse. With elections to come in May 2022, the violence is already escalating in the departments. There are 16 seats, called curules de paz, allocated in the peace agreement for victims of the conflict. As people vie for these seats in the Senate, there will be more violence. These people will be putting their heads above the parapet and be vulnerable to attack.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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We would be happy at an early date to take up matters with the Colombian ambassador. We are also due to hear from special envoy Eamon Gilmore. We were to hear from him earlier in the year. With Covid restrictions and pressure on meetings, we did not manage it but it would be timely prior to the elections.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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On the Afghan issue, the collapse of the local defence organisation suggests that no matter how well they were trained, they were amenable to the Taliban taking over. On getting the news out from Afghanistan on social media, I am sure that will not survive for much longer if things remain as bad as they are.

I will get back to Colombia. In a post-conflict situation, which we know all about in this country, some former combatants come into the political world and some move into the criminal world. Is Ms Foley saying the criminal elements are strong and the Government does not have the wherewithal to take them on, and perhaps does not have the support from the former terrorists who are now part of the Government?

Ms Michelle Foley:

The demobilisation of FARC is one of the elements of the peace accord that was strongly implemented in the beginning. This left a vacuum in the territories that were controlled by FARC. Other paramilitary and criminal groups have grown and expanded into those territories. That vacuum was foreseeable. When the demobilisation happened, FARC was controlling these areas. Now they are controlled by other criminal entities.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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In bringing matters to a close, I propose to have a final concise message from Mr. Anderson, Mr. Faiz and Ms Foley on how they feel the committee might best proceed. Mr. Anderson acknowledged the role of the Government, but was disappointed with the role of the European Union. Will he elaborate on that briefly? I noted the issue of Afghanistan was very much top of the agenda - it was almost the entirety of the agenda - at a recent meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council. That notwithstanding, I hear criticism of the European Union this morning. I ask Mr. Anderson to address that in his closing comments. Then we will go to Mr. Faiz and Ms Foley for final words.

Mr. Andrew Anderson:

The EU has played a big role in supporting human rights in Afghanistan over the last 20 years. I remember meeting with an EU delegation when I was in Kabul in 2007 and 2008. They were developing programmes to support human rights defenders who were at risk. We have continued to co-operate with the EU over the years. Up to a couple of years ago, it ran a specific programme for the protection of human rights defenders.

Unfortunately, in the weeks leading up to the collapse of Kabul, the EU decided that it was going to stop being directly in touch with human rights defenders inside the country and that it wanted to have NGO partners from the international level who would provide their support to human rights defenders. We were caught a little bit in a difficult context. We are the lead partner in the EU human rights defenders mechanism, which is a 12-NGO consortium that implements EU projects to support human rights defenders. We felt, in consultation with Afghan defenders, that we should agree to co-operate with the EU on providing funding to human rights defenders at risk. We had significant misgivings about doing this because this funding was being passed on as part of the EU withdrawal. Instead of managing the funding itself and being in direct contact with Afghan human rights defenders, the EU wanted to give the money to us to provide support to those Afghan defenders. This was fine on the financial side, but it involved the EU removing itself from being in direct day-to-day contact with defenders. The EU could see what direction things were going in and did not want to be responsible for helping people with whom it had been working for a decade or more, in some cases, to find a place of safety.

Of course, the EU is in a difficult place because it does not have visas. It relies on member states to provide visas to help those at most extreme risk. Our frustration was that the political leadership to address that and to co-ordinate with member states to ensure some kind of orderly and co-ordinated support, particularly for those working on EU-funded projects, did not exist. In addition to the excellent co-operation with Ireland, we have spent a lot of time in the past couple of months chasing around trying to find other EU member states that would be willing to provide visas for people who had been working on EU-funded projects, among other things. It is very frustrating that there has not been more co-ordination at least from the side of the EU, even if it does not have the power to give visas, and that there was a bit of disengagement at the moment when the crisis was most acute. This is not to say that we have not had good co-operation. We have had good co-operation with Eamon Gilmore's office and with other bits of the EU. If we are talking about the delegation in Kabul and the role of the external action service, however, we are not very impressed with how it managed things over the past few months.

Mr. Hassan Ali Faiz:

I again ask the committee to communicate the issue of not recognising the Taliban regime to other countries because this regime is in no way acceptable to any Afghan. Almost all human rights projects were funded by EU member states but when it comes to the evacuation of human rights defenders, unfortunately, they fall short badly. I have not implemented any US project on human rights this year. There was only one. Finally, I was able to board a US aeroplane and finally ended up here in Ireland. Like me, there are other human rights defenders who boarded the US aeroplane and ended up here in Ireland or other parts of Europe. The EU left us behind so badly, and many human rights defenders have been left so disappointed. I ask the committee to communicate our message to other EU member states that if they were supposed to do something, they should have done it really responsibly. They should have done that responsibly in the first place. Leaving that behind will have repercussions. I know human rights defenders who are fighting for their rights in eastern Europe, Latin America and south and south-east Asia. The lesson for them will be a very bad one that will really discourage them. I would like the committee to communicate this message to other EU member states.

Ms Michelle Foley:

While asking the committee to support our call for a forum at the UN Security Council, I would prefer to let Hassan's powerful words be the final words on the matter.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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On behalf of the committee, I thank our guests for meeting with the committee this afternoon, for their quite stark presentations and for dealing with members' questions in such a comprehensive manner. They have given us a number of tasks that we will take up. We will be happy to report back to them on in due course. I thank Ms Moore, Mr. Faiz, Ms Foley and in particular, Mr. Anderson. We look forward to further engagement as matters proceed.

The joint committee went into private session at 2.07 p.m. and adjourned at 2.13 p.m. until 5.15 p.m. on Wednesday, 29 September 2021.