Afghanistan’s first lady, Rula Ghani, countering what she called the “prophets of doom and gloom,” said extensive reforms to her country’s legal system over the past 18 months are beginning to deliver results and illustrate potential progress. Speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Ghani said the unity government headed since January 2015 by her husband, President Ashraf Ghani, and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah understand the need to provide fair and effective justice to Afghanistan’s people as a key element in rebuilding the country.

Rula Ghani

“We need to reestablish social order,” Ghani said. “Violence needs to be replaced with the fundamental respect of human dignity secured by the rule of law.”

Ghani acknowledged that Afghanistan is grappling with difficult—though expected—economic and security challenges following the withdrawal of most NATO troops, a force that’s dropped from its peak of about 140,000 in 2011 to about 12,500. The situation is complicated, she said, by an influx of “mercenaries” from places such as Chechnya and Uzbekistan, whereas it was possible in the past to see the Taliban as “our brothers and cousins.” USIP’s vice president for Asia programs, Andrew Wilder, an expert on Afghanistan and the moderator of the May 13 conversation with Ghani, said conditions in the country in some respects appear to be deteriorating.

USIP began operating in Afghanistan in 2002, focusing on rule-of-law issues after the collapse of the Taliban regime. USIP’s research suggests that a major cause of instability and conflict in the country has been the failure of state institutions to respect and promote the rule of law and function effectively and accountably. The institute’s Kabul office, open since 2008, is its largest abroad. USIP plans to expand its work promoting good governance in the country at a time when “too many institutions are starting to draw down and reduce engagement,” President Nancy Lindborg said in opening remarks.

“Violence needs to be replaced with the fundamental respect of human dignity secured by the rule of law.” – Afghanistan first lady Rula Ghani

The justice system effort, Ghani said, offers a “snapshot” of how the reform agenda for Afghanistan is being addressed based on a December 2014 meeting in London between the country’s leadership and international donors. The work also shows that attention to a fair dispute-resolution system can ultimately help restore civil life. Amid news of terrorism and events on the battlefield, the story of Afghanistan’s institutional progress is being overlooked, she said.

Justice reform began at the top with appointment of a new supreme court chief judge who threw out two key rules that undermined confidence in the system and opened the door to corruption, according to Ghani: One allowed the chief judge to overturn any decision reached by the full court; the second gave him authority to reverse or alter any court’s decision that involved a financial sanction.

“No wonder the money used to change hands so much,” Ghani said.

Hundreds of Justice Officials Fired or Removed

To clean up a corrupt system, 402 judicial officials were fired, transferred or replaced and 135 new judges appointed in Kabul and the provinces, of whom 16 are women, Ghani said. A new attorney general, a well-known human rights activist, led the expansion of his office’s presence to all 34 provinces from the previous eight, with women heading seven of the units.

The scale of the challenge was made clear in a speech the president made reporting on his first 100 days in office, she said. Analysts had determined that 600 prosecutors had only a high school education and were incapable of drafting the most elementary submissions to court, she said, citing her husband. An audit determined that 60 percent to 90 percent of prosecutors’ filings failed to meet the requirements of law.

The situation of women in the justice system was particularly dire and has improved significantly, said Ghani, who has emerged as a leading advocate for the rights and education of Afghan women:

  • Within the attorney general’s office, a special directorate was set up to implement the country’s law on violence against women. The unit, led by a female prosecutor, has registered 9,752 cases and succeeded in gaining verdicts in 5,603 of them.
  • Women who are detained without formal charges often have been virtually forgotten by the justice bureaucracy. The cabinet established a commission of legal experts to review women’s detentions and the allegations against them, while dedicated courts have been set up in all 34 provinces to expedite the cases of detained women.
  • A thorough review of all staff at women’s detention centers is underway, and those found failing to carry out their duties are being dismissed.
  • Reports of sexual abuse of women in prisons and detention, which Ghani called a common problem, will now be investigated directly by staff from the president’s office.

The first lady said the government still has a long way to go before it fulfills the reform agenda set out in London, which included reviewing the qualifications of all legal professionals, increased transparency throughout the progress of a case, and reforming oversight and training of police and prison personnel.

Tapping Into an Earlier National Character

Afghanistan, she said, has been subsumed by a culture of violence bred over decades of war. She said she holds out hope that the nation can tap into an earlier national character to rebuild the state—a history at odds with media portrayal of Afghanistan as a “stone age society with competing warlords ready to slaughter each other with the slightest provocation.”

With an even tone, Ghani parried several challenging questions from the audience, which included a number of Afghan expatriates. When a young woman asked whether the ministries of justice and women’s affairs were addressing informal, traditional dispute resolution councils that the questioner called discriminatory and biased, Ghani smiled and replied: “You assert your information with a lot of firmness. It shows your age.”

Decades ago, women had ways to be part of the decision-making, she said. The current “climate of violence and disrespect of women” stems from war, trumping the humanity of Afghanistan.

Another questioner objected to talks to allow Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of Hezb-i-Islami militant group, to return to Kabul for the first time since 1996, when he was pushed out by the Taliban. The commander is accused of responsibility for the deaths of thousands during the civil war, including the indiscriminate shelling of Kabul. “It is like bin Laden saying he wants to come to New York,” the audience member said.

“I understand what you’re saying,” Ghani said. “And in war you really develop very strong feelings of hate. It is hard. But you make peace with enemies, not friends.”

She said her husband would not give away too much. “This person is also an Afghan. And under certain conditions he has a right to be in this country.”

“It is a hard one to swallow,” she said. “If he gets a house somewhere and lives peacefully, that’s fine; it’s not a problem. And I hope you will be able to find that peace in you.” 

Changing the culture of violence will require a range of approaches—dialogue, cultural promotion, art, education reform, defense of women, and more, she said. Institutional reform is perhaps even more important for sustainable gains, she said. Recent change in the country’s system of justice is a hopeful story that must not be ignored, she said.

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