Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The fight for justice

I used to work for the Presidential elections in Afghanistan and hence still have a lot of concerns and passion for the electoral operation there. In the midst of all the preparation for the Parliamentary Election in September 2005, I was filled with a sense of fear.

I chose not to renew my contract with the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB), a body which is part the UN and part the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) of Afghanistan, last year simply because of my intolerance towards the practices of nepotism and corruption within the electoral management in the region I was responsible for.

Despite a long and carefully articulated letter to the headquarters backed with facts and cases, my effort to make a change in the system fell on deaf ears.

The only response I received was, “You write beautifully!” which of course was an insult to me.

By then, I realised that nothing I did would ever change the system particularly when those who were in the position to make decisions did not seem to care much about the integrity of the process. I guess when you can’t beat them...my own position is not to join them.

This year, things are different although not without fear. I am finally a human rights officer being assigned to the Political Rights Verification Campaign (PRVC), a joint United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission project. The project is aimed at verifying whether there is a conducive environment for a free and fair election in Afghanistan.

In a country where intimidations from local commanders, anti-governmental entities, pro-Taliban supporters and corrupted senior governmental officials are just part of an Afghan’s daily affairs, it is indeed a very difficult operation but no doubt a much needed one.

From working for the election previously to assessing the credibility of the election, I was very excited.

It is my duty to collect information of those who violate the principles of non-intimidation, non-partiality and non-discrimination.

Thankfully the people I am working with are true human rights defenders with great principles and true sense of integrity. So, my work is not really something I fear for.

My fear is this. Given the new electoral system and laws, each province is given a specific number of seats depending on the size of the population.

According to the constitution and the electoral laws, women are required to fill at least 25 per cent of the total seats, which of course is a huge step for a country like Afghanistan. I doubt that women actually fill up more than 10 per cent of the parliamentary seats in all established democratic countries.

Due to the Single Non Transferable Vote (SNTV) electoral system, only independent candidates are allowed to contest in the elections and not political parties.

The candidates can belong to a specific political parties but he or she is not allowed to contest under the political party’s name.

With the recent completion of the candidate nomination period, the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) has registered more than 6,000 candidates. There is yet a vetting process to be carried out in order to produce the final candidate roll.

The only criterion for a candidate to be deemed ineligible is if he or she has been or is convicted of a crime by a competent court. The culture of impunity is well known in Afghanistan due to the weakness of the rule of law institutions.

There are still many provincial courts in the country, which are not functioning at all due to the lack of qualified judges and prosecutors. Most judges are trained in the Sharia Law and have no in-dept knowledge of civil and criminal laws or procedures. In addition to that, the judiciary system is reputable for being corrupted.

Having said all this, it is not difficult to deduce that the vetting process for electoral candidates will not provide any impact and on the extreme, means nothing at all.

It has been more than a week since the end of the candidate nomination period and a few hundreds candidates have somehow gave up on the contest even before it has begun. There are only two explanations for this.

Firstly, some of the candidates must have been intimidated or threatened by stronger candidates backed by dominant political parties.

There have been many unverified reports of intimidation and self-censorship all over the regions and although the UN has no credible evidences to back these allegations up, nobody who has stayed in Afghanistan long enough will dispute them.

Secondly, due to the specific number of allocated seats, the exercise of “pre-selection” of candidates has taken place in many places. It is not difficult to assume that in certain regions or provinces, the political race will run along the line of ethnic groups.

For instance, in order to have “favoured” candidates win the election by default, it is logical to intimidate other candidates into withdrawing their nominations.

So, these are my fear. Sometimes I feel that my effort and time are wasted here. Many times I fear for the Afghans who truly want to see their children grow up in a peaceful country without intimidation or discrimination.

With the recent bombing and killings of innocent Afghans in a mosque in Kandahar, my fear becomes magnified. If the Afghans do not start to pick themselves up, I doubt anybody else could. Those who truly want to make a change are often being killed or terrorised.

How then, could things change? Am I deluded to believe that things will change for the better for these people?

Yes, these are the reasons why I have been asking myself what the hell am I doing here. And what makes me think twice to stay? As Andrew Beckett, a character played by Tom Hanks in Philadelphia said, “What I love most about the law? I love most about the law is because not often but very occasionally, you are a part of justice being done.”

So, what has kept me here despite being frustrated and disappointed, is that the little faith left in me says perhaps, just perhaps, I might be a part of justice being done in Afghanistan.

I finally left Afghanistan after living there for 2 years. Although I managed to survive a death threat, I eventually succumbed to eczema. Unfortunately, I felt that I have left without leaving much impact.

This was first published in The Malaysian Insider on 27 March 2010.

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