The International Criminal Court in The Hague on Thursday gave the go-ahead for its prosecutor to investigate alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.
The decision opens the door to potential prosecutions against Taliban, Afghan, and international armed forces – and sets the stage for a confrontation with the United States, which opposes ICC jurisdiction and last year revoked the US visa of the court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda.
Rights groups hailed the decision as a major step after years of impunity in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission called the ruling an “important step for justice in Afghanistan’s long war”.
Last April, the court’s pre-trial chamber rejected Bensouda’s bid to open an investigation, saying it “would not serve the interests of justice” because the chances of a successful prosecution were “extremely limited”. But Thursday’s appeals chamber ruling overturned that decision, saying judges should only have considered whether the case had merit and if it fell within the court’s jurisdiction.
In her original submission, Bensouda said she planned to investigate crimes committed on Afghan soil since May 2003. She said there was a reasonable basis to examine alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by the Taliban, as well as alleged war crimes committed by Afghan security forces and US and international military. Her submission also alleged that US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) members committed torture, rape, and sexual violence against detainees at secret detention facilities in Poland, Romania, and Lithuania.
The ICC ruling comes at a volatile point for Afghanistan. The US and Taliban last week signed a peace deal that called on international military forces to leave the country within 14 months. The Taliban and Afghan officials are scheduled to start direct peace talks by 10 March, but already a dispute over prisoner releases – negotiated as part of the US-Taliban agreement – has complicated matters.
More than 10,000 civilians were killed or injured in conflict last year, according to UN statistics, and Afghanistan faces often-overlapping humanitarian crises on top of the instability. The country’s shattered healthcare system is also rushing to contain a coronavirus outbreak following the first confirmed Afghan case last week.
- Irwin Loy