Judges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) recently decided not to let the prosecutor open an investigation into war crimes in Afghanistan. The decision was unexpected and has been heavily criticised by some. In particular, the fact that the judges said that an investigation into the events of Afghanistan’s long wars during which many people suffered would not be in the “interests of justice”.
Hadi Marifat is the Executive Director of the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization (AHRDO) – an Afghan NGO established in 2009. He was closely involved in getting the views of victims of war crimes to the ICC. As part of #MyJustice Series, Justice Hub asked him about his opinion of the ICC decision and about the establishment of the Afghanistan Centre for Memory and Dialogue for which AHRDO has been collecting ‘memory boxes’ from victims, along with recording victim narratives, for the past eight years.
Justice Hub: What was your immediate reaction, as a victims’ advocate, to the ICC decision?
Hadi Marifat: The ICC judges’ refusal to authorize the investigation has shattered many of the long-cherished hopes and aspirations of Afghans for justice and fairness. The decision clearly indicates that it doesn’t matter how barbaric a conflict is – there’s no credible global institution to hold anyone implicated in the violence accountable.
Justice Hub: How do others feel about the ICC decision?
Hadi Marifat: Afghans expected the ICC to put the interest of victims at the centre of their decision-making, not the interests of the powerful and the perpetrators. The court has done absolutely the opposite.
Justice Hub: Hundreds of people made representations to the court as it was deciding whether to open an investigation or not. Have the victims been informed?
Hadi Marifat: It has been days since the decision was issued and the court is still translating the decision to one of the local languages—that’s the least they have to do to inform the victims. To make those 699 representations at the court, Afghan victims and human rights defenders took enormous risks – just to get justice in return. The court has shattered their hopes by this politically-driven decision.
Justice Hub: Why did you see a need to set up an Afghan justice NGO?
Hadi Marifat: The Afghan government, with the support of its international allies, created an action plan for transitional justice in 2006 that unfortunately lasted until 2009 only and was without any tangible achievements. On top of that, the Afghan parliament passed a bill in 2007 that gave amnesty to all the alleged war criminals. Considering that the issue of transitional justice had dropped off the international community’s agenda, we set up this organization to work with the war victims and on the issue of transional justice including documentation and memorization. In February 2019, AHRDO established the Afghanistan Centre for Memory and Dialogue, which hosts more than 4000 collected memories of Afghan War Victims, and is the direct outcome of eight-year-long memorialization project.
Justice Hub: What does transitional justice mean to you?
Hadi Marifat: It means the process of looking at the past. It also means transforming the country or a situation of conflict to one of peace. In the process, there is the acknowledgement of victims, their suffering and of course truth-telling. There is also documentation and reconciliation and, ultimately, some form of justice. We don’t always advocate for criminal justice because we know its limitations. In Afghanistan, none of this has been done despite having millions spent on it.
Justice Hub: Was the ICC a useful vehicle for transitional justice?
Hadi Marifat: The opening of an investigation into the crimes of international concerns in Afghanistan by the ICC would have been an unprecedented event in the history of justice in Afghanistan. The unbroken cycle of impunity, under which all the Afghan conflict parties have viewed war as an unregulated and ungoverned enterprise, would and could have been seriously challenged, if not broken. And the conflict actors would have come to know in practice that like all other businesses, there are established international rules and regulations that govern the conduct of hostilities, the breach of which will earn the individual conflict actors’ international prosecution and trial. An investigation in Afghanistan could have revived the credibility of the ICC and could also have communicated an important message to obstructive state and non-state actors – that the ICC will intervene, no matter how difficult the odds be.
Justice Hub: How are you making the views of victims be heard, beyond the ICC?
Hadi Marifat: There a massive number of victims in Afghanistan, and it’s very difficult to communicate, especially with the illiterate. We couldn’t use approaches like seminars and training. We used the “Theatre of the Oppressed” which originated in Brazil. The nature of the process requires that we listen to the victims and then help them to make a play of their own stories and perform it. We also document their stories and memories and then exhibit them at the Afghanistan Centre for Memory and Dialogue for the public so that the views and voices of the victims be heard.
Justice Hub: Where did the idea of the memory boxes come from?
Hadi Marifat: Once we had done many forum theatre performances, we looked for the right ways of documenting the stories. When we were listening to the stories in the workshop, it was very powerful and touching to all of us. During one particular exercise called the ‘Life Journey’ through the Memory Boxes workshops, we realised that the victims were often referring to certain objects. For example, someone remembered that his/her father who was killed gave them a piece of cloth or some photos. So what we started to do was to encourage the victims to draw, sketch or paint a certain moment of their life and to include the object in their ‘Life Journey’. That is when the idea of the memory box was shaped. For us, the memory box is no just a box, it’s also a methodology. What’s important isn’t just the outcome but also the whole process.
Justice Hub: Why would people give you their objects? Don’t these objects matter to them?
Hadi Marifat: That’s a very good question actually. We collect the victims’ objects as part of our memorization project. Thanks to the trust established in the course of one decade of work with victims, they share their stories and objects to us to be displayed for the public. Many of them shared their valuable objects with us such as letters sent by their loved ones from prison and they kept the for years to contribute to a truth-telling and documentation process. They said we share these objects with the public, particularly with young generation so that they know what happened in the past in the country.
I am happy to say that, though we could not create a permanent war victims’ museum, we however were able to successfully establish the Afghanistan Centre for Memories and Dialogue. The objects are exhibited for temporary time periods at the Centre. We are hoping for a more permanent place in the future.
Justice Hub: Considering all that has been happening and all you have been doing, what do you think justice really means?
Hadi Marifat: In the context of Afghanistan, justice is a very complex concept. But I think justice can mean even a simple apology. After years of conflict and neglect, an apology could go a long way towards healing and be counted as justice, even just an acknowledgement. Also recording someone’s memories means that not only their memories live on, but also other people learn what happened to them. The victims don’t want what happened to them to happen to anyone else. That’s their main message: “This has to stop.”
Justice Hub: Will you keep on with the memory boxes?
Hadi Marifat: Public memory is totally absent in Afghanistan. The memory boxes aim to address this important gap in our public memory. Hence, yeas we will continue creating more memory boxes of more victims. These memories and narratives we collect help to understand what exactly the war did to the people of Afghanistan and how it shattered the backbone of thousands of families. The memory box allows us to see things through the lens of the victims. It’s not about fighting, what you see is the impact of 40 years of conflict.
Justice Hub: How do you see the ICC’s decision?
Hadi Marifat: It’s a dangerous precedent that gives priority to the demands of conflict actors over those of victims. It’s disgraceful, unbelievable, disappointing and a disregard to the lives lost and souls scarred by the war.