By Tallan Donine
Since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in August 2021, the risk of mass atrocities has increased for vulnerable groups, including ethnic and religious minorities.
Afghanistan currently ranks fourth in the world for risk of a new onset of mass killing of civilians and has ranked among the three highest-risk countries in the Early Warning Project's last five risk assessments.
The Hazara community is experiencing increasing and widespread attacks alongside a history of persecution, necessitating an immediate response by the US government and international community.
History of targeting
The Hazaras—an ethnic and religious minority constituting an estimated 20 percent of Afghanistan’s population—have faced discrimination and persecution in Afghanistan for over a century and particularly during the last period of Taliban rule in the 1990s. The Taliban and other Sunni extremists, notably Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-KP), view the Hazaras as a sworn enemy primarily because of their Shi’a faith.
In the months before the Taliban takeover, violent attacks against the Hazaras resurged. The UN documented 20 incidents targeting Shi’a/Hazara civilians in the first six months of 2021, which killed 143 and injured more than 300 people. In May 2020, gunmen killed 24 people, including women and babies, at a maternity hospital within a predominantly Hazara community. One year later, bombings killed nearly 80 Hazara schoolgirls, and in July 2021, the Taliban massacred nine Hazara men in Malistan district.
Continuing killings and forced displacement
Over the past 11 months of Taliban rule, the Hazara community has faced repeated targeting by at least two distinct perpetrator groups: ISIS-KP and the Taliban.
In the first week of August 2022, ISIS-KP claimed responsibility for multiple attacks targeting predominantly Hazara areas of Kabul, reportedly killing and wounding more than 120 people. In April 2022, ISIS-KP claimed responsibility for three explosions targeting the Hazara community—including an attack on a Shi’a mosque—in Mazar-i-Sharif that killed at least 37 people and wounded many more. Earlier in April, multiple explosions targeted education centers in the predominantly Hazara Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood of Kabul, killing at least 18 and wounding at least 50 people; responsibility for the attack remains unclaimed. In October 2021, ISIS-KP attacked two Shi’a mosques in Kandahar and Kunduz, killing at least 135 people.
Despite promises to protect the Hazaras from threats, the Taliban have committed targeted attacks and have forcibly displaced thousands of Hazara civilians. Most recently, a June 2022 Taliban offensive in Balkhab district against a former Hazara official in the de facto Taliban government has given rise to reports of atrocities and other serious violations of human rights targeting civilians in the region, including summary executions, property destruction, and communication/internet blackouts. Additionally, as of July 2022, more than 25,000 primarily-Hazara people have been forcibly displaced from their homes by the Taliban’s military campaign and currently face intolerable conditions as aid organizations have encountered difficulties in reaching them due to the mountainous landscape.
In the first months after seizing control, the Taliban killed 13 Hazara men in Daykundi province and forcibly displaced thousands of Hazaras across several provinces, claiming the community had disputed rights to the land “partly to distribute land to their own supporters.”
“The attack has been on every part of the social life of the Hazaras, this indicates that there’s a kind of wiping … or destruction of the community in part if it’s not in whole. The attacks on youth and infants … are signaling to the community that [they] do not have a future in this country,” Dr. Farkhondeh Akbari, a human rights advocate and postdoctoral fellow at Monash University, said in a recent expert discussion on atrocity risks in Afghanistan hosted by the Simon-Skjodt Center and US Institute of Peace.
While several international groups and monitoring bodies have expressed concern about the increasingly dire crisis facing the Hazaras, the abuses have been underreported by global media. These concerns come amid heightened risks for other vulnerable groups, including ethnic and religious minorities such as Sufis and Sikhs, as well as women, human rights defenders, and journalists.
Priorities for US government action
With the July 2022 release of the US Strategy to Anticipate, Prevent, and Respond to Atrocities, the US government reiterated that preventing atrocities is a core national security interest as well as a core moral responsibility. The longstanding, ongoing, and increasingly brutal persecution of the Hazara community demands the US government and international community’s immediate response.
The June 2022 expert discussion hosted by the Simon Skjodt Center and the US Institute of Peace identified the following four priorities for the US government to help prevent mass atrocities in Afghanistan:
Provide resources to the special rapporteur for human rights in Afghanistan.
Document atrocities now to identify perpetrators and risks to vulnerable communities.
Create an independent UN investigative mechanism.
Break the cycle of impunity by supporting the International Criminal Court and universal jurisdiction cases.
The US government and international community should consult closely with the Hazara community in carrying out these recommendations and in finding ways to provide emergency humanitarian assistance and protection to the thousands of Hazaras currently at risk of atrocities and displaced in Afghanistan.
Read a recent blog by Belquis Ahmadi, Lauren Baillie, and Scott Worden at the US Institute of Peace to learn more about these four recommendations aimed at preventing further targeting of the Hazara community and other vulnerable groups in Afghanistan.
Tallan Donine is a former Elbaz Fellow at the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.