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Afghanistan: Evidence Awaits in Mass Graves

22 August 2002

Throughout its campaign to immunize U.S. military peacekeepers from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, the Bush administration has defended its commitment to identify and prosecute perpetrators of mass murder and other war criminals.

As evidence, administration officials cite their support for the ad hoc tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, their placement of a career lawyer from the Defense Department as lead prosecutor for the new Sierra Leone tribunal and their diplomatic efforts to establish an effective tribunal in Cambodia.

And yet in Afghanistan, where the United States has had the greatest power to ensure investigation of possible mass atrocities and see that the guilty are brought to justice, until now they have done nothing.

For months evidence has accumulated that many of the Taliban fighters who surrendered after the fall of Mazar-e Sharif and Kunduz last November were killed by Northern Alliance forces under the control of Abdul Rashid Dostum. Eyewitnesses report that the prisoners died of asphyxiation after being transported in sealed containers to the Shebergan prison.

The number of dead is not known. The current issue of Newsweek, citing the accounts of survivors and drivers of the container trucks, estimates hundreds or even thousands of deaths.

The clues to finding the truth lie in mass graves near the prison. A comprehensive forensic investigation could reveal the number of dead, who they are and how they died - and lead to a determination of who was responsible. In January, two investigators from Physicians for Human Rights discovered a mass grave site, and in February our forensic scientists found fresh remains. In early March we shared the information about our discoveries with the State and Defense Departments, as well as with the United Nations and the Afghan government. We urgently sought American military protection of the sites from the high risk of tampering, and we asked for an immediate and thorough investigation of the graves.

Only the United States is in a position to ensure the security essential to allowing an investigation to go forward. On moral grounds, an especially compelling reason exists for U.S. action: The perpetrator of the alleged war crime is America's military ally.

The administration's response has been inadequate. The Pentagon has refused to provide security for an investigation, much less conduct one. It has even refused to acknowledge that anything untoward may have taken place.

The United States has often warned those who commit war crimes that somewhere, somehow, they will be discovered and pursued.

The lesson of postwar Bosnia, Rwanda and East Timor has been that stability cannot occur without accountability for missing persons and human rights violations. Here the evidence of war crimes is sitting in those graves, waiting to reveal its truth. Action is essential before the evidence is destroyed.

The Bush administration this week promised to move forward. To be most effective, it should initiate a Security Council resolution to form a United Nations commission of inquiry that would conduct a credible and independent investigation of the prisoners' fate. Otherwise the United States risks the very political manipulation of war crimes investigations that it claims (erroneously, I believe) is a flaw in the International Criminal Court.

Multinational forces should provide the security and the Bush administration should provide the resources needed to enable such an investigation to succeed. U.S. allies may be innocent, but they may be guilty of mass murder. It is time to find out.

Leonard S. Rubenstein
Published in the International Herald Tribune © the International Herald Tribune

'War on terrorism' index     International Criminal Court and International Law


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