Edited by Abby Sonnier
In October 2022, protests were held in Lafayette Square, just steps from the White House, calling for the United Nations to investigate the ongoing genocide of Hazaras in Afghanistan. Chants of “stop Hazara genocide,” “investigate Hazara genocide,” and “silence kills” were heard throughout the crowd during the demonstration.
A major grievance of the protesters was against Western media and multilateral human rights organizations that have remained silent on this issue. According to them, not only have the organizations ignored the atrocities committed against the Hazaras at the hands of the Taliban, but they also refuse to identify the violence as a genocide. Both the UN Commission on Human Rights and the British government have conducted reports on the situation afflicting the Hazaras and concluded that while there are severe human rights abuses taking place, and the Hazara people are at great risk of genocide, more data is needed to conclude if the situation meets the legal definition. To contextualize this issue, however, it is important to understand the history of persecution the Hazara people have faced in Afghanistan.
Hazaras are a Shia ethnic minority group concentrated in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan. Sunni majority groups have brutally persecuted the Hazaras for over a century. Under the reign of Abdul Rehman Khan from 1892-1901, over 400,000 Hazara families were removed from their ancestral lands and forced to migrate, typically to a neighboring province or Pakistan. Of those 400,000 families, tens of thousands of men and women were raped, tortured, enslaved, and murdered. In the decades since this massacre, conditions improved very little for the Hazaras. Continuous conflict and repression by Pashtun occupying forces, the communist government, and the mujahideen devastated the Hazara community. In 2016, two suicide bombers attacked a Hazara-led “Enlightenment Movement” protest in Kabul against the government’s decision to reroute a power transmission line from Turkmenistan to Bamyan province. The original plan would have established a new power line to serve the province’s many Hazara residents, rather than through the already existing Salang Pass near Kabul. This attack encapsulates both the individual terror attacks as well as the systemic state-sanctioned violence perpetrated against the Hazara people.
In the nearly two years since the Taliban retook control of the Afghan government, very little has been done to protect the Hazara people. Since then, the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) has carried out 13 attacks against the Hazara people, resulting in over 700 injuries or deaths. In one particularly egregious attack, ISKP detonated two bombs at the Abdul Rahim Shahid boy’s school in the heavily Hazara-populated Dasht-e-Barchi district of Kabul– killing six and injuring 20. Three days later, ISKP claimed responsibility for bombing a Shia mosque, undoubtedly targeting Hazaras in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif– killing 31 and injuring 87.
In response, the UN has condemned the appalling series of attacks, urging the Taliban to fulfill their obligation under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to protect religious minorities in their country. Many activists, governments, and UN officials, however, think the organization can do more– namely investigating whether this level of persecution is tantamount to genocide. In his September 2022 report on the human rights situation in Afghanistan, UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur Richard Bennett stated:
“The Special Rapporteur is seriously concerned about the situation of minorities since August 2021. Their places of worship and educational and medical centers have been systematically attacked and their members have been arbitrarily arrested, tortured, summarily executed, evicted, marginalized and, in some cases, forced to flee the country. Hazaras, who are overwhelmingly Shia, are historically one of the most severely persecuted groups in Afghanistan. The Taliban have appointed Pashtuns to senior positions in government structures in Hazara dominated provinces, forcibly evicted Hazaras from their homes without adequate prior notice and imposed religious taxation contrary to Shia principles. There are also reports of an increase in inflammatory speech, both online and in some mosques during Friday prayers, including calls for Hazaras to be killed.”
Responding to the report in October 2022, Afghanistan’s representative to the UN, Naseer Ahmad Faiq, called for the formation of a UN special committee to investigate “acts of genocide” being committed against the Hazaras. In addition, a report from the UK government, commissioned by members in both Houses of Parliament, concluded:
“The Hazara in Afghanistan are at serious risk of genocide in Afghanistan, from the hands of the Taliban and IS-K. Further evidence, and indeed, a comprehensive investigation and data gathering of the atrocities against the Hazara in Afghanistan is crucial to ensure a proper analysis of the situation of the Hazara and indeed, whether the atrocities meet the legal threshold of genocide. While there is clear evidence of grievous crimes against the Hazara, it is very likely that this is only the tip of an iceberg. However, the collection of evidence of such crimes has not been formally undertaken by any international independent body.”
While the Hazaras are undoubtedly experiencing substantial human rights abuses at the hands of the Taliban and ISKP, no independent investigation has been conducted to assess whether these atrocities meet the legal definition of genocide. Aside from collecting and preserving evidence of atrocities committed against the Hazaras for the purposes of an independent genocide investigation, a key recommendation of the UK report was for states to act now in accordance with Article I of the Convention and Prevention of Genocide. Under this convention, states are obligated, to the furthest extent possible, to influence states or persons likely to commit, or already committing, a genocide to stop.
This puts the United States between a rock and a hard place. Multiple reports have concluded the Hazaras are at serious risk of genocide, but how should the US respond? With the reduction in foreign aid, the US imposed sanctions against members of the Taliban and Haqqani network, and the seizure of $9.4 billion worth of Afghan currency reserves, the US has already brought the economy to the brink of collapse. It’s hard to conceive of a way the US could further sanction Afghanistan without triggering an unfathomable humanitarian catastrophe.
Additionally, a military intervention is out of the question. Considering the backlash President Biden received following the US withdrawal in August 2021, it is inconceivable, especially during an election year, the administration would have the political capital to recommit troops into Afghanistan after only two years of withdrawal– even if it was to prevent a genocide from occurring. This leaves the international community the responsibility to step up and intervene on behalf of the Hazara people.
It is undeniable that severe human rights abuses are being perpetrated against the Hazara people. Since the Taliban retook power in 2021, there has been a substantial increase in religious and ethnically motivated violence against the Hazaras. Human rights activists are urging the UN to declare the persecution of Hazaras a genocide, but international organizations say an official investigation must be launched to determine if it meets the legal definition. What is agreed upon, however, by activists and multilateral organizations alike, is the Hazaras are at great risk of genocide and action must be taken quickly to ensure their continued survival.