Dr Erica Harper Addresses Afghanistan's Complex Situation and the Role of Investigations at the UN Human Rights Council

19 October 2023

During the latest United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) session, our Head of Research and Policy Studies Dr Erica Harper presented at a side event the situation in Afghanistan in light of new reports from Amnesty International and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). Her address covered the classification of current armed conflicts in the country, accountability procedures, and the potential impact of investigative efforts.

Understanding the Situation on the Ground

Dr Harper emphasized the critical importance, within current policy reporting, of connecting the situation on the ground to its legal classification, and the relevant applicable law. She highlighted that Afghanistan is currently experiencing three distinct armed conflicts: a non-international armed conflict (NIAC) involving the Taliban and the National Resistance Front (comprised of former government military and Northern Alliance members) another NIAC between the Taliban and the Islamic State-Khorasan province, and an international armed conflict between the Taliban and Pakistan.

Dr Harper also noted that from an IHL perspective – which takes a contextually pragmatic position – the Taliban is considered Afghanistan’s de facto government, irrespective of its recognition by other states, legitimacy or how it came to power. Consequently, both IHL and IHRL are applicable bodies of law and must be respected by the Taliban.

Regarding the violations documented in the recent reports by UNAMA and Amnesty International, Dr Harper underlined that in the context of the NIAC, there may be circumstances where the loss of life is legally compliant under IHL, however, that arbitrary execution, enforced disappearances and torture are never permissible.

Accountability and the Role of Investigation Processes

When asked about justice pathways, Dr Harper began by emphasizing the unsettling nature of discussing accountability while violations are ongoing. She stressed that the primary focus should remain on preventing and mitigating the loss of life and other rights violations.

However, Dr Harper acknowledged the imperfections in today’s multilateral mechanisms designed to prevent and address international peace and security breakdowns and provide justice for violations during such crises. Given this reality, she asserted the need to utilize all available tools. Moreover, in cases where a UN Security Council intervention is unfeasible and diplomatic efforts have faltered, investigations should be regarded not only as a path to accountability but also as a means to encourage belligerents to reflect on the legality of their actions.

Dr Harper underscored that when discussing investigations, quality surpasses quantity in importance. She pointed to the resumption of the International Criminal Court's criminal investigation and its potential inclusion of post-2021 crimes in the prosecutorial strategy. Additionally, she acknowledged the significant work being carried out by UNAMA. She noted that it is within the competency of the HRC to establish an investigatory mechanism, however, even here, in a more representative body, decision-making can be complex and divisive, as recently demonstrated in debates around extending the mandate of the investigation mission in Ethiopia.

Overall, Dr Harper emphasized the necessity of providing investigators with a mandate of sufficient duration and adequate resources to effectively fulfil their role. This is a challenge faced by HRC-mandated commissions of inquiry and fact-finding missions that require attention for the HRC to effectively carry out its dual role of prevention and promotion of accountability.


LLM students pleading at the Geneva Academy News

LLM Students Plead on IHL Violations in Gaza and the West Bank

24 April 2024

Half of the class of our LLM in International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights pleaded on 20 April on the current armed conflict in and around Gaza.

Read more


In Highlight: The National Recommendations Tracking Database (NRTD)

15 December 2023

Via its DHRTTDs Directory, the Geneva Human Rights Platform provides a comprehensive list and description of such key tools and databases. But how to navigate them? Which tool should be used for what, and by whom? This interview helps us understand better the specificities of the December highlight of the directory: The National Recommendations Tracking Database (NRTD).

Read more

Open dump Training

Protecting Human Rights and the Environment

2-20 September 2024

Participants in this training course, made of two modules, will examine the major international and regional instruments for the promotion of human rights and the environment, familiarizing themselves with the respective implementation and enforcement mechanisms.

Read more

Garment workersto receive food from their factory during lunch time. This food is freely provided by their factory in order to ensure that workers eat healthy and hygienic food. Training

Business and Human Rights

2-6 September 2024

This training course will examine how the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights have been utilized to advance the concept of business respect for human rights throughout the UN system, the impact of the Guiding Principles on other international organizations, as well as the impact of standards and guidance developed by these different bodies.

Read more

Computer screen with warning: civilian infrastucture: do not attack Project

The Digitalization of Armed Conflict

Started in September 2020

This project will explore humanitarian consequences and protection needs caused by the digitalization of armed conflicts and the extent to which these needs are addressed by international law, especially international humanitarian law.

Read more

Flyer presenting the Geneva Human Rights Platform with other publications of the Geneva Academy on display Project

GHRP Briefings

Started in January 2019

The GHRP Briefings provide an opportunity for all stakeholders to discuss the results of the United Nations (UN) Treaty Body (TB) 2020 Review and practical ways to implement change.

Read more

Cover of Report Publication

Artificial Intelligence And Related Technologies In Military Decision-Making On The Use Of Force In Armed Conflicts: Current Developments And Potential Implications

published on May 2024

Anna Rosalie Greipl, Neil Davison, Georgia Hinds

Read more