Language of Rights Episode 1January 05, 2021

1. Afghanistan: Daring to believe in human rights

Hosted by Akwe Amosu
Produced by Peter Coccoma

Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission chair Shaharzad Akbar talks about the challenge of entrenching and enforcing rights amid continuing conflict and violence against civilians. With a state that struggles to deliver public services and great uncertainty about the future of President Ashraf Ghani’s negotiations with the Taliban, how can Afghan citizens have confidence that the human rights framework can actually safeguard their rights?

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The Interview

‘Daring to believe in human rights’, an interview with Shaharzad Akbar, Chairperson of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission

This episode’s interview is with Shaharzad Akbar, Chairperson of  Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission since 2019. In the 20 years since the end of Afghanistan’s civil war and Taliban rule, efforts have been made to entrench democratic institutions and make good on the commitment to human rights in the country’s constitution. Akbar answers questions about the challenges of realizing rights for citizens amid continuing violent conflict and reliance on a state whose officials are often ambivalent about meeting their obligations. As negotiations with the Taliban continue, and the prospect of their participation in the country’s political life draws nearer, Akbar ponders the potential impact on civil society and commitment to rights, particularly those relating to women.

The Coda

A reading of the Persian poet Hafez’s ‘10,000 Idiots’ by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, in his role until 2018 as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, had the task of urging member states to meet their obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and calling them out when they failed. The role required him to take a tough stance in defence of rights yet he came to acknowledge the limits of his role as a supporter of those fighting for their rights. In this episode’s Coda, Zeid shares a poem by 14th Century poet Hafez on the perils of arrogance


Akwe Amosu: Hey, I’m at Akwe Amosu and this is Strength and Solidarity.

Strength and Solidarity is a podcast about the people and ideas driving — and disrupting — human rights work around the world.

In this episode:

  • I interview the woman charged with making rights real in Afghanistan.
  • Then in our Coda, a 700-year-old poem and what it means to the UN’s former human rights chief.
  • But first as I hope to do in every episode, I want to check in with Chris Stone, my colleague here at Strength and Solidarity, and see what’s been catching his attention lately.

Part One: Conversation

AA: Hey Chris, how are you doing?

Chris Stone: I’m well, Akwe, thanks for asking.

AA: What are we talking about today?

CS: Well, I thought – last month, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had its birthday at, I don’t know about you, but I was struck how little attention that got this year. And it’s not just because 72 is not a round number, it wasn’t the 70th or the 50th, but I think it got little attention because for all of the problems in the world, the relevance of that declaration, I think is probably at a low point since 1948.

AA: So is it relevance? I mean, I presume its contents are still important. Or are you just saying that it’s so ignored that it’s not got the respect that it used to have?

CS: I don’t know. I don’t know what others do on the anniversaries – I try to go back to the document and so each year at each December I – these days – go on the internet, pull up a copy and I just look at it again. And I find at least each year I’m seeing different things. There have been times when the sections on economic, social and cultural rights have seemed particularly strong to me. There’ve been times when the prohibition on torture or, or even marriage equality jumps out in a new way, a fresh way to me. But I’ll tell you, this year what jumped out to me was the permission that even the Universal Declaration of human rights gives to rebellion against states, against oppression, against violations, if, if states fail to build the legal institutions to protect human rights,

AA: What does it say about rebellion?

CS: Well, it says that it acknowledges that the nature of human rights is a last resort, people must have recourse to simple rebellion against tyranny, against a tyrannical state, against an authoritarian state that denies them their rights. That’s the whole point of human rights – they are not proclaimed by a state. You don’t get them because the state gives them to you. You get them because you’re human and we’re all human. But when they’re denied, when they’re not enforced, you have to have the right to rebel. I think what’s so remarkable about 1948 is, in the trauma of the second world war and the Holocaust and the inhumanity that nations were showing to one another, the world committed to protecting these rights. The states of the world basically said, don’t worry, we will protect these rights through law and at least on its 72nd anniversary, I think that claim rings hollow

AA:  Although it hasn’t always been so, I think there were periods earlier where there was a much more vigorous response from the UN and international community actors about human rights abuse. But I agree with you that at this moment, it’s pretty dismal to see General el-Sisi arrive in France and receive the Légion d’Honneur a few days after arresting leaders of the most prominent human rights organization in Egypt and getting nothing more than a tap on the wrist. So, yes, I mean, I can see why you’re skeptical at this moment.

CS: I think the rereading of the declaration is fascinating in many ways. I think when I was in law school, when I was practicing criminal law, when I was working as a criminal defense lawyer, I could read the passages in the Universal Declaration and think, exactly right – these are fundamental freedoms; one wants the freedom from arbitrary arrest; one wants the freedom from excessive punishment. But today I read them and think, these are a very narrow conception. These are clearly rooted in a Western European enlightenment tradition, and they don’t speak to the traditions, the world global traditions that also promise rights, that also speak of dignity, that also promise protection, but that come out of other traditions around the world

AA: There’ve been a number of critiques in recent years of the human rights field, to the extent that people started talking about this being the “endtimes” for human rights, as though the idea itself was somehow outmoded or had lost its focus. What do you see as being at the heart of the change?

CS: Well, I think the international institutions, in some ways have exhausted their commitment to human rights and the  states that have to stand behind them are not standing tall. So, at least I find the Declaration itself may well be at the end of its useful life. Human rights as an idea, as a claim are hardly at the end of their run, they, I think have lots of power, lots of energy left in them. But the frameworks, the international institutions that were built up from the commitments in the Universal Declaration, they may well have, have been exhausted.

Part Two: Interview

AA: For this episode’s interview. I spoke with Shaharzad Akbar, chair of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission. I first met Shaharzad five years ago when she was leading the Open Societies Foundation in Afghanistan, but she’s been making an outsize impact in her country since her late teens, working first as a researcher, a journalist and an elections analyst, then being elected to lead the Afghanistan 1400 youth movement,  all by her mid-twenties. So few can have been surprised when President Ashraf Ghani asked her to join his office in 2017 and then appointed her to lead the human rights commission in 2019. Anyone who follows Afghanistan has to be aware of the decades of indiscriminate violence fueled by competing foreign actors, backing local proxies. I wanted to talk to Shaharzad about how the very idea of human rights can have any weight in an environment where there has been so much unrelieved suffering, and there’s still so much doubt about the future.

AA: Shaharzad Akbar,  welcome to Strength and Solidarity.

Sharharzad Akbar: Thank you.

AA: Last time we spoke, perhaps three years ago, you were about to move into President Ashraf Ghani’s team, which I think was your first time in a government role. And you had spent some time before that leading the open society foundation in Afghanistan, but you’ve actually been engaged in some form or another in defending rights for the whole of the past decade. How would you assess what’s been achieved in terms of securing rights in the 20 years since the end of Taliban rule?

SA: Thank you, Akwe So in terms of securing rights for Afghan citizens in the past 20 years, where we have had the greatest progress is actually the legal framework. So the Afghan constitution recognizes all citizens as equal without discrimination based on gender, which wasn’t so explicitly stated in previous constitutions, especially the gender dimension. So also in the past 20 years, Afghanistan has endorsed many international conventions and mechanisms creating further protection for the rights of citizens. There is also increased awareness about rights and human rights discourse in Afghanistan, partly because of this exposure that Afghans had in the past 20 years. So there is a greater appreciation of human rights and greater knowledge about human rights, I think, public knowledge. Where we have really fallen behind and we struggle, mainly due to conflict, corruption, culture of impunity is actual access to justice and, you know, Afghans continue to face hurdles in accessing their human rights equally, due to these, these three big issues mainly.

AA: So when I’m listening to you, I’m kind of reflecting that that is, if you like, a lot of infrastructural build-out, which is no doubt very important, but it doesn’t say much about demand. What, from the citizen’s point of view is the most important set of rights to defend, would you say?

SA: I mean, it’s very important to recognize that our cornerstone is very diverse, I guess every country is, but here it’s also the demands really vary because of what people have experienced in the past 20 years. So if you go to areas where they have continuously experienced conflict, the basic need is really focused on security. So people want the right to life, that right to security, and that’s the most urgent need because these communities have been harmed by loss after loss, either because members of their families, their communities, are actively fighting as a soldier, as a fighter for Taliban, or as a soldier for the government, or there are high numbers of also, unfortunately, civilian casualties. When you come to areas that have experienced relative stability, people are very outspoken about the right to freedom of expression, for instance; if you compare Afghanistan with the countries in the region, especially central Asian countries, I would say, here there is this understanding, this deeper understanding in this demand that we need to be able to elect our political leaders.  We need to be able to publicly criticize them. We need to be able to hold them accountable. These rights are a bit more, kind of, on the demand side. In terms of socioeconomic crisis. Well, there is huge demand for the government to do more. Here really people expect the government to create jobs, do more to tackle poverty, do more to tackle unemployment. So there’s lot of emphasis on that because of the lived reality of people’s lives. There is also now a vibrant women’s movement that is very articulate in terms of gender equality. However, I must say that women’s rights does remain a very controversial issue in Afghanistan.

AA: Do you think that human rights is a genuinely Afghan concept?  Is the language of human rights what ordinary Afghanis use or are ‘human rights’ seen as a foreign import?

SA: The language of human rights does not feel native. It’s true. There is the sense that it is something that has been brought from outside, but in terms of the concepts and the content, but also I think in terms of what people feel like they are entitled to, there has been a shift in public expectation in the past 20 years, partly because of this exposure. So in Afghanistan, pre-war, pre-Civil war and pre-Taliban, the relationship between the state and the public was the sort of relationship where people were happy if the state was not harming them, but there was very little demand in terms of what was expected of the state. So I think that expectation has changed. There is much greater expectation. And of course, because the state is so weak, there is much greater disappointment and dissatisfaction. So there is now the sense that I am entitled to good healthcare service and this is the job of the government to provide me with the services. This is the job of the government to improve the quality of education for my children. This is the job of the government to create an environment where journalists are not killed or targeted. So there is a greater sense of that. Of course, I must say that this is not universal on all rights. Again, it really depends on where you live in Afghanistan and what’s your daily lived experience like, and that defines your understanding of what you are entitled to, and also shapes your demands. The overall understanding, yes it’s slow. If you talk to many Afghans, they do think this language of human rights is something that has come from outside.

AA: So nonetheless, if the ideas are there, then they can have power. But one of the other things that struck me listening to you is that the expectation has been created. The infrastructure has been put in place, but that it’s hard to deliver on the expectations. Have I got that right?

SA: Absolutely. I think one of the reasons that, that there has been so much, let’s say progress with improving the legal framework in Afghanistan, is because it’s relatively easy compared to actually delivering services, building institutions that are responsive and accountable, basically changing the nature of the state as well, because the state is a patronage state. It’s People joined positions of power in the government, not necessarily with an understanding that they are there to serve, but more based on this understanding that they represent a certain ethnic community or they represent a certain interest group, and they are there to represent the interests of that group within the government structure. There is also of course, on individual level, people’s expectations from government officials they know is, “you are related to me, you have to do something for me first or for my family first.” I think it’s really directly related to the conflict, this idea of survival, you know, this, thought that you have to do the most you can to survive and to protect yourself and your family, if things fall apart.  This feeds into corruption. And this is also an issue that prevents building really strong institutions.

AA: And so that makes me want to ask you what happens to people’s willingness to invest in the idea of rights if delivery is difficult or even not forthcoming. I mean, I guess if people don’t believe that the rights can be delivered upon, then they’re likely to stop believing in the rights.

SA: I wouldn’t say lack of delivery of services, but insufficient delivery of services. And so I think what’s, in Afghanistan what’s interesting is that there is independent media, there are civil society organizations, human rights organizations. They continuously reflect and engage the public on the importance of these rights and the role that the government has in delivering them. So where there are rights that people can exercise relatively easily, there’s a stronger public support, but in areas where it’s very difficult for people to access these rights in some areas, it seems like people have even given up. And that’s the most challenging part of the work that we do, for instance, in combating culture of impunity, because there has been such a level of disappointment in delivery of justice and such a strong culture of impunity, that it’s hard to keep that demand alive.

AA: So for you leading the Human Rights Commission, that must really put you in quite a tough place. I mean, you know that your job is to challenge that impunity, but you are constrained. And I think for those of us outside who are watching,  this kind of constant recurrence of terrorist attacks and civilian suffering must really weigh on you very heavily.

SA: It’s extremely difficult because  we in the Commission, we document and we report and we advocate for better protection of civilians. But because we are one of those organizations who is constantly outspoken about this, people expect us to also do more, right? And many times, even in my conversations with our local media, I have to explain, well the commission doesn’t have a police force, that’s the job of Attorney General’s office, this is the job of the Supreme court… So in a way, by being responsive, by kind of raising the voice on these issues, we bring a lot of attention to the Commission and its work, but not all of that attention is supportive, in a sense, because people feel like, “OK, what else can you do? You’re talking about civilian casualties – that’s not enough. Why can’t you stop them?”  And it’s hard. It’s really, really difficult.  I mean, after public engagements, our engagements with media, usually I feel drained for hours because, on the one hand, I see the sense of helplessness that people have and the anger that people have. But I also know that our mandate and our work only takes us this far, and many other people have to be doing what they are doing better for these people to have access to justice, to have access to security, to truly live dignified lives. For instance, on civilian casualties, unfortunately I think even I can say that hardly a day goes by without news of some form of harm to civilians. And we feel that it’s important that we constantly speak up about this and make this an issue and keep this an issue and not allow indifference to creep in and hold the government accountable, and the authorities accountable.

AA: You speak about it with such passion and empathy. Can you say something about why you took this path? You are known for having become this passionate advocate very early. You were already leading efforts in your early twenties. I’m just curious why this is the path you took.

SA: I think it’s because of my upbringing. It’s because of my parents. I mean, I grew up in poverty and in conflict, but I was very privileged. I was privileged in the sense that my parents were literate and my father was very well-read. He didn’t have a lot of formal education, but he was very, very well-read. And so that’s the privilege that I enjoyed, being raised by him and around him. And my mom was a teacher for a long time. My mind was opened up to these ideas when I was very, very young. And I think it’s important that you learn about human rights when you’re young, you know, it’s important that you learn about, about these, these values and these issues when you’re young. You know, one of my first jobs – I was helping Human Rights Watch report on elections in Afghanistan. This was before I was 18;  and then experiences that we experienced in Afghanistan during the civil war; but then also when I was a bit older and I could understand what was going on in the way Taliban daily attacked the rights and freedoms of Afghans and the conversations that we had at home about this with my parents;  the fact that we couldn’t listen to music, it was banned – you know, we would listen to music, but of course we knew that we are doing something that’s banned;  that you couldn’t have access to all kinds of books that you wanted because they were banned; the fact that women couldn’t go to school anymore. All of this really, really taught me about what’s the right kind of society to live in, or what’s the kind of society that we need to aspire to. And I think at the heart of a good society is human rights. So from early on, this was important to me.  And when I started working with the government – in fact, initially when I went from Open Society to the government and that first meeting with the president, I said: “I have one job that I want, I don’t want to work in the government. I have one job that I want.”  And he said, “What?”  I said, “I want to work with the human rights commission.”  He said, “Well, the term for the current commissioners will be over in a year, then we can discuss it.” So even when I went to work with President Ghani, my end goal was to end up in the Human Rights Commission, in some capacity in the Human Rights Commission. But sometimes I joke with my friends, I say, sometimes your dreams turn into nightmares! It’s not a nightmare, but it is extremely difficult, extremely challenging job. It’s, it’s a huge burden. And in a little over a year, I have lost three colleagues and there is nothing that I had experienced before that had prepared me for that, that had prepared me for going to a colleague’s house and meeting his or her parents and telling them that we have lost them. And sometimes I think, Oh God, this is, this is a lot. This is a loss.

AA: And, and you’ve just gone where I wanted to go because I understand from your account how the passion and the beauty of the idea was inspiring to you as you grew up, but it has this darker side, the demand for fortitude, for courage, and to put oneself in harm’s way. Could you say something about that dimension? Are you yourself finding the resilience that you need to do this work?

SA: It’s – it’s difficult as a country in conflict. And it’s, basically, when you leave in the morning, you don’t know if you’ll come back in the evening, every single day. And that’s hard for everyone. If you’re a shopkeeper, if you’re a businessman, if you’re a clerk, the risk is always there and it’s there for all civilians. But what makes our work difficult in the Commission, I think, I mean, for me personally, I feel the burden is asking my colleagues, you know, across Afghanistan we have 14 offices, to believe every day that something better is possible, to have that hope, while I don’t have the evidence for that hope necessarily. So I’m asking them to risk their lives, Akwe, I’m asking them to leave their house, to risk their lives, work for human rights, not knowing, not being able to tell them with certainty that the lives of their children will be better. I think this is what’s different with working for human nights in Afghanistan. Maybe if you work in another country, where there is a prospect of political stability, you think, OK, things are harsh now, but you know, the laws are unequal, but we’ll slowly fight and change them. And we’ll improve government’s responsibility and accountability. But here, because of the conflict and the uncertainty that that creates, I can’t tell my colleagues with certainty, “you know, you’re risking your lives, but be certain that things will improve.” So that’s difficult. And the other aspect is that, of course, because of this job, the promotion aspect of our work gives me great joy. Seeing how we increase awareness, seeing how we educate new groups of people, are engaged with new groups of people about human rights concepts, new communities, new segments.  Parts of our work that also relate to monitoring gives me joy because I see actually how our monitoring acts as a prevention. So if we are visiting the place of detention, that means people are not being tortured. You know, sometimes there are weeks when I think one day at a time today, I’m just going to try to take care of today, what I have to do today. And then I’ll think about the rest tomorrow. And of course I have goals for months and for weeks and months and years, and I think sometimes focusing on the institution helps me and my colleagues, just trying to make the work environment a bit better, trying to strengthen the institution, trying to improve our documentation efforts so for people in the future, they know what we did, and what happened in this country. Taking public stances, our public advocacy, that gives me hope because I feel like people feel their pain is not ignored, that there is someone listening and documenting and speaking up for them.

AA: I hear your realism about needing to live for the day and do the best you can. But I have to ask you about the talks;  assuming that they reach a successful conclusion, the Americans will be leaving and the Taliban will likely regain political legitimacy. How do you see the human rights project at that point?

SA: I mean, I think when I think about the talks, there are several scenarios. The worst one is the talks breaking down. So I hope that doesn’t happen and we push that that doesn’t happen. We continuously – although it’s not a direct human rights issue but we continuously push the parties to stay at the table because we see how that conflict is impacting the human rights of Afghans. The other scenario is that we reach a political settlement and in any political settlement, even in the most ideal version, I think there will be, if not a change, a dramatic change in laws, there will be a shrinking of space when it comes to human rights, because Taliban’s understanding of human rights is very, very different. And their interpretation of women’s place in society is very, very different and regressive, their understanding of freedom of expression, equality, non-discrimination… So, I think even in the ideal scenario, it does mean that we will – you know, OK, we reach a political settlement, we have a substantial reduction in violence, or [in]security across Afghanistan – I think some groups will still remain active, unfortunately, some terrorist groups.   But then we will have another renewed – we will need renewed energy for advancing human rights, for promoting human rights. We will have different sets of challenges then. And I worry about, you know, I worry about a situation like Iran or Saudi Arabia. I worry about human rights activists being detained by the government, actively, you know, prosecuted and punished, the space for civil society and media considerably shrinking, and women’s rights. If that kind of shrinkage happens, it won’t be sustainable. This is where I have some hope, maybe unrealistic hope, but I think Afghan society has changed to a great extent. And I think Taliban don’t realize this because they are not here. So people are tired and sick of the war, and there is an overwhelming desire for ending the war. But if the peace process goes to that direction where we do have dramatic changes our legal system or, we have a shrinkage of space for civil society and human rights activism, I think Afghanistan society has changed to the extent that there will be a very strong pushback.

AA: Shaharazad Akhbar chairperson of the Afghanistan, independent human rights commission.


Part Three: The Coda

AA: And now for the Coda, our regular segment where someone working in the human rights space shares something that gives them inspiration or insight into the work they do, maybe a poem, a proverb, a quotation, or perhaps a piece of music that relates to their passion for rights and justice. Until 2018, Zeid Raad Al-Hussein was the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a role in which he worked to hold governments accountable for fulfilling their obligations to uphold rights. Here he is with a chance discovery.

Zeid Raad Al-Hussein: I was having breakfast and I’d already, I’d heated up my oatmeal and I was sitting there and I was too lazy to go to the front door and pull in the newspaper. So I was looking for something to read, I was sitting in the kitchen alone and right behind me there, I have a shelf filled with books. And there happened to be a series of books on Hafez’ poetry, Hafez of Shiraz, the 14th century Persian poet. So I picked one of the books and I was leafing through it as I was working my way through the oatmeal. And I came across this delicious little poem that spoke to me

10,000 idiots

by Hafez of Shiraz.

It is always a danger

To aspirants on the path

When they begin to believe and act

As if the ten thousand idiots

Who so long ruled and lived inside,

Have all packed their bags

And skipped town

Or died.

Well, I’ve always been someone drawn to lyricism and the more lyrical, the better. And, so the poetry of Hafez is lyrical. I mean I’m not reading it in the original Persian or Farsi, I’m reading it in English and, uh, even in English, the lyricism comes through.  and he,  One of the themes that he commonly hits upon is hypocrisy. And this comes through in the poem itself. Those of us who aspire to do good, to think in the right way, must do so humbly, that overnight, unless we are the victims of all forms of prejudice and discrimination and hatred and violence, and we are supporting those who are the victims, who are, who are standing up courageously and bravely, we have to be careful that we are not seen as arrogant, self-righteous, pompous individuals. No one wants to hear it from people like us. And so we must advocate and support and speak about moral issues, but from a vantage point of humility. Those who are defending their rights, those who are fighting the good cause every day, they have to be supported. And no one can, is in a position to judge whether they are speaking strongly or not strong enough, because they are, they are fighting for their, their livelihoods, and they’re fighting for their people. But the rest of us, I think, need to be more humble.

AA: Thanks to Zaid Raad Al-Hussein for sharing the poem 10,000 idiots by 14th century, Persian poet Hafez.

And if you have a favorite item that relates to your own passion for rights and justice, and would like to tell us about it, drop us a line at and tell us what’s inspiring you.

OK, that’s all from Strength and Solidarity for this episode. If you’d like to know more about our work, visit our website,  And we’d like your feedback; wherever you accessed us, you’ll find a link or a form to tell us how we’re doing. But above all, please add us to your podcast library and join us again. Thanks to our producer, Peter Coccoma. I’m Akwe Amosu, see you next time.