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July 22, 2010

Canada and Afghanistan in the eyes of Sima Samar

Reuel S. Amdur

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On July 15, Carleton University awarded the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, to Dr. Sima Samar. She heads the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and also serves as United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Sudan.

In 2002, she was named Deputy President and Minister of Women’s Affairs in the interim Afghan government, posts that she left because of threats made against her.  These threats were one of several violations of human rights that she personally experienced. 

As a girl, her father did not support her educational aspirations because he gave preference to the sons.  It was only after her marriage that she was able to go on to higher education because of support from her husband, who was a university professor. 

It seemed that education for girls was seen as less important.  Then tragedy struck when the Communist government arrested her husband in 1984, just four years into their marriage.  She never saw him again, nor did she learn what happened to him.

She studied to become a physician and practiced briefly in a Kabul hospital before having to flee for safety to her home province.  Then after her husband’s arrest, she fled with her son to Pakistan, where she resumed her practice. At the same time, she set up schools in both countries. 

As a physician, she sees education as important for health promotion.  Her Shuhada organization currently operates 55 schools for boys and girls in Afghanistan and another three for Afghans in Pakistan. 

She reports that there are six million Afghan children in Afghan schools, a third of them girls.  However, girls often drop out because of danger. Since 2004, 200 schools have been attacked.  Girls, teachers, and principals have been targeted.

While she sees progress in human rights since the fall of the Taliban, she knows that much more needs to be done.  In 2004, the new Afghan government put equal rights for men and women in the constitution, and it adopted key international human rights conventions. 

While some have objected to efforts to promote sexual equality in Afghanistan as a cultural imposition, Samar asserts that “culture and religion are not an excuse for the denial of human rights for women.”  For her, women’s rights must be a priority.

Her human rights perspective is broad, encompassing concern for health.  She reports that Afghan maternal and infant mortality is among the highest in the world.  And these conditions represent progress over what was.  Health care facilities and personnel are lacking, and clean water is unavailable in many places in the country. 

In looking at governance in post-Taliban Afghanistan, Samar says that the immediate problem was precipitated by the rapid departure of the Taliban, resulting in a vacuum, with major security problems.  Creating a police force and military was undertaken in a somewhat haphazard fashion. 

What comes next in Afghanistan? 

Dr. Samar has some concerns about efforts to negotiate an end to the fighting.  She wants women to be involved in any reconciliation efforts, and she is adamant that there should be no amnesty for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Those who have been responsible for such crimes have no place in any future government, she insists. 

Samar was appointed to the Board of Canada’s Rights and Democracy organization in 2007, but earlier this year she resigned, objecting to the direction it was taking under the new Harper appointees. 

She charged that they had defamed the late president Rémy Beauregard and the staff of the organization. 

She took issue with the appointment of the new president, Gérard Latulippe, who had told the Quebec Commission on Reasonable Accommodation that Muslim immigration is a threat to Quebec society. 

She commented as well that one of the organizations that Rights and Democracy had funded and that the new board repudiated, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, was smeared “entirely on information from Gerald Steinberg’s NGO Monitor, considered by many in Israel as a ‘blatantly political’ right-wing organization.”

Looking forward to 2011 and the scheduled pull-out of Canadian forces, she expressed the hope that some would remain for training and capacity-building.  This desire may flow from her concern about the militias and about the past lack of long-term planning in the training and deployment of forces, expected to number 240,000.

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On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

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