Genocide and Hazara Persecution in Afghanistan
Harvard Journal of Middle East Politics & Policy
16-year-old Marzia Mohammadi’s diary tells of her hopes: to see the Eiffel Tower, enjoy pizza in an Italian restaurant, as well as to ride a bike in Kabul and learn to play the guitar. However, being a Hazara girl in Taliban controlled Afghanistan, Marzia’s dreams would be difficult to realize. We will never know what would become of these dreams, because a suicide bomber’s blast killed her and 53 other students in an attack on Marzia’s school in Kabul on September 30.
It wasn’t the first such attack and it won’t be the last. The minority Hazara community, ethnically and religiously distinct from most Afghans, is under assault by ISIS and other terrorists. Since May 2021, Hazara groups have documented 25 attacks victimizing Hazaras across Afghanistan, particularly the west Kabul area of Dasht-e-Barchi, with a body count of over 500. Research by Human Rights Watch put the number of killed or wounded at 700 since the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021.
Clearly, the frequency and severity of attacks point to a deadly problem.
To raise awareness, on October 8, the World Hazara Council coordinated unprecedented global protests in 100 cities. Diaspora communities rallied in Australia, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Pakistan, Poland, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, and even within Afghanistan itself. Protests in the United States stretched from coast to coast, from Los Angeles to Kansas City to Washington, DC.
Azra Jafari, who served as Afghanistan’s first female mayor, told me, “Year after year, there are attacks on Hazara neighborhoods… from mosques to maternity wards to schools, our people are massacred every day.” Azra said the purpose of the protests was “to spread awareness for the Hazara Genocide.”
During the protests, crowds called for the United Nations to recognize the genocide against the community and to form a UN commission of inquiry. Homira May Rezai of the World Hazara Council explained to me that “recognition of Hazara genocide will help with a mechanism of accountability and removing the culture of impunity in Afghanistan.” She noted such a finding would also counter “the lack of recognition that Hazaras are being persecuted due to their ethnic and religious identity.”
With experts and activists recognizing the unique level of vulnerability Hazaras face, policymakers must consider how the facts concerning the Hazara meet the threshold for genocide. The U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines the “crime of crimes” as certain acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Examples of this kind of violence include killing individuals of a particular group, inflicting bodily or mental harm, “deliberately inflicting” conditions to cause the “physical destruction in whole or in part” of a group.
The local ISIS franchise, ISIS-Khorasan, has demonstrated the ability for mass murder through repeated attacks, killing individuals with impunity. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, two weeks before the latest school bombing, reported how frequent ISIS-K attacks “appear to be systematic in nature and reflect elements of an organizational policy, thus bearing hallmarks of international crimes including crimes against humanity.” He noted Hazaras are “historically one of the most severely persecuted groups in Afghanistan.”
And ISIS-K works to physically destroy the Hazara, in whole and in part. The group has pledged to exterminate Hazaras because of their religious and ethnic identity. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum noted that “since its emergence in 2015, ISIS-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) has also attacked the community and stated its goal to exterminate Shi’a, including the Hazara.”
For those who survive, the residual mental harm leaves debilitating scars. And the Taliban offer no protection. “Since the Taliban takeover, ISIS-linked fighters have committed numerous brutal attacks against members of the Hazara community as they go to school, to work, or to pray, without a serious response from the Taliban authorities,” said Human Rights Watch’s Fereshta Abbasi. The Taliban, while an arch-enemy of ISIS-K, are not helping Hazaras. Their promises of security are cold comfort and unreliable.
Others see the merits in genocide claims. In August, the UK Parliament’s Hazara Inquiry concluded that the Hazaras are at “serious risk of genocide at the hands of the Taliban and Islamic State-Khorasan Province,” which engenders “the responsibility of all states to protect the Hazara and prevent a possible genocide.” Last year, experts at the U.S. Holocaust Museum said Hazara face “a risk of crimes against humanity or even genocide,” and it has only gotten worse.
The Hazaras feel such a determination would recognize their plight and highlight their dire circumstances. A special UN commission, as they call for, would clarify the situation and develop recommendations. But governments need not wait on the United Nations. The United States and other likeminded countries can review the situation themselves. Yet having personally participated in previous genocide deliberations while serving at the State Department, only Secretary of State Blinken’s direct involvement will ensure fair and speedy consideration. Otherwise, without sufficient leadership, State Department genocide reviews are often slow and bureaucratic, or suffer from politicization.
However, when applying the facts to the legal standard of genocide, the answer seems clear – ISIS-K is perpetrating genocide. But would a genocide determination help Hazaras in Afghanistan? While honoring their suffering, “genocide” is not a magic word unlocking automatic actions by the international community.
The World Hazara Council recognizes this, which is why they also called for “urgent measures for the protection of the Hazaras in Afghanistan, including the creation of an internationally assisted and monitored self-defense mechanism .” Doing so would, as Azra Jafari said, “allow[s] our people to live, work, and be educated in peace.”
Stopping future attacks will be difficult. The Biden Administration’s new National Security Strategy only discusses Afghanistan in the context of counter-terrorism. However, signatories to the Genocide Convention, such as the United States, carry the obligation to both prevent genocide and punish those committing genocide. In 2007, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled every country with a “capacity to influence effectively the action of persons likely to commit, or already committing genocide” has the obligation “to employ all means reasonably available to them, so as to prevent genocide so far as possible.” Sharing intelligence with Hazara groups or offshore counter-terror strikes on ISIS-K cells could limit the threat.
Other possibilities for deterrence exist, such as investigations by the International Criminal Court under universal jurisdiction, which could break the cycle of impunity. The Holocaust Museum recommended “the establishment of an investigative mechanism empowered to collect evidence of crimes committed by all perpetrators in Afghanistan.” Experts at the U.S. Institute of Peace have pushed for additional human rights monitoring resources to support accountability. American leadership will be crucial in this effort.
But to avoid future suffering, helping Hazara escape would save lives. The ongoing targeting of Hazaras because of their religion and ethnicity means that many would qualify for resettlement under the U.N. Refugee Convention. North America and Europe, as well as Asian nations like Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Korea, should resettle Hazaras as refugees. Also, nearby countries like India, Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, and various Gulf emirates could open their doors for Hazaras for temporary work status. Many are well-educated and speak English, thus increasing the human capital of those nations’ workforces. Relocating Hazaras would save vulnerable individuals from certain future harm.
There are no easy answers, but the Hazaras need help. Marzia’s life was taken by a ruthless act of hate because she was a Hazara girl pursuing an education. Without new action, terrorists will kill many other Marzias. Recognizing a genocide would be an important step. But as Azra Jafari pleaded, “We want change, we want recognition, and we need this violence to stop.”
Knox Thames was the U.S. Special Adviser for Religious Minorities during the Obama and Trump administrations at the State Department. He is writing a book about ending religious persecution. Follow him on Twitter @KnoxThames.