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Targeted for genocide in Afghanistan: The Hazaras

The plight of the Hazaras isn’t well known on the international stage. They are an ethno-religious minority, about 9% of the Afghani population of 36 million.

Women demonstrators from Afghanistan's Hazara minority attending a protest in Kabul, Afghanistan, on July 23, 2016.
Women demonstrators from Afghanistan's Hazara minority attending a protest in Kabul, Afghanistan, on July 23, 2016.
REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

I teach a class at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul titled “Genocide Prevention: A 21st-Century Challenge.” At the beginning of each class, I invite the students to share updates on human rights issues in the news.

As you would imagine, the catastrophe in Afghanistan weighs heavily on all of us – the chaos, the violence, the terrorist attacks, the apparent inability to protect and evacuate those who are desperately trying to leave, and the fear of the future, especially for women and girls.

Last week, one of the students mentioned a personal connection. He was flying back to the U.S. from overseas. His seatmate was an Afghani, more specifically an Afghani Hazara, who was coming to the U.S. to study.

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The Hazaras have been targeted for genocide. A few days ago, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum sent out a Museum Statement on the Hazara.

The statement reads, “We are concerned about ethnic and religious minorities, specifically the Shi’a minority who belong predominantly to the Hazara ethnic group, which faces a risk of crimes against humanity or even genocide.”

Genocide Watch, an internationally known organization focusing on genocide prevention, calls the Hazara situation a genocide emergency.

photo of article author
Ellen Kennedy
Human Rights Watch is urging the U.N. Human Rights Commission to investigate the killing of Hazaras as genocide or as a crime against humanity.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield recently spoke about the violence directed against ethnic and religious minorities in Afghanistan. She, too, singled out the desperate situation of the Hazaras: “I want to extend my deepest condolences to these victims and their families, and in particular, the Hazara community that has been so acutely impacted by these attacks.”

Who are the Hazaras? The plight of the Hazaras isn’t well known on the international stage. They are an ethno-religious minority, about 9% of the Afghani population of 36 million. Although most of the Afghan people identify as Sunni Muslims, most Hazaras are Shi’a (or Shi’ite). The Hazaras are perceived as ethnically, physically, and linguistically distinct from the Pashtun, who make up 40% of the population, and the Tajik, the second-largest group at 25%.

Why are the Hazaras targeted? Because of their religious status, they have long faced discrimination from the majority population and specifically from IS and other Sunni terrorist groups. ISIS-K claims a goal to exterminate all Shi’a, including the Hazaras.

The death toll of Afghans in the past decades’ conflicts is more than 47,000. Hazaras are a disproportionate number of that total; they have been singled out for killings, beheadings, suicide bomb attacks, and kidnappings.

According to an AP report on June 21, 2021, Hazaras have been targeted at schools, weddings, mosques, sports clubs, and even at births.

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The AP report highlighted gunmen’s attack on a maternity hospital in a Hazara neighborhood that killed 24 people, including newborns and their mothers. In May 2021, a school bombing in the same area killed 100 Hazara schoolgirls.

Amnesty International reported the Taliban’s brutal massacre of nine Hazara men in July, six who were shot and three who were tortured to death. Torture and murder in the context of armed conflict, in addition to the deliberate targeting of civilians, hospitals, and children, are war crimes.

The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, passed in 1948, defines genocide as ‘the intent to exterminate, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.’ As the Holocaust Museum statement notes, the Hazaras are targeted because of their ethnicity and religion.

What is being done? The International Criminal Court, located in The Hague, Netherlands, is the world’s only permanent tribunal established to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. The court, to which 123 countries of the world are parties, opened an investigation in 2006 into crimes perpetrated in Afghanistan by the Taliban, the Afghan government, and the United States. The U.S. is alone among Western nations and democracies in not being a party to the court. The Trump administration exerted considerable pressure on the court to drop this case and, after U.S.-imposed sanctions, visa denials, and other reprisals against court prosecutors and administrators, the case was shelved.

In 2020, upon review by the court’s Appeals Chamber and after global outrage over apparent U.S. intimidation of court members, the case was reinstated and is in process. The hope is that there will be accountability for the crimes perpetrated by all sides.

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What can we do? This genocide is occurring now, on our watch. We can ask our senators and representatives in Congress to consider the Hazaras in plans that are being developed to enhance safety for people in Afghanistan and in refugee resettlement. They are at grave risk.

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World Without Genocide will hold a webinar via Zoom on Sunday, Oct. 24, 1 to 2:30 p.m. CDT, on “Afghanistan: Genocide, War Crimes, and the International Criminal Court.” The event is open to the public. Register by Oct. 23. $10 general public, $5 students and seniors, free to Mitchell Hamline students, $25 for Minnesota lawyers for 1.5 Elimination of Bias credits (pending). “Clock hours” for teachers, nurses, and social workers.

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and an adjunct professor of law.

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