By Maryam Mousavi
March 21, 2019
The Afghan government is usually cautious when it comes to criticizing its neighbor Iran. But last year, Afghan government officials were as direct as they could be when they condemned the Islamic Republic for recruiting its citizens to fight in Syria with the Fatemiyoun Brigade. “The Afghan government outlawed the group and worked to suppress it, largely in order to avoid further sectarian strife and proxy warfare in the war-ravaged country,” said a study by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy [PDF]. It added that recruitment by the Revolutionary Guards continued, though it had gone “underground.”
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) set up the Fatemiyoun Brigade in 2014, sending Shia Afghan immigrants and refugees in Iran to fight in the Syrian civil war on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s government. This fact has been confirmed by Guards’ officials themselves. In January 2018, Zahir Mojahed, who acts as a de facto spokesperson for the Fatemiyoun Brigade, claimed that more than 2,000 members of the Afghan militia had been killed in Syria and more than 8,000 had been injured.
Afghan government officials believe that the IRGC lures Afghan immigrants to join the brigade with promises including fixed salaries and residency permits for their families, a claim supported by IranWire’s interviews with the families of those killed in action and the survivorsthemselves. The Guards also appeal to the religious loyalties of the potential recruits, telling them that they will be defending Shia holy shrines in Syria.
In October 2018, the US Department of Treasury accused Iran of recruiting, training, and deploying child soldiers, which is a war crime. Afghan and Iranian jurists have also argued that recruiting Afghan nationals and sending them to fight in Syria amounts to a violation of their human rights under both international law and the laws of both countries.
Iranian Constitution Forbids Recruiting Foreigners
According to Mousa Barzin Khalifeloo, an Iranian jurist and a legal advisor to IranWire, recruiting Afghan nationals violates Article 145 of the Iranian constitution. “No foreigner will be accepted into the army or security forces of the country,” states the article. But, Khalifeloo says, “the law is silent on whether the Guards can recruit foreign nationals, although by relying on the strict wording of the article, one can say that recruiting foreign nationals into the armed forces is forbidden without exception.”
Young Afghan men are not the only ones the Guards recruit. There are documented cases of the Guards recruiting Afghan children to fight in Syria. “Afghan children as young as 14 have fought in the Fatemiyoun division,” reported Human Rights Watch (HRW) in October 2017. “Human Rights Watch researchers reviewed photographs of tombstones in Iranian cemeteries where the authorities buried combatants killed in Syria, and identified eight Afghan children who apparently fought and died in Syria. Iranian media reports also corroborated some of these cases and reported at least six more instances of Afghan child soldiers who died in Syria.” And in January 2019, IranWire published an interviewwith a 15-year-old Afghan teenager who was tricked into fighting in Syria by the false promise that he would be given a job in a holy shrine [Persian link].
Khalifeloo says that, according to Article 2 of the National Conscription Law, only individuals over 18 can be conscripted to serve in the military. In other words, no Iranian under 18 is allowed to serve in the armed forces, let alone Afghan children. “Recruiting children to fight in a war has been directly or indirectly banned by international laws and conventions, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child or the Statute of the International Criminal Court,” he says. Iran is a signatory to both.
Considering the country’s international obligations, Khalifeloo says Iran’s practice of sending under-18 Afghan nationals to war in Syria amounts to a “gross violation of human rights.”
Abdulvahid Farzei, vice president of the Afghan Bar Association, agrees that the Islamic Republic’s actions violate international conventions and laws.
Article 7 of the Afghan constitution clearly states that the government “shall observe the United Nations Charter, inter-state agreements, as well as international treaties to which Afghanistan has joined, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The state shall prevent all kinds of terrorist activities, cultivation and smuggling of narcotics, and production and use of intoxicants” [PDF].
Farzei says that since both Iran and Afghanistan have signed up to this declaration and other human rights conventions, they must follow and observe them. But, according to him, the Islamic Republic of Iran has violated its obligations.
The Responsible Parties
Farzei states that Iran has treated Afghan immigrants unjustly and has consistently violated their rights for years. According to him, no government has the right to use immigrants for such purposes — but Iran is sacrificing young Afghans who live in Iran for its own interests.
Farzei emphasizes that to stop Tehran, one must turn to international law. But he says since Afghanistan is mired in a deep crisis and dealing with a range of serious problems including challenges to national security, “the government is weak and, as a result, nothing in this regard has been done.”
Najla Rahal, a lawyer based in the Afghan capital of Kabul, also insists Iran’s conduct is wrong on multiple levels. “Sending Afghan immigrants to the war not only violates Iranian laws, but it also exploits the destitute by deceiving them,” she says. “This is not only unacceptable from a legal point of view, it is also morally wrong.”
Rahal adds that Afghan nationals have gone to live in Iran for their own survival, seeking refuge there to escape the Taliban, the war in Afghanistan, insecurities and unemployment. Legally, the Islamic Republic has no right to exploit these refugees’ situation and deceive them into fighting in Syria by making promises such as giving them and their families residency permits. And Kabul, she says, is by law allowed to take action to put an end to this situation.
The constitution aside, she argues, international laws forbid any country from engaging in such practices. If a country endangers the domestic security of another country by sending its nationals to a proxy war, then the latter country can issue a complaint to the International Criminal Court. Rahal believes that by using Afghans to fight ISIS in Syria, Iran has laid the ground for ISIS’ infiltration into Afghanistan and that ISIS has launched terrorist attacks in Afghanistan to take revenge. Therefore, she says, Afghanistan is within its rights to take its case to the International Criminal Court.
The Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations told IranWire that questions relating to Afghan immigrants must be put to the country’s foreign ministry, as it is the responsible party for such affairs. However, IranWire’s efforts to contact Afghan foreign ministry officials to ask them about any action it is and should take to save the lives of Afghan nationals in Iran were unsuccessful.