The human rights situation in Afghanistan is marked by a rise in civilian casualties, setbacks for women, mounting attacks on freedom of expression and a culture of impunity when it comes to punishing perpetrators of abuses, it has been observed.
The report notes that violence against women such as rape, "honour killings," early and forced marriage, sexual abuse, and slavery remain widespread.
"Violence is tolerated or condoned within the family and community, within traditional and religious leadership circles as well as the formal and informal justice system - in this regard the Afghan Government has failed to adequately protect the rights of women despite constitutional guarantees," according to the annual report on Afghanistan of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, presented by Navi Pillay to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council.
She also notes that there has been a dramatic increase in threats and intimidation against women in public life or who work outside the home. Women working with government agencies, national and international organisations, journalists, police, and lawyers have all reported death-threat letters and phone calls.
The report calls for the protection of women and girls in both the private and public sphere and this must be translated into policies and concrete programmes.
"Gross human rights violations remain a serious threat to continuing efforts to transform Afghan society," states the report. "A culture of impunity prevails, and is deeply entrenched; this is manifested in the lack of political will to advance the transitional justice process to address past abuses as well as the absence of accountability for current human rights violations.
"Coupled with a weak, corrupt and dysfunctional judicial system, and wide recourse to traditional dispute-resolution mechanisms that do not comply with due process requirements, justice is effectively denied to the vast majority of Afghans," the report says.
The High Commissioner urges the Government and the international community to effectively address the issue of impunity, which not only undermines the legitimacy of Afghan law enforcement and judicial institutions but has also eroded people's confidence in Government and public institutions.
Noting the rise in the number of civilian casualties, the High Commissioner urges anti-government elements and pro-government forces to ensure greater respect for the protection of civilians, including women and children.
The report states that freedom of expression came under significant threat throughout 2008, with threats and intimidation directed against civil society groups and the media, including the killing of journalists.
"In the months leading up to the 2009 elections, the media will continue to self-censor or be pressured into broadcasting only those views which are favourable to certain political interests and candidates and citizens will be intimidated through threats and attacks from fully expressing their opinions," says Ms. Pillay.
Another area of concern is the Government's continued use of the death penalty in 2008, after a de facto moratorium of three years ended in October 2007. The High Commissioner calls on the Government to reconsider this policy in light of weaknesses within the judicial and law enforcement system and in line with growing international opinion.