By Dylan Welch
KABUL (Reuters) - A surge in civilian casualties and attacks on women in Afghanistan spotlights waning government support for human rights, the United Nations' top rights officer said on Tuesday.
The statement will be a blow to Western nations and the government of President Hamid Karzai, who want to paint a positive human rights picture ahead of the withdrawal of most foreign forces scheduled by the end of next year.
"My concern that the momentum of improvement in human rights may have not only peaked, but is in reality waning, has not been allayed," United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said during her first official visit to Afghanistan.
Pillay met Karzai, his defence and interior ministers and the chief of the Afghan intelligence agency, among others, on a two-day visit to Kabul, the capital.
Evidence of such backsliding came from what she called an ominous rise in civilian casualties in the first half of 2013, endemic violence against women, and the appointment of conservatives to the country's independent human rights office.
"I urge an extra effort by the president and his government to ensure that the human rights gains of the past 12 years are not sacrificed to political expediency during these last few months before the election," Pillay told a news conference.
Karzai has said he remains committed to progress in human rights.
A presidential election is due on April 5 and is expected to see a transfer of power from long-term leader Karzai, who is required under the constitution to step down.
Some Western diplomats and Afghan rights activists worry about what they say is the government's increasing willingness to trade hard-won human rights gains for the support of the country's ultra-conservative elite.
"There have been some distinct human rights achievements during the past 12 years, but they are fragile, and many Afghans are expressing fears that the overall human rights situation is deteriorating," Pillay said.
Her remarks come amid a spate of killings and abductions of Afghan women in government posts.
A senior policewoman in the southern Afghan province of Helmand, Lieutenant Negara, died on Monday after she was shot by unknown men. Her predecessor, Lieutenant Islam Bibi, was herself gunned down in July.
An Indian writer who criticised treatment of women in eastern Afghanistan was murdered this month, and a woman lawmaker was kidnapped by insurgents in August and held for three weeks.
"Violence against women in Afghanistan is pervasive and increasing," the United Nations' executive director for women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, said in a statement on Tuesday prompted by the death of Negara, who used just one name, like many Afghans.
More than 4,000 cases of violence against women and girls were reported to Afghanistan's Ministry of Women's Affairs in 2010-2012, she said.
Pillay also said the appointment to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) of a group of arch-conservative men - one a former Taliban official - by Karzai in June had compromised the panel's independence.
The appointments also put the panel at risk of an international downgrade when it is reviewed in two months' time. Such a downgrade could force some countries to cut funding to the rights body.
"It is essential that the AIHRC is strengthened, not weakened, and I made a strong plea to President Karzai ... to do his utmost to strengthen the position of the AIHRC before it comes up for review," Pillay said.
(Reporting by Dylan Welch; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)