KABUL - The UN human rights chief on Tuesday expressed fears that progress made in Afghanistan since the fall of the hardline Taliban regime in 2001 was being reversed as NATO-led troops withdraw.

Navi Pillay said on a visit to Kabul that she had heard growing evidence of a sharp reversal in human rights, especially for women, despite more than a decade of international intervention and billions of dollars in aid.

“I do have serious concerns that the human rights situation in the country is deteriorating,” the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights told reporters.

“I had lengthy discussions with civil society activists. They have made it clear to me that they feel that the gains of the (last) 12 years are vulnerable and at risk of being reversed.”

Pillay, ending her first visit to Afghanistan, said she had sought assurances from President Hamid Karzai that advances in human rights in the ultra-conservative country would be protected.

“My concern - that the momentum of improvement in human rights may not only have peaked, but is in reality waning - has not been allayed,” she said.

“Afghanistan needs to brace itself to ensure that the tumultuous changes that will take place before the end of 2014 do not trigger a serious deterioration in human rights.”

Afghanistan faces a potentially destabilising presidential election in April, and the remaining 87,000 NATO combat troops deployed to fight the Taliban insurgents will withdraw by the end of next year. The risks facing women were underlined on Monday when the senior female police officer in the Taliban heartlands of the south died after being shot by assassins, months after her predecessor was also gunned down.

Pillay also challenged Karzai to strengthen the much-vaunted Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), which she said was under threat after the president’s appointment of five new members.

She said she shared concerns that the appointments were so flawed that an international review in November could strip the AIHRC of its “A” status and lead to reduced funding.

“It is essential that the AIHRC is strengthened, not weakened, and I made a strong plea to President Karzai, who is in a position to rectify the problem,” she said.

Donor nations, led by the US, point to the AIHRC and the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law as two prized symbols of the success of the international effort in Afghanistan.

But Pillay said the EVAW law was struggling to make an impact, with implementation “slow, and extremely patchy, especially in rural areas”.

“I also note the widespread concern among civil society groups that the momentum on advancing women’s rights has halted, and indeed may even be regressing,” she said.

As Islamist groups try to increase their influence before the election, Pillay issued a plea for Afghan politicians not to abandon the vulnerable.

“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,” she said.