As the first anniversary of the Taliban’s military takeover of Kabul approaches, the multifaceted crisis in Afghanistan brought by the Taliban’s rule persists. On July 1, the United Nations Human Rights Council held an urgent debate on the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan. The event served as the most important international platform for Afghan women’s groups to engage the international community in discussing the dire situation of women and girls in Afghanistan since the takeover on Aug. 15, 2021. On the very same day, in Kabul, the Taliban called a gathering of over 3,000 of their members, “all men and all Talib,” and assigned another 12,000 armed men to guard this gathering. No independent media, no voice of dissent, and no women were allowed to participate.
Over the past 11 months, while the Taliban kept reneging on all of its open and discreet promises made during the Doha peace talks, the international community in general, and the United States and its European partners in particular, utilized every possible channel to engage the Taliban, even sometimes at the cost of overlooking human right principles, as the only internal stakeholder in Afghanistan. The extremist group has removed, decree by decree, fundamental rights and freedoms of the citizens of Afghanistan. Young girls cannot go to school and women cannot participate in political life and are not represented in the government. In fact, the Taliban are making the women invisible in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s highly anticipated “Jirga”, a traditional gathering of tribal elders, concluded with a diatribe by the Taliban’s reclusive leader boosting their victory against NATO and promising to implement their own version of Sharia with an iron fist. The situation approaches a dead end filled with broken promises and deep disappointments.
While Afghanistan had retreated to the background after the world faced a major crisis in Ukraine, the dire situation of human rights, particularly the rights of women and girls, slowly brings it back under the international spotlight. As we argued in April, it is time for the international community to get serious about protecting human rights in Afghanistan. Fortunately, there are signs of a renewed international willingness to take action against the violations and abuses of fundamental human rights by the Taliban.
Two recent developments support this argument. First, on June 20, the U.N. Security Council Taliban sanctions committee unanimously agreed to remove a travel ban exemption for two senior Taliban members, both in the Ministry of Education, over the extended ban on girls’ access to secondary education. The existing exemption for another 13 senior Taliban members was extended for another two months to travel only in pursuit of promoting the prospect of peace and stability. The second development was that the U.N. Human Rights Council held an urgent debate on the human rights of women and girls in Afghanistan and subsequently unanimously passed a resolution, Situation of human rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, sending clear messages to the Taliban and the people of Afghanistan.
Speakers at the debate included representatives of 60 countries, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan, women leaders, and a large number of U.N. agencies and civil society organizations. Common among the statements were expressions of deep concern over the dire human rights situation in the country and frustration about the Taliban’s backtracking on commitments and increasing restrictions on women, in particular the ban on girls’ secondary schools. Many called for united action from Member States and for a clear message to be sent to the Taliban. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, spoke of the worst decline in decades in the enjoyment of human rights for Afghan women since the military takeover by the Taliban and called on the international community for more concrete efforts to insist on the protection of their rights.
Speaking for Afghan women, Fawzia Koofi, the former Deputy Speaker of Parliament, called the urgent debate “a light at the end of a dark long tunnel that Afghan women are living” and asked that leverage over the Taliban be used to hold them accountable on human rights of the people of Afghanistan. The International Commission of Jurists further emphasized that the Taliban’s institutionalized and systematic oppression, through which women and girls are progressively excluded from every sphere, is akin to the enactment of a policy of gender apartheid.
The Resolution related to the debate was unanimously adopted on July 7, strongly calling on the Taliban to put an immediate end to the plethora of human rights violations, remove hindrance to access to education for Afghan girls, reinstate the independent national human rights institution, and form an inclusive, representative, and participatory government.
Unlike common misperceptions among mainstream interlocutors that the Taliban are impervious to international pressure, as a de-facto authority, the group is anxiously vying for political recognition and economic assistance. The Taliban’s rapid ascent to power was closely linked to unprecedented legitimacy gained by signing a diplomatic agreement with the United State, which was done in the presence of Mike Pompeo, the first U.S. secretary of state to have such an interaction with the group.
Historically, in Afghanistan, the ascent or descent of ruling and opposition groups, and consequently public support or apathy, are correlated with the perception of them gaining or losing foreign support. The Doha diplomatic charm offensive not only changed the Taliban’s fortunes at the international and regional levels but also shifted the calculation of some officials and local elite in their favor. Therefore, the lack of formal diplomatic recognition and withdrawal of economic assistance, after the military takeover, and the return of international scrutiny make the Taliban’s political leaders nervous and their position vulnerable.
The majority of the Taliban’s leadership was and some still are counting on the international community having forgotten the people of Afghanistan and its own principles, as the Taliban openly and insidiously disregard every obligation, commitment, and promise to uphold the human rights of women and girls. While the Taliban have kept the ban on secondary education for girls as a bargaining chip, its eventual opening of schools would be the first step toward compliance with minimum international human rights principles.
Despite the sluggish and messy state of affairs on the political side, particularly, U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s (UNAMA) leadership and implementation of Resolution 2626 (adopted in March 2022), renewed international attention, and a series of actions in the human rights arena indicate a sign of progress in the right direction. With UNAMA’s comprehensive and robust mandate, generous international humanitarian and cash flow assistance to Kabul, the presence of an empowered Special Rapporteur, and the recent resolution on the situation of women and girls, the U.N. system is enabled to monitor the human rights situation on the ground and pave the way for scrutiny and accountability and must make full use of the tools it has to do so.
Moving forward, the international community needs to devise a coordinated human rights-centered approach at all levels of engagement with the Taliban to collectively prevent further violations and abuses. Such an approach must guarantee that any leverage that remains with the international community is used to hold the Taliban accountable on human rights of the Afghan people. The international community needs to make clear to the Taliban that respect for the rights of all Afghans, including women and minorities, is indispensable to the emergence of any political solution and benchmark for any future international engagements with the group. The approach also bears a duty of due diligence for the international community to monitor that any form of aid is distributed fairly and avoids strengthening the Taliban’s war and rights abuses machinery.