Afghanistan

Human Rights Council Discusses Situation of Human Rights in Afghanistan, with a Focus on the Situation of Women and Girls

AFTERNOON

The Human Rights Council this afternoon took up the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, with an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, followed by an enhanced interactive dialogue on the human rights situation of women and girls in Afghanistan.

Richard Bennett, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, said since the mandate was established almost a year ago, the human rights situation had deteriorated. Afghans were trapped in a human rights crisis that the world seemed powerless to address. The severe rollback of the rights of women and girls, reprisals targeting opponents and critics, and a clampdown on freedom of expression by the Taliban amounted to a descent into authoritarianism.

Afghanistan, speaking as a country concerned, said one year after the Taliban’s military takeover, the story of broken promises was well-known, and the seriousness of the situation well-established. Girls were still barred from secondary schools. Women were deprived of safety, freedom and fulfilment. Minorities were persecuted, subject to widespread and systematic attacks. Torture, ill-treatment, mass punishment, arbitrary detentions and forced displacement continued to be carried out. Afghanistan urged the Council to establish a robust accountability mechanism for the country.

In the discussion, speakers expressed unwavering commitment to the full, equal participation of all women and girls in Afghanistan and their protection from violence. The shrinking space for civil society and for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms was of primary concern. The Taliban had so far failed to uphold any promises made. A reconciliation mechanism was required for accountability. Other speakers said the American military intervention was the fundamental cause of the humanitarian disaster gripping the people of Afghanistan, violating their human rights, and impeding their enjoyment of peace. The main burden for post-conflict restoration should be borne by the United States, the United Kingdom and their Western allies, who were responsible for the situation.

Speaking in the interactive discussion with the Special Rapporteur were the European Union, Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Denmark on behalf of a group of countries, Qatar, Switzerland, France, India, Israel, Luxembourg, Republic of Korea, Australia, Ireland, Japan, United Arab Emirates, UN Women, Pakistan, Venezuela, Russian Federation, Namibia, China, Czech Republic, Malaysia, United States, Indonesia, United Kingdom, Spain, Kazakhstan, Italy, Montenegro, Belgium, Canada, New Zealand, Iran, Türkiye, Albania and Malawi.

Also speaking were the International Commission of Jurists, World Organization against Torture, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, International Federation for Human Rights Leagues, Sisterhood is Global Institute, Freedom Now, CIVICUS - World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Peaceland Foundation, and Shaanxi Patriotic Volunteer Association.

The enhanced dialogue on the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan saw the participation of seven panellists.

Ilze Brands Kehris, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, said this dialogue would focus on the impact of the actions of the Taliban on the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women and girls, including minority women, and the crucial roles played by women journalists and human rights defenders. Since the Taliban took power, they had repeatedly asserted that women’s rights were protected under Sharia, and yet their repeated edicts had undone women’s agency, removing them from public life, closing secondary schools for girls, and making an estimated 850,000 girls at risk of child marriage, and economic and sexual exploitation.

Richard Bennett, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, said it was important to create multiple platforms for Afghan women to make their voices heard. History should not be repeated regarding the rollback of the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. The de facto authorities needed to change their policies and uphold women’s human rights. If they did not change, they needed to be held to account.

Nasir Ahmad Andisha, Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said the harrowing environment under which millions of women and girls of Afghanistan were living was deeply alarming. The Taliban’s draconian, misogynistic form of rule did not reflect Afghan religion, culture or values. The capacity, staff and resources of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan were insufficient - there should be an independent human rights mechanism to document violations of international humanitarian law and human rights, to provide redress for the victims.

Mahbouba Seraj, Afghan women’s rights activist and journalist, said in 24 hours from August 15, 2021, democracy built up by the international community disappeared in Afghanistan. It was time to implement the independent monitoring mechanism due to the atrocities purveyed on social media. The world needed to do something about this issue.

Razia Sayad, Afghan lawyer and former Commissioner at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said the Taliban had committed gross human rights violations against the people of Afghanistan, in particular women and girls, imposing degrading anti-women rules. Women were at the mercy of a group that was inherently anti-women.

Zahra Joya, journalist and representative of Rukhshana Media, said Afghanistan had been lost to the Taliban for 13 months. There were very few female journalists remaining in the country. Women were now fighting for their fundamental rights. Strict restrictions had been imposed on women’s lives, and on what the media could cover. Ms. Joya called for an investigation into abuses of human rights of ethnic minorities, particularly the Hazara community.

Bandana Rana, member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and Coordinator of the Committee’s Task Force on Afghanistan, said in Afghanistan women’s participation in political and civil life was almost nil. The international community needed to put women’s rights in Afghanistan as a prerequisite for all engagement with the de facto authorities, and continue to create spaces to make the voices of Afghan women and girls heard in all international fora.

In the discussion, some speakers said that promises made by the Taliban to respect the human rights of women and girls had not been fulfilled. Many speakers called on the Taliban to reverse policies and practices that had dismantled progress made in the past 20 years and restricted the rights and freedoms of women and girls. Other speakers said that Afghanistan had been thrown into chaos due to the cruel occupation of the United States. The international community needed to remove unilateral sanctions and play a constructive role in realising the fundamental rights of all Afghans.

Speaking in the discussion were Sweden on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic countries, European Union, Pakistan on behalf of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Luxembourg, France, Lithuania, Israel, Qatar, Slovenia, Ecuador, North Macedonia, Australia, Ireland, Mexico, Germany, Japan, Maldives, Austria, Cyprus, Venezuela, Russian Federation, China, Peru, Netherlands, Malaysia, United States, Indonesia, United Kingdom, Argentina, Spain, Timor Leste, Pakistan, Croatia, Romania, Italy, Ukraine, Montenegro, Republic of Moldova, Belgium, Finland, Greece, India, Poland, Bulgaria, Gambia, Portugal, United Nations Population Fund, Vanuatu, Iran, Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Malawi, Egypt, and Chile.

The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s fifty-first regular session can be found here.

The Council will next meet at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 13 September, when it will conclude the enhanced interactive dialogue on the situation of human rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, after which it will hold an interactive dialogue on the report of the High Commissioner on the human rights situation in Nicaragua, followed by a general debate on the High Commissioner’s oral update on global human rights developments, which was presented earlier today.

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Afghanistan

Report

The Council has before it the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan.

Presentation of the Report

RICHARD BENNETT, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, presenting his report, said since the mandate was established almost a year ago, the human rights situation in Afghanistan had deteriorated. Afghans were trapped in a human rights crisis that the world seemed powerless to address. The severe rollback of the rights of women and girls, reprisals targeting opponents and critics, and a clampdown on freedom of expression by the Taliban amounted to a descent into authoritarianism. This crisis demanded ongoing attention from the Council.

All Afghans were going through turbulent times; however, the Special Rapporteur was gravely concerned about the staggering regression in women and girls’ enjoyment of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights since the Taliban seized control of the country. The de facto authorities must change their policies and uphold women’s human rights. This was a matter of international concern and urgent action was required to preserve the international human rights system's fundamental ban against discrimination. The dire humanitarian situation was also very worrying with food security becoming more precarious by the day.

Mr. Bennett said security in Afghanistan was deteriorating again, and he remained concerned about the protection of civilians, especially the damaging impact on children. The conflict between the de facto security forces and the National Resistance Front continued to result in significant suffering and violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in the north of Afghanistan. The situation of ethnic and religious minorities, which had faced historical persecution and attacks, had continued to deteriorate since August 2021. Fundamental freedoms remained bleak, with civic space continuing to shrink. At the same time, the international community must acknowledge its own role and responsibility for the situation unfolding in Afghanistan today, recognise the Afghan survivors and victims and listen to them about what they considered necessary to rebuild their country – and support their efforts politically and financially. Equally, the international community should pay particular attention to the calls from Afghans across all walks of life for accountability and justice, for concrete and effective challenges to the impunity pervasive in the country, and to remedying the wrongs of the past to prevent their recurrence in the future.

Statement by Concerned Country

Afghanistan, speaking as a country concerned, said that one year after the Taliban’s military takeover, the story of broken promises was well-known, and the seriousness of the situation well-established. Girls were still barred from secondary schools. Women were deprived of safety, freedom and fulfilment. Minorities were persecuted, subjected to widespread and systematic attacks. The civic space continued to be severely restricted. Reprisal killings and forced disappearances were ongoing. Barriers to access healthcare and livelihoods along with food insecurity persisted, while aid was still not sufficient and also not delivered to those most in need. Musicians and artists remained under threat, as cultural heritage was being destroyed. Those who attempted to leave the country undertook treacherous journeys only to face violent pushbacks in different countries.

The past few weeks had been marked by widespread insecurity, civilian causalities and large tragic blasts. Torture, ill-treatment, mass punishment, arbitrary detentions and forced displacement continued to be carried out. Major international terrorist groups were once again active inside Afghanistan. The report and recent reports by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan failed to capture the full nature and extent of violations and abuses across the country. Due to insufficient resources, many violations went undocumented, and many causalities were overlooked. Afghanistan urged the Council to establish a robust accountability mechanism for the country. Such a mechanism would allow for independent local and international documentation, for the identification of those responsible, for perpetrators to be held to account, and for victims to have access to redress. The Council’s failure to respond to the crisis in Afghanistan meant that serious violations of human rights could be met with apathy and selectivity.

Discussion

In the ensuing discussion, some speakers gave their unwavering commitment to the full, equal participation of all women and girls in Afghanistan and their protection from violence. The shrinking space for civil society and for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms was of primary concern. The Taliban had so far failed to uphold any promises made, and should uphold the human rights mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. The situation was a product of decades of instability. There should be an Afghan-led and Afghan-managed reconciliation process, as should be the pathway to restore the Afghan economy. There should be sustained and multilateral international support to ensure that the authorities could address the human rights needs of the Afghan people. There was concern for reports of arbitrary detention, intimidation and discrimination against media workers and human rights defenders. The crisis was also humanitarian - half the population required assistance, with many on the brink of starvation.

Some speakers said the dialogue with the Government of Afghanistan should continue. There were issues with access to healthcare and persisting restrictions in the financial sector. The spike in gender-based violence, forced marriage and child marriage were also part of the violations occurring. Socio-economic development required practical measures, including the respect of the rights of women and girls, ethnic and religious minorities, and their participation in the economy. A reconciliation mechanism was required for accountability. For over a year, the population had had no reprieve, and the situation had only deteriorated, with human rights violations rising. Those responsible for this were the Taliban, and their decisions had shown repeated violations of the requirements set by the United Nations Security Council. Humanitarian assistance should be based on the principles of neutrality, and should be provided to all parts of society, including women and minorities.

The Taliban authorities had talked the talk, promising not to roll back human rights, but had not walked the walk, some speakers said. The situation in Afghanistan should be accounted as war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Council must strengthen accountability measures, as the Taliban’s actions showed that they had no intention of respecting the human rights of women and girls or human rights defenders.

One speaker said the report was remiss in contextualising the situation with regard to the decades of instability. The American military intervention was the fundamental cause of the humanitarian disaster gripping the people of Afghanistan, violating their human rights, and impeding their enjoyment of peace. The blocking of access to financial resources had caused great suffering. The work of the Special Rapporteur would not help, as he would continue to present remote reports. The Council should cease to create country-specific mandates. Over 20 years of inglorious intervention by Western countries had caused the deaths of thousands in Afghanistan. The main burden for post-conflict restoration should be borne by the United States, the United Kingdom and their Western allies, who were responsible for the situation.

Concluding Remarks

Afghanistan welcomed the report of the Special Rapporteur. The Rapporteur had recommended establishing an accountability mechanism, and Afghanistan supported this. The mechanism needed to verify evidence of abuses and hold those responsible accountable to eradicate impunity.

RICHARD BENNETT, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, expressed appreciation for the agreement of many Member States and non-governmental organizations with the conclusions of the report. He had visited various parts of Afghanistan, including schools, hospitals and a prison, and had engaged with civil society. He planned to continue these efforts. The visit was appreciated by persons on the ground, especially women, who wanted expressions of solidarity. The Special Rapporteur was continuing to engage with the Taliban and aimed to reach agreements and hold authorities accountable for upholding those agreements. Member States could support his work by renewing the mandate, providing it with sufficient resources, and supporting civil society organizations. Holding perpetrators accountable for abuses was a long-term goal. The Rapporteur’s current goal was to take realistic steps to addressing impunity and providing redress to victims. There needed to be a careful consideration of how best to add value to existing mechanisms promoting human rights in Afghanistan.

Enhanced Interactive Dialogue on the Human Rights Situation of Women and Girls in Afghanistan

Statements by the Panellists

ILZE BRANDS KEHRIS, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, said that having the voices of Afghan women and girls at the centre of the discussion was critical, and the Office of the High Commissioner had sought to bring a diversity of these voices to the Council so that it could hear them. This dialogue would focus on the impact of the actions of the Taliban on the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women and girls, including minority women, and the crucial roles played by women journalists and human rights defenders. There was limited action to justice and redress by women and girls. Since the Taliban took power, they had repeatedly asserted that women’s rights were protected under Sharia, and yet their repeated edicts had undone women’s agency, removing them from public life, closing secondary schools for girls, and making an estimated 850,000 girls at risk of child marriage, as well as economic and sexual exploitation. Afghanistan was now the only country in the world where girls were denied secondary education, limiting their development abilities and their ability to live independent lives in the future, whilst also impeding Afghanistan’s progress to becoming an equal and just country.

Women were hindered from accessing healthcare, particularly sexual and reproductive healthcare, and from escaping from abusive relationships. Female civil servants had been directed to stay at home, and some even to nominate a male family member to replace them. Members of minority groups had been subjected to particular harassment and discrimination, and other groups of women, including those with disabilities, were also suffering from inter-sectional discrimination. Human rights oversight mechanisms had been dismantled, as had the specialised courts for gender issues.

Gender-based violence and violence against women was chronic, with no opportunity for redress. With the rapid closing of public spaces for women, the role of women journalists and women human rights defenders had become even more crucial. Reports of attacks on them to silence their voices were appalling. There were no investigations being reported on such cases, and none of those responsible were brought to justice. The hope was that today’s dialogue would translate into concrete action, so that the women and girls of Afghanistan saw that the international community truly stood with them. Today was an opportunity for the Council to reaffirm and act upon its commitment for the full enjoyment of human rights for all women and girls of Afghanistan.

The Council then viewed a video with the voices and experiences of women and girls from Afghanistan.

RICHARD BENNETT, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, said it was important to create multiple platforms for Afghan women to make their voices heard. History should not be repeated regarding the rollback of the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. The denial of women’s and girls’ rights was central to the Taliban’s ideology. Edicts had been imposed that restricted women and girls’ daily lives, robbed them of their futures and stripped them of their identity and dignity. Women and girls belonging to ethnic and religious minority groups, and those with disabilities, faced further discrimination and complications. Afghanistan needed to comply with its international obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and other Conventions.

The de facto authorities needed to change their policies and uphold women’s human rights. If they did not change, they needed to be held to account. The international community needed to listen to women and girls’ demands, work with them, support them, and ensure their safety and protection. Mr. Bennett urged the de facto authorities to urgently reverse the discriminatory policies and directives that unduly restricted the rights and fundamental freedoms of women and girls; ensure women’s equal participation in education, employment, governance and all other aspects of public life; and immediately and unconditionally reopen all girls’ secondary schools, and ensure equal and quality education for girls and boys at all levels.

NASIR AHMAD ANDISHA, Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said the harrowing environment under which millions of women and girls in Afghanistan were living was deeply alarming. The policies of the Taliban led up to an all-encompassing attack and atrocities. The Taliban had broken every promise to the international community, the people of Afghanistan and the women and girls of Afghanistan. Their draconian, misogynistic form of rule did not reflect Afghan religion, culture or values. To say it was, was to add insult to injury. The Taliban were going against modernity and human progress. As a nation, Afghanistan would not allow them to take the 38 million people back with themselves, and expected the international community to not stand by as spectators. All women and girls were entitled to every right enshrined in the treaties to which Afghanistan was a party.

Opening secondary schools was no panacea - it was just a basic right. Women were penalised for exercising their most basic rights, and had nowhere to turn - no support, no shelter, no independent human rights commission. Girls were increasingly forced into marriage. There were multiple challenges to daily life, including the environment, and the suicide rate was unimaginable. As women human rights defenders peacefully protested, they continued to face arrest, harassment, detention, and arbitrary disappearance. There was visible gender apartheid. The capacity, staff and resources of the United Nations Assistance Mechanism in Afghanistan were insufficient - there should be an independent human rights mechanism to document violations of international humanitarian law and human rights, to provide redress for the victims. Women and girls continued to demonstrate exceptional strength, courage and resistance, and their will to survive was amazing. All people of the world deserved to live safe, fulfilling lives, free from oppression.

MAHBOUBA SERAJ, Afghan women’s rights activist and journalist, said she had been active in Afghanistan for several years, including when the Taliban took power. In 24 hours on 15 August 2021, democracy built up by the international community in Afghanistan had disappeared. The international community was killing the country and then crying for it. Human rights today did not exist in Afghanistan. Women did not exist in the country; they were erased. This was the last time that Ms. Seraj would talk about this issue. The world could fix this issue. Money and food were not good enough. How would Afghanistan survive the next few winters? Talk was cheap, but it achieved nothing. Ms. Seraj said that it was time to implement the independent monitoring mechanism due to the atrocities purveyed on social media. The world needed to do something about this issue.

RAZIA SAYAD, Afghan lawyer and former Commissioner at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said the Taliban had committed gross human rights violations against the people of Afghanistan, in particular women and girls, imposing degrading anti-women rules. The people of Afghanistan had been denied their legal, social and economic identities. The current tragedy was a by-product of the systems that were birthed and developed over the last two decades. Those institutions belatedly guaranteed women’s access to justice, but this was no longer in place, and they were at the mercy of a group that was inherently anti-women.

Expecting the Taliban to bow to international pressure was unrealistic and a waste of time. Since August 2021, the Taliban had removed women’s access to human rights and to justice. The regime had shut down the courts and prosecution offices that judged violations of women’s rights. Tragically, under Taliban rule, women attorneys and lawyers were replaced by fanatic Taliban members, whose edicts did not even respect Sharia, leaving women with no access to justice. Women were particularly mistreated and insulted in judicial institutions. Reports of forced marriage by the Taliban were increasingly alarming. There were also reports of the Taliban forcing their way into homes and assaulting and raping women and underage girls. Thousands of women suffered from the brutality of the Taliban militias. The institutional vacuum left women defenceless. The future of transitional justice depended on how properly and responsibly this crisis was handled today.

ZAHRA JOYA, journalist and representative of Rukhshana Media, said Afghanistan had been lost to the Taliban for 13 months. There were very few female journalists remaining in the country. Women were now fighting for their fundamental rights. Strict restrictions had been imposed on women’s lives, and on what the media could cover. Hundreds of journalists had lost their jobs and fled the country. One journalist had been deprived of seeing her children for over a year. Most ethnic minorities had also fled the country in fear of persecution. The Hazara people were facing genocide. Ms. Joya called for an investigation into abuses of the human rights of ethnic minorities, particularly the Hazara community, and urged Member States to provide humanitarian visas to high-risk groups. Afghanistan was going through a difficult time and needed the support of the international community.

BANDANA RANA, Member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and Coordinator of the Committee’s Task Force on Afghanistan, said in Afghanistan women’s participation in political and civil life was almost nil. All directives from the de facto authorities more and more reinforced the dominance and control of men over women’s lives. The abolition of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, deactivating all women’s rights machinery in the country and reinstating the Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, sent a clear signal that there was no room for women or entities tasked to take gender equality forward.

Many Afghan women inside and outside the country were presently worried that the world was getting too comfortable with the Taliban regime. The international community needed to put women’s rights in Afghanistan as a prerequisite for all engagement with the de facto authorities, and continue to create spaces to make the voices of Afghan women and girls heard in all international fora, to build their capacity to strategize, advocate and be able to negotiate and amplify their voices effectively. Respect for women’s rights was fundamentally important. Women and girls across Afghanistan deserved equality and the right to live with dignity which should be defined by the women and girls themselves.

Discussion

In the discussion, speakers noted that promises made by the Taliban to respect the human rights of women and girls had not been fulfilled. Many speakers called on the Taliban to reverse policies and practices that had dismantled progress made in the past 20 years and restricted the rights and freedoms of women and girls. Women were required to wear a strict form of hijab. Afghanistan was the only country in the world that banned women and girls from attending secondary education. Women and girls were also denied access to higher education, work and services, and restricted from moving freely and participating in public life. Early marriage had increased sharply, and women and children faced increasing discrimination, domestic violence and sexual and gender-based violence. These trends needed to be halted. Speakers called on the de facto authorities to uphold international humanitarian law; immediately open all schools; and to respect the rights of women and girls to move, assemble, access services, and participate in work and other aspects of public life freely. Sexual and reproductive health services needed to be provided to women and girls. The rights of refugee women and girls, ethnic minorities, and women and girls with disabilities in particular needed to be protected. Authorities needed to be held accountable for their actions, and victims needed to be provided with redress.

Other speakers said that Afghanistan had been thrown into chaos due to the cruel occupation of the United States. The new Government had made efforts to ensure women and girls’ inheritance and property rights. To solve issues regarding access to education, the United States and other States needed to remove freezes on schools’ assets. These States needed to support the Taliban in reconstructing Afghanistan, rather than blaming them for human rights violations. The international community needed to remove unilateral sanctions and play a constructive role in realising the fundamental rights of all Afghans.

Link: https://ungeneva.unog.un.org/en/news-media/meeting-summary/2022/09/le-conseil-des-droits-de-lhomme-se-penche-sur-la-situation-des