On Tuesday 24 August 2021, the Human Rights Council convened a special session to address the ‘serious human rights concerns and situation in Afghanistan’.
The special session was requested via an official letter dated 17 August 2021 and signed by H.E. Khalil Hashmi, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to the UN in Geneva, in his capacity as Coordinator of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on Human Rights and Humanitarian Issues, as well as H.E. Dr. Nasir Ahmad Andisha, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to the UN in Geneva.
This letter, addressed to H.E. Ms. Nazhat Shameem Khan, the President of the Human Rights Council, was jointly submitted by the Permanent Mission of Pakistan, as Coordinator of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan and enjoyed the official support of 29 member States and 60 observer States.
In conformity with operative paragraph 10 of General Assembly resolution 60/251, the Human Rights Council is ‘able to hold special sessions, when needed, at the request of a member of the Council with the support of one third of the membership of the Council’ (i.e., 16 member States or more). Special sessions of the Council aim to provide a platform for the Council to consider and act on urgent human rights issues of either a country-specific or a thematic nature.
The Council’s action on the human rights situation in Afghanistan to date
The UN Commission on Human Rights, established in 1946 as the principal mechanism for the promotion and protection of human rights, was initially the body in charge of reviewing the human rights situation in Afghanistan prior to the creation of the Human Rights Council in 2006. The Commission adopted resolution 1984/55 establishing the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, which was extended annually until 2005.
In 2006, the year of its establishment, the Council unanimously adopted decision 2/113, in which it requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights to monitor the human rights situation in the country in cooperation with the Security Council-mandated United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and to provide regular updates to the Council. The Council also adopted one country-specific resolution on ‘addressing attacks on school children in Afghanistan’ during its fourteenth session in June 2010. In resolution 14/15, which was adopted by consensus, the Council condemned recent attacks against school children in Afghanistan, expressed solidarity with the Government of Afghanistan in its efforts to protect all students from such attacks, and requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights to increase the focus on the situation of girl school children in her reports on Afghanistan to the Council.
Furthermore, country visits by various Special Procedures mandate holders have taken place regularly, including most recently the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons (2016) and the Special Rapporteur on violence against women (2014).
The 2021 special session on Afghanistan, held in August 2021 over the seizure of all major population centres by the Taliban, is the first special session convened by the Council specifically addressing the human rights situation in the country. On 10 August 2021, H.E. Michelle Bachelet, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned that failure to stem the rising violence and commission of human rights violations will have disastrous consequences for the people of Afghanistan, and urged all parties to the conflict to ‘stop fighting to prevent more bloodshed’. Furthermore, on 16 August 2021 Special Procedures mandate holders issued a joint statement calling on member States to take immediate and preventive action to prevent the slaughter of civilians, the destruction of essential civilian infrastructure, and the undoing of decades of human rights, rule of law and gender equality work to advance the health, education, culture and social infrastructure of Afghanistan.
31st special session
The session, held in hybrid format at the Palais des Nations on Tuesday 24 August 2021, began with keynote statements by H.E. Ms. Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prof. Anita Ramasastry, Chair of the Coordination Committee of UN Special Procedures, Ms. Shaharzad Akbar, Chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and H.E. Dr. Nasir Ahmad Andisha, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to the UN in Geneva.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights opened the 31st Special Session by calling attention to credible reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law, and human rights abuses, taking place in many areas under effective Taliban control. These include, among others, summary executions of civilians and hors de combat members of the Afghan national security forces; restrictions on the rights of women – including their right to move around freely and girls’ right to attend schools; the recruitment of child soldiers; and repression of peaceful protest and expression of dissent.
Ms. Bachelet further noted that recent events have further deepened an already harrowing humanitarian crisis – aggravated by sustained drought, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a failure to achieve the full realisation of economic, social and cultural rights. Recent reports indicate that 18 million Afghans are facing a dire humanitarian situation, and an additional 270,000 people have been forced to leave their homes and livelihoods since January 2021, bringing the total displaced population to more than 3.5 million. Ms. Bachelet predicted that significant numbers of people will likely seek refuge in neighbouring countries or outside the region in the near future.
The High Commissioner therefore called on all States to create safe pathways for Afghan refugees and migrants, to broaden asylum and resettlement programmes and to immediately halt the deportation of Afghans who seek protection. She urged the Council to take bold and vigorous action, commensurate with the gravity of the crisis, by establishing a dedicated mechanism to closely monitor the evolving human rights situation in Afghanistan, with a focus on prevention. In concluding, Ms. Bachelet emphasised that united and unequivocal action by member States would send an important signal to the Taliban that a return to past practices will not find acceptance in the international community – neither now, nor in the future.
Prof. Anita Ramasastry, Chair of the Coordination Committee of UN Special Procedures, recalled the gravity of civilian harms that have been caused by the latest military offensive of the Taliban, noting that the well-founded fears of the Afghan people are rooted in the onslaught of fighting during this offensive as well as over the course of the last 18 months, and the memory of the gross and systematic abuses committed from 1996-2001.
Prof. Ramasastry further lamented that reports from areas where the Taliban are in control tend to show that violations of women’s rights remain central to their ideology. These violations include abduction; forced, early and child marriage; forced burka wearing and restrictions on women’s attire; restrictions on women’s freedom of movement, including the requirement of traveling with a husband or other male relative, exclusion from education and public life, and prohibitions against working outside the home. She urged authorities to take urgent action to ensure that women and girls are free to leave their homes at any time and for any purpose, without fear of violence.
In the immediate term, Prof. Ramasastry called for member States of the Council to remove barriers to exit from Afghanistan, and to work together to ensure that those most at risk and their family members are brought to safety. She further urged the Council to establish an independent and adequately resourced international human rights oversight accountability mechanism for a minimum of two years, to be deployed urgently to Afghanistan to assess the situation on the ground and report back to the Council. Furthermore, member States should support efforts to reach a negotiated settlement of the conflict through an inclusive peace process that guarantees the meaningful and equal participation of the Afghan people and the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including non-discrimination, thereby safeguarding the rights and guarantees enshrined in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
Ms. Shaharzad Akbar, Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), noted that the future remains deeply uncertain as the fundamental rights of women and girls are being repressed in every village, town and city across Afghanistan, and hundreds of thousands are fleeing the country, particularly ethnic minorities, human rights defenders and journalists, who are worried about persecution and repression by the Taliban. As the foremost international human rights body, the response of the Human Rights Council to this crisis should not be ‘business as usual’. Ms. Akbar urged the Council to commit to at least a credible, strong and well-resourced investigative mechanism to document the abuses and act as a deterrent.
Pakistan, speaking on behalf of the OIC member States and one of the States calling for the special session, reiterated the OIC’s commitment to supporting an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process to reach an inclusive political settlement. They further expressed concern over the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and increased flow of refugees and internally displaced persons, calling for full adherence to the principle of burden and responsibility sharing through international assistance and the immediate mobilisation of necessary resources.
Slovenia delivered a statement on behalf of the European Union, calling for the immediate restoration of security and civil order, and a return to constitutional rule and the protection and respect for civilian life, dignity and property throughout Afghanistan. They emphasised that accountability for serious human rights violations and abuses, and violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) must be ensured, noting that only an inclusive and enduring political solution through meaningful negotiations and respect for international law will bring sustainable peace to Afghanistan.
The United States of America stressed that the protection of civilians, including women and girls, academics, journalists, human rights defenders, and members of ethnic, religious, and other minority groups must remain paramount. Furthermore, hard-won achievements in the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms over the last twenty years – particularly for women and members of minority groups – must be maintained. They called on all parties to allow safe, unhindered access for humanitarian personnel and agencies to provide life-saving assistance to the increasing numbers of Afghans in need, while reiterating that a sustainable end to the conflict in Afghanistan can only be achieved through an inclusive, just, and durable political settlement that upholds the human rights of all.
The People’s Republic of China stated that the urgent task is to ‘restore peace, stability and order’ in Afghanistan, and that the rights of Afghans and foreign nationals in the country must be protected. They expressed the hope that the Taliban will live up to their ‘positive declarations,’ unite with all parties and ethnic groups in the country, and ‘follow moderate and sound domestic and foreign policies’ so that the people of Afghanistan ‘can emerge from war and rebuild their beautiful homeland’. Finally, they called for the US and other Western countries to be held accountable for human rights violations committed by their militaries on Afghan territory.
The Russian Federation expressed concern over the terrorist threat in the country, as well as the number of internally displaced persons and refugees. They called for the international community to assist Afghanistan in its national reconciliation process, and in particular to support the efforts of the Troika and ‘Moscow format’ consultations.
Uruguay emphasised that international law, including international humanitarian law (IHL) and human rights law, is applicable to the conflict in Afghanistan. These binding rules and other voluntary commitments, including the recommendations of Afghanistan’s most recent Universal Periodic Review (UPR), must be respected. Uruguay further reminded Council members that Afghanistan is a State party to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and must act in keeping with the standards set out in these instruments.
Bulgaria urged all parties involved in the hostilities to immediately end the violence, de-escalate the situation and restore security and constitutional order in Afghanistan. They called for respect and protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all Afghan citizens, particularly women and girls, persons belonging to ethnic and religious minorities, civil servants, humanitarian workers, human rights activists, journalists, and former or current local staff of diplomatic missions and international organisations.
The Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) expressed grave concern about the safety of members and staff of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). With monitoring activities likely to become increasingly challenging on the ground, they further joined the call of the AIHRC and others for the Council to establish an independent investigative mechanism with a broad, multi-year mandate to monitor, report and document all human rights violations by all actors, and to regularly report its findings to both the Human Rights Council and the Security Council.
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), together with Article 19, urged the Council to call on governing authorities and armed groups to uphold the international human rights obligations of Afghanistan, and on all other States and UN Agencies to ensure safe corridors to allow for the evacuation and relocation of all persons at risk, including by broadening access to visas and asylum status for affected persons. Refugees and others needing protection who have fled the country must not be forcibly sent back; the principle of non-refoulement must be fully respected. They further called for the establishment of an adequately staffed and resourced independent mechanism to conduct sustained monitoring and reporting on the human rights situation, and to investigate serious violations of international human rights law and IHL, including by collecting and preserving evidence for future prosecutions.
Finally, the Minority Rights Group, speaking on behalf of the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID), noted that religious or belief minorities, specifically the large Shia Hazara population, but also Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Baha’is, Buddhists, Zoroastrians and non-believers, all are particularly at risk of persecution despite assurances by the Taliban leadership of amnesty, respect for human rights, and international law. They called for the creation of a robust international accountability mechanism to monitor and report on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, and urged the Taliban to allow the United Nations and other independent entities to monitor the human rights situation on the ground.
During the second meeting of the special session, Pakistan presented draft resolution S-31/L.1 on ‘Strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights in Afghanistan’. They explained that the objective of the resolution is to send a message of solidarity to the Afghan people by urging the international community to remain engaged, and that it conveys ‘the Council’s unwavering resolve to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people of Afghanistan, especially women, children, and minorities’. Ultimately, they stressed that ‘sustainable peace is imperative to secure and advance the fundamental rights of Afghan citizens’, while reaffirming full support for ongoing efforts to achieve an inclusive, durable and negotiated political settlement and national reconciliation in Afghanistan.
Draft resolution S-31/L.1 as orally revised, was adopted by consensus.
With the adoption of resolution S-31/L.1, the Council expresses ‘deep concern at all violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law in Afghanistan’ (OP 1), calls for ‘full respect for the human rights of all individuals in Afghanistan, including women, children and persons belonging to ethnic, religious and other minority groups’ (OP 2), and strongly urges ‘all parties to the conflict to respect their obligations under international law, including international human rights law and international humanitarian law’ (OP 3).
Furthermore, the Council ‘calls for an immediate ceasefire’ (OP 4), reaffirms its ‘support for ongoing efforts aimed at an inclusive and durable political settlement and national reconciliation in Afghanistan’ (OP 5), and calls on ‘all parties to the conflict to allow immediate, safe and unhindered humanitarian access’ for UN agencies and other humanitarian actors (OP 6).
Finally, the resolution ‘stresses the need for transparent and prompt investigation into reports of all violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law’ (OP 8), and requests the High Commissioner for Human Rights to present ‘an oral update on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan’ at the Council’s forty-eighth session (September 2021), as well as a comprehensive written report at its forty-ninth session (March 2022) (OP 9).
The full text of resolution S-31/L.1 can be found here.
 Argentina, Austria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Czechia, Denmark, France, Gabon, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Libya, Mauritania, Mexico, Netherlands, Pakistan, Poland, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, United Kingdom, and Uzbekistan.
 Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Benin, Brunei Darussalam, Chad, Comoros, Croatia, Cyprus, Djibouti, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, Gambia, Greece, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Hungary, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Malta, Morocco, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Oman, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Suriname, Sweden, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and the State of Palestine.
Featured photo: Dai Kundi Province, Afghanistan. UN Photo/Muzafar Ali, 11 November 2006. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
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