On July 1 2022, during the 50th session of the Human Rights Council, which opened on June 13 2022, an urgent debate was convened on ‘the human rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.’
The urgent debate was requested in an official letter from H.E. Mrs. Lotte Knudsen, Permanent Observer of the European Union, and H.E. M. Jérôme Bonnafont, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations in Geneva, addressed to the President of the Human Rights Council, H.E. Federico Villegas, on 23 June 2022.
Urgent debates can be initiated during a regular session of the Human Rights Council to tackle urgent situations requiring a rapid response from the Council. The Council approved the request to adjust the programme of work and include the urgent debate by consensus.
Historical UN action on the human rights situation in Afghanistan:
The UN Commission on Human Rights, established in 1946 as the UN’s principal body responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights, was initially in charge of reviewing the human rights situation in Afghanistan prior to the creation of the Human Rights Council in 2006. In 1984, 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 Afghanistan in cooperation with the Security Council-mandated United Nations Assistance Mission and to provide regular updates to the Council.
Subsequent to this, at its 14th Regular Session in June 2010, a country-specific resolution on ‘addressing attacks on school children in Afghanistan,’ resolution 14/15, was adopted by consensus with 40 co-sponsors under Agenda Item 10. The Council condemned attacks against school children in Afghanistan, in particular against girls, expressed solidarity with the Government of Afghanistan in its efforts to protect 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 to the Council.
Between 1983 and 2018, Afghanistan ratified all treaty bodies, with the exceptions of the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Most important to this context, Afghanistan ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 2003 without reservations. As such, the state has obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil under international human rights law in this area.
Country visits to Afghanistan by various Special Procedures mandate holders have also taken place regularly over the years, including the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, in 2016, and the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, in 2014.
The United Nations Security Council has also adopted 66 Resolutions specifically pertaining to Afghanistan over the years. Many of these pertain to the renewal of the mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which is reviewed and extended annually, most recently on March 17 2022. Since the hostile takeover by the Taliban, in August 2020, there have also been a number of additional resolutions passed, pertaining to the provision of humanitarian assistance, Resolution 2615, and to condemn the de-facto authorities seizure of power, Resolution 2593.
H.E Nasir A. Andisha, Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the United Nations in Geneva addresses the 48th session of the Human Rights Council. 14 September 2022. UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré (CC).
Background on the human rights situation of women and girls in Afghanistan:
An urgent debate by the UN Human Rights Council on the ‘human rights situation of women and girls in Afghanistan’ was requested by the European Union and France due to the deteriorating human rights situation for women and girls in Afghanistan. Following the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan in August 2021, the subsequent collapse of the government, and takeover by Taliban forces, the human rights situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated sharply. Over the past several weeks, in particular, new restrictions have been imposed directing women and girls to fully cover themselves, including their faces, in public and to leave the home only when necessary. These directives came following the dissolution of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission on May 17 2022, which had previously acted as critical support for Afghans facing human rights violations.
While the situation has deteriorated over the past several months, the history of violations of women and girls’ rights in Afghanistan did not begin last year. After years of conflict spanning from the 1970s to the 1990s, the Taliban emerged in 1994 with the aim of making Afghanistan an Islamic State. They held power in Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, during which time, the rights of women and girls were significantly curtailed. The United States led an international military intervention following the attacks on September 11 2001, which marked the end of the Taliban’s first stay of power. In the years following intervention, many schools reopened to girls and young women, women went back to work, and the new Afghani government participated in international institutions. All progress gained towards ensuring the rights of women and girls since the intervention in 2001 was subsequently curtailed following the August 2021 takeover.
Today, the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan is marked by restrictions that limit the ability of women and girls to realise or enjoy their fundamental rights. When the Taliban seized power, following US military withdrawal and the collapse of the Afghan government, their initial statements assured that women would be able to exercise their rights within the framework of Sharia Law. However, the dramatic reversals of women and girls’ rights and fundamental freedoms tell a different story. Today, more than 30 policies that work to eliminate women and girls from all aspects of society have been imposed. These include severe restrictions with respect to the rights to non-discrimination, public participation, work, education, and health, including sexual and reproductive health.
UN action on the human rights situation in Afghanistan since August 2021:
Since the hostile takeover by the Taliban in August of 2021, Afghanistan has been the subject of increasing focus by the Human Rights Council. 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 request was jointly submitted by the Permanent Mission of Pakistan, as Coordinator of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan and enjoyed the official support of 29 member States and 60 observer States. This was the first special session convened by the Council to specifically address the human rights situation in the country.
The session included 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. In reference to the rights of women and girls specifically, Ms. Bachelet opened the session calling attention to increasing restrictions on the rights of women, including their rights to move around freely and to attend schools. Prof. Anita Ramasastry lamented that violations of women’s rights remain central to the ideology of the Taliban, and urged authorities to take urgent action to ensure women and girls are free to leave their homes at any time and for any purpose, without fear of violence. This sentiment was echoed in remaining keynote statements as well as in the remarks of many States.
At the end of the session, resolution S-31/1 on ‘the serious human rights concerns and situation in Afghanistan,’ presented by Pakistan, was adopted by consensus. The resolution stressed that ‘sustainable peace is imperative to secure and advance the fundamental rights of Afghan citizens’, and recognised that terrorism has devastating consequences for the enjoyment of human rights, particularly for women and girls.
Subsequent to this, resolution 48/1 was adopted at the Human Rights Council’s 48th session in September 2021 by a vote of 28 in favour, 5 against, and 14 abstentions under Agenda Item 2. The resolution condemns the human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law committed in Afghanistan, in particular those against women and girls, and reiterates that all forms of sexual and gender-based violence constitute violations and abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms. It encourages the Government of Afghanistan to continue to engage and cooperate with the UN, and underscores the need for improved living conditions for all Afghans. Most importantly, the resolution includes the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett (New Zealand), for a period of one year.
The Urgent Debate:
After introductory remarks were made by the President of the Human Rights Council, H.E. Federico Villegas, a series of keynote addresses were delivered by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, H.E. Ms Michelle Bachelet, Richard Bennett, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Afghanistan, and Fawzia Koofi, the first woman Deputy Speaker of Parliament in Afghanistan.
Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights attends 50th session of Human Rights Council. 13 June 2022. UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré. (CC)
H.E. Ms Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed her sympathy and solidarity for those affected by the recent earthquake in Afghanistan, and noted that the disaster has further exacerbated the desperate situation of the Afghan population, especially women and girls. She stated that, while concerns in the area of women’s rights pre-date the Taliban’s take-over in 2021, ‘reforms at that time were moving in the right direction, there were improvements and hope.’ She raised alarm at the ‘significant and rapid roll-back in the enjoyment’ of the rights of women and girls across the board, and cautioned that the future ‘will be even darker unless something changes quickly.’ She then turned her attention to the de-facto authorities, and urged them to give women a seat at the table and ‘to engage in meaningful dialogue.’ She asked that they reopen schools, remove restrictions on movement, enable access to employment, and re-establish independent mechanisms to hear complaints and protect victims of gender-based violence. Finally, she asked that the authorities engage with other predominantly Muslim countries, to better promote the rights of women and girls through a religious context under international law.
The High Commissioner then turned to the international community, and stressed that more concerted efforts are needed to restore and promote the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. She signalled that the international community could better support ongoing initiatives of Afghan women leaders and civil society groups, and work with them to formulate clear pathways to promote the rights of Afghan women and girls. She also urged that women’s rights be at the centre of humanitarian assessments and programming, such that women ‘have safe and equal access to humanitarian aid, including unhindered access for female aid workers.’ In conclusion, the High Commissioner reiterated that ‘with the fate of the country’s women and girls hanging in the balance, they deserve no less than our determined and immediate action, and they must hear this council’s voice.’
Richard Bennett, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Afghanistan, addressed the Council for the first time in his role to deliver a joint statement on behalf of the Coordinating Committee of Special Procedures. He recalled that he and his colleagues have have consistently and increasingly raised concerns about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, and that it comes as no surprise that the Taliban are ‘reinstituting step-by-step the discrimination against women and girls’ characteristic of their previous term and which is unparalleled globally in its misogyny and oppression.’ He recounted his recent visit to Afghanistan in May, where he met acting ministers and provincial governors, who assured him that they would ‘respect the international human rights treaties ratified by Afghanistan, but only to the extent that they are not in conflict with Sharia law.’
He then called upon the Taliban to create meaningful and participatory dialogue with Afghan women, and ensure their participation in public life. He emphasised that this participation should include access to education at all levels, including, to the workforce, to health care, and to respect for the right to peaceful protest free from violence. He implored de-facto State authorities to abide by and engage with all international human rights mechanisms. Next, he turned to the international community, and urged a concerted effort to demand women’s participation, including through the delivery of humanitarian aid, necessary support for Afghan female-led civil society organisations, and intensified pressure on the de-facto authorities. He ended with a call for ‘meaningful support from the Council’ and with the assurance that he and his colleagues will continue to monitor the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, with a focus on women and girls.
Mr. Richard Bennett, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan adresses the Urgent Debate on human rights of women and girls in Afghanistan during HRC50. UN Web TV
Fawzia Koofi, first woman Deputy Speaker of Parliament in Afghanistan and women’s rights activist, reiterated the fact that Afghanistan is suffering from ‘multidimensional problems, from humanitarian crises, to human rights crises, to political crises.’ She shared the figures that women’s participation in parliament has dropped from 28% to 0%, while participation in the civil service fell from 30% to 0%, and the number of children in school dropped from 4 million to under 1.5 million. She emphasized that the Taliban are acting in contrdiction to Islam, under the name of the same religion. She then urged the international community to go beyond statements and resolutions and highlighted three requests. First, she asked for more accountability in the Human Rights Council. Second, she asked that humanitarian intervention be 50% female, both in delivery and receipt. Third, she emphasized the need for ‘more Muslim countries to stand and to demonstrate that Islam is about everybody.’ She ended by reminding the international community that ‘this condition in Afghanistan can be discrimination anywhere in the world. Discrimination does not know any borders.’
During the ensuing debate, 34 member States, 34 observer States, 4 international organisations, and 26 civil society organisations took the floor to discuss the situation of women and girls’ rights in Afghanistan.
Webcasts of those statements can be found here.
Nasir Ahmad Andisha, Distinguished Representative of Afghanistan, delivered a statement welcoming the holding of an urgent debate on behalf of the country concerned. He began by stating that the debate is “about Afghanistan’s women’s rights activists and defenders, about each school girl, about each female teacher, judge, journalist and women in general, who bravely ask for their rights to be respected.’ He emphasised grave concern for the current situation in Kabul, where the Taliban have gathered 3,000 of their members, and his belief that the gathering will result in a request for international recognition and humanitarian assistance. He implored the Council to remember that the situation is not normal, and that Afghanistan is a country of ‘rich culture and diversity.’ He stressed that the situation demands a robust monitoring mechanism to identify those responsible, promote accountability, and prevent future violations. Finally, he ended with the reminder that, as long as the rights of women and girls are valued less, the ‘potential to create a peaceful, prosperous, inclusive Afghanistan, where human rights are promoted and protected, will not be realised.’
Czech Republic, on behalf of the EU, condemned the systemic violations of women and girls’ rights, including the recent announcement requiring them to leave the home only when necessary and reports of abuse against women human rights activists and journalists. The EU stated their commitment to ‘building resilience and promoting the academic, economic, and social empowerment of Afghan women and girls.’ It stressed that there must be access to justice and remedy for victims and survivors of gender-based violence, and that Afghanistan must implement its commitments to ensure the enjoyment of rights of all women and girls.
Pakistan, on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, noted their disappointment in the suspension of girls’ education and urged the de-facto authorities to reinstate access to education for all Afghan women and girls. They emphasised that no country has ‘consistently faced the level of violence and instability for so long as Afghanistan,’ and that, in ensuring human rights, we must be engaging, realistic, and not selective in how we approach the situation. Finally, Pakistan reiterated the importance of sustained international engagement and urged the pursuit of solutions to unfreeze Afghanistan’s assets to prevent further economic, human rights, and humanitarian meltdown.
Qatar expressed its support for the peace process in Afghanistan, as well as the critical role of women in that process. It called upon the authorities to revise their decisions concerning women and girls’ access to education. Qatar then turned to the international community, and implored the furnishing of humanitarian aid to mitigate the suffering of the Afghan people and ensure effective reconciliation. It ended by emphasising its hopes for a future of peace and security in Afghanistan.
The Republic of Korea expressed their disapproval of ‘systematic attempts to leave women and girls on the sidelines in social, economic, and political spheres.’ It stressed, with particular concern, the need to reopen schools to all student without discrimination. The Republic of Korea also condemned the harassment, intimidation, targeted attacks faced by women human rights defenders and journalists, and emphasised their deep concern regarding arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances, urging that all persons be released without delay.
India expressed its deep concern, as a neighbour and long-standing partner of Afghanistan, regarding the current state of women and girls’ rights. It called for the protection and reinstitution of rights and freedoms to ensure that the ‘long-fought gains of the last two decades are not reversed.’ India then noted the expectations of the international community set out in Security Council Resolution 2593, and urged for its standards to be respected.
Paraguay condemned the measures imposed on women and girls by the Taliban and emphasised that these restrictions on fundamental freedom constitute systematised and institutionalised oppression. It urged the de facto authorities to uphold their commitments established in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and to guaruntee the safety and integrity of all women and girls in the Afghan territory.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland reminded the Council that limitations on women and girls’ rights in Afghanistan reach further than issues of access to education, and expressed concern that women remain trapped in their homes and at greater risk for domestic violence. They restated their commitment to support the Afghan people, noting that they earmarked 50% of their aid contributions to Afghanistan in the last fiscal year for women and girls, in recognition of the urgent need for funding of women’s organisations. Finally, the UK emphasised that they stand with the women and girls of Afghanistan and commended ‘their extraordinary bravery.’
Marshall Islands commended the courage of Afghan women and girls ‘who have demonstrated a timeless and fearless commitment to fighting the repression.’ They emphasised their concern for the humanitarian and food crises in Afghanistan, and urged those on the ground to cooperate with humanitarian relief actors to address malnutrition and hunger.
Switzerland stressed the seriousness of the human rights violations and abuses faced by Afghan women and girls, and condemned restrictions imposed on their participation in all spheres of life. They noted particular concern towards women human rights defenders and journalists, and implored for their protection. Finally, Switzerland offered their support to the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Afghanistan, and called for a strengthening of the mandate and resources allocated to it.
Egypt reaffirmed the importance they attach to the promotion of women’s rights and their inclusion in all aspects of life. They highlighted that emphasis must be placed on taking legislative and administrative measures to overcome barriers to women’s empowerment. Finally, they noted support for efforts by the Council to promote women’s rights around the world.
UN Women urged the international community to listen to and hear diverse Afghan women and girls as means to better ‘unlock complex political realities and opportunities for change.’ They noted a funding mechanism they have put in place to reach woman-led grassroots organisations across the country, and called for the Council’s collective engagement to return the full spectrum of women and girls’ rights in Afghanistan.
United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) expressed their concerns for increasing rates of gender-based violence, early and forced marriage and other harmful practices, as well as limited access and education surrounding sexual and reproductive health, particularly for women and girls with disabilities and those living in rural areas. They highlighted the work they are doing on the ground in Afghanistan to ensure access to services, including maternal health services and support for victims of gender-based violence. Finally, UNFPA called on the international community to highlight the plight of Afghan women and girls, and to increase support for maternal health and protection services.
Association Ma’ona for Human Rights and Immigration stressed the importance of support services for survivors of violence, including those of child trafficking, forced marriage, and sexual exploitation. They expressed concern at the decreased operating capacity of many such service providers and condemned increases in targeting and threats perpetrated against those working to support women and girls’ rights in Afghanistan. They called upon the international community to hold the de-facto authorities accountable and halt all forms of violence being perpetrated against women and girls. Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, supported by WILPF Afghanistan and Afghanistan Peace House, called out the international community for being ‘unconscionably passive in the face of this tragic and dramatic worsening of the situation.’ They lamented the fact that humanitarian aid is not reaching women and girls in Afghanistan, and that there is insufficient oversight, accountability, or gender-sensitivity in aid delivery. They also expressed that support should not be limited to humanitarian aid, and that support and funding is needed in other areas to reinstate women and girls’ rights and increase their societal and political participation.
The voting on the draft resolution 50/L.62 on the ‘situation of human rights of women and girls in Afghanistan’ was suspended until Friday 8th July when it was adopted by consensus. The full text can be found here.
In the draft resolution 50/L62, the Human Rights Council ‘condemns in the the strongest possible terms all human rights violations and abuses committed against all individuals, including women and girls, in Afghanistan, including all forms of discrimination and violence, including sexual and gender-based violence’ (OP1), and ‘reaffirms its unwavering commitment to the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights by all women, girls and children in Afghanistan’ (OP2).
The Council further ‘calls for an immediate end to all human rights violations and abuses against all individuals in Afghanistan, including all women and girls, for respect of all their human rights and for the respect of the rights of all women to actively and equally participate in all aspects of civic, economic, political and public life’ (OP3). In particular, it calls on ‘the Taliban to reverse the policies and practices that currently restrict the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Afghan women and girls’ (OP4), and to ensure ‘that local Women Rights Organisations and local Organisations led by women can continue to carry out their work’ (OP5).
In this vein, the Human Rights Council ‘also calls for measures to ensure that victims of sexual and gender-based violence have access to justice and to an effective remedy and reparations’ (OP6) and ‘reaffirms that the right to education, enshrined in international human right law, can help to enable the realization of many other human rights, particularly for girls’ (OP7).
The Human Rights Council then ‘reiterates its call for an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process for the establishment of a participative, inclusive and representative government, including with regard to gender and all ethnic and religious minorities, and ensuring the full, equal, effective and meaningful participation of women and youth in decision-making positions and processes’ (OP8). It further ‘calls for the reinstatement of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission or the establishment of a similar independent institution’ (OP9).
To ensure future work on this matter, the Council ‘requests the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to organise an enhanced interactive dialogue during its fifty-first session’ (OP11).
The Czech Republic, on behalf of the EU, introduced the draft resolution, highlighting that the concerns raised in the text were voiced by nearly all participants during the urgent debate. They stressed that the resolution ‘reiterates the Council’s unwavering commitment to women and girls’ rights in Afghanistan in accordance with the state’s obligations under international human rights law.’ It ended by emphasising that ‘only through the full, equal, effective, and meaningful participation, inclusion, and empowerment of all women and girls, in all spheres of life in Afghanistan, will sustainable peace and economic and social development be possible.’
Afghanistan, as the country concerned and as a co-sponsor of the draft, thanked the Council for making the debate possible and noted that the debate ‘demonstrated that there is still hope for accountability and protection in addressing the gross and systemic violations of human rights’ occurring in Afghanistan. It called upon member states to adopt the resolution by consensus and stressed that ‘there can be no realisation of human rights without the rights of women and girls.’
The draft resolution was adopted by consensus.
The full text of the HRC resolution 50/62 can be found here.
Featured Image: 50th Regular Session of the Human Rights Council. UN photo by Violaine Martin (CC) available: https://www.flickr.com/photos/unisgeneva/52184632164/
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