The August 15th events in Afghanistan caught off guard not only the Afghans but much of the rest of the world. Following intensified negotiations between the Taliban and the US government and Biden’s announcement to withdraw troops by 11th September 2021, many Afghans expected a major shift in the country's political landscape, especially the return of the Taliban in some form. However, no one anticipated what transpired on August 15th, which was largely precipitated by former President Ghani's escape. Following the collapse of Kabul, and virtually all other provinces before it, the country witnessed equally dramatic events, with a significant impact on what has been hailed as the main achievements of the last 20 years' reforms, notably women's rights and other basic rights. As the dust slowly settles down, while much is still in the realm of the unknown, some developments as regards to human rights and women’s rights are alarming.
Human rights protection has always remained a major concern in Afghanistan, to be sure; but important developments also occurred over the last two decades, notwithstanding major obstacles, challenges, and failures of the international community and the Afghan government. To understand what is currently at stake, a quick glimpse at the last two decades’ developments is in order.
Afghanistan has been a signatory to all major international human rights conventions and treaties, with minimum to no reservations. The 2004 Afghan Constitution grants equality, protection, and realization of human rights, including women’s rights, minority rights, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and so on. Relying on their constitutionally guaranteed rights, Afghan citizens made some important strides, particularly Afghan women.
Women’s legal, social, and political standing improved significantly, albeit mainly in urban areas. Article 22 of the 2004 Afghan constitution declared equality between men and women and forbade any form of discrimination between Afghan citizens. In 2003, Afghanistan ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The Elimination of Violence Against Women Law was enacted in 2009 to offer legal and Sharia-based protection for women and to satisfy victims' demands for justice. Important national policy papers, initiatives, and action plans, such as the Afghanistan National Development Strategy, the National Action Plan for Afghan Women, and the National Action Plan 1325, all supported women's legal status. However, due to prevailing corruption, insecurity and conservative societal practices, such laws and policies faced significant challenges in practice.
Socially and politically, women were active and present in all public sectors. They served as ministers, deputy ministers, governors, members of parliament, and judges. They worked in the police force, in business, in sports, in media, and in art and film. In the wake of the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, girls' school attendance increased like never before. Afghan women, more than at any other point in the country's history, became aware of their rights for which they fought tough battles with sacrifices, sometimes paying with their own blood. This became further evident following the return of the Taliban when Afghan women protested in various cities across the country demanding their basic rights.
Other important developments included major improvement in the health sector, though serious concerns, such as high maternal mortality rate, continued. Media and freedom of expression was lauded as one of Afghanistan's greatest post-Taliban achievements, particularly in comparison to its regional neighbours. Afghanistan also boasted a vibrant and diversified civil society, that included several women's rights organizations.
Such advances were taking place despite the fact that impunity, which went hand in hand with pervasive corruption, was being entrenched due to the failure to execute transitional justice. As such, accountability measures and human rights protection continued to face considerable obstacles, and Afghanistan’s millions of war victims were utterly denied of justice. Notwithstanding impunity, Afghanistan was on its way to some important reforms, including the formation of a national victims’ network and victim-cantered justice, which was considered a dim light amid despair.
The protection of these – partial – achievements, basic human rights and civic space are currently in jeopardy. Following the Doha Peace Agreement between the Taliban and the US government in February 2020, the deteriorating security situation, which included targeted attacks against journalists, civil society, women's rights activists, and public officials, had already significantly reduced civic space prior to the Taliban's return. Even this limited opportunity has all but vanished, and many basic human rights are no longer respected or safeguarded.
The Taliban's policies on rights and freedoms are not always clear, and their actions sometimes contradict their rhetoric. On the one hand, on several occasions they have stated that women can do what is permissible within the confines of an Islamic and Sharia framework. In practice, when boys' high schools opened a few weeks ago, girls' did not, and Kabul University's newly appointed chancellor has forbidden women from enrolling in the country's largest and oldest public university. Women have also been ordered not to return to work in some public offices, whereas in others they have resumed their work. Furthermore, journalists have been assaulted and tortured simply for reporting on women's protests; communities in Daikundi and Kandahar have been forcibly removed from their homes on the grounds that they lived on disputed territories. Despite the Taliban's announcement of a general amnesty, targeted and illegal arrest or executions of former security officers and journalists or their families have occurred, including a pregnant female prison guard in Ghor province who was killed in front of her family. Fear has drastically curtailed the activities of journalists, many of whom have already fled the country, quit their jobs, or gone into hiding. Female judges, prosecutors and police officers face the same fate, fearing retaliation from relatives of their clients who were released by the Taliban on their first day in Kabul. And the list goes on.
This situation is compounded by a major humanitarian crisis that is looming in Afghanistan. The Internally Displaced Population (IDPs) has surpassed 3.5 million, with more than 600,000 people displaced this year, of which 80% constitute women and children. They are in dire need of shelter, food, medication, and soon, heating facilities for Afghanistan’s harsh winter. In addition, chronic poverty, the COVID-19 pandemic, a severe drought, a failing health system, and an economy on the verge of collapse have all had a significant impact on millions of Afghans. Notably, 3.2 million children under the age of five suffering from acute malnutrition is an exceptionally vulnerable group, with one million of them risking their lives.
The prevention of a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan calls for urgent action by the international community and cooperation by local actors, including the Taliban government. The recent appeal for immediate action in response to crisis by UN agencies and humanitarian NGOs is a positive move in this direction. It is also a welcome step that the UN Human Rights Council has recently appointed a Special Rapporteur to monitor human rights situation in Afghanistan. While it is critical to take immediate and coordinated action to prevent catastrophe and further human rights violations, it is also imperative not to let this urgency preclude justice to victims of Afghanistan’s war. After all, it is the majority of the same war victims who are being victimized once again. Only by providing justice to war victims, who account for nearly 70% of the total population, and demanding accountability from local and international perpetrators, we can hope to stop the ongoing cycle of violence and perpetuation of human rights violations.