Special Rapporteur to Human Rights Council: the Systematic and Institutionalised Discrimination that Seeks to Exclude Women from All Facets of Life in Afghanistan Necessitates an Examination of the Evolving Phenomenon of Gender Apartheid

AFTERNOON 11 September 2023

Council Concludes Interactive Dialogue on the Written Update by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Situation of Human Rights in Sri Lanka

The Human Rights Council this afternoon held an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan and concluded an interactive dialogue on the written update by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka.

Richard Bennett, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, said more than two years after the Taliban took power, the Afghan people were confronted by a humanitarian crisis as well as by a de facto regime that was violating a multitude of human rights, and had eviscerated the rights, life chances and dignity of women and girls. The systematic, widespread, institutionalised discrimination that sought to exclude women from all facets of life necessitated an examination of the evolving phenomenon of gender apartheid.

The Special Rapporteur said he had reported repeatedly about the systematic violation of women’s and girls’ human rights that limited every aspect of their lives, and recently, the Taliban had restricted women’s activities even more. He called once more on the Taliban to reverse their draconian, misogynist policies and allow women to work and run businesses, and to re-open the doors of schools and universities with a curriculum that met international standards. After two years, the question on many lips, most importantly those of Afghans who opposed the status quo, was not what the situation was but what could be done to reverse the downward slide, calling for more than condemnation of a deteriorating situation, but for the international community to unite and shift gears to achieve tangible results.

Afghanistan, speaking as the country concerned, said the people of Afghanistan continued to suffer in darkness as the situation on the ground deteriorated. Systematic violations and abuses persisted with impunity; the rights to education, cultural and artistic expression were being suppressed; and arbitrary arrests and extra judicial killings remained rampant. Since August 2021, Afghanistan had witnessed unprecedented horrors. As the recent reports showed, the Taliban’s extremist attitude towards human rights remained unaltered, with over 800 former government officials and national security forces falling victim to their brutal tactics. Regrettably, Afghanistan had become a place where women’s voices had entirely faded away. Gender persecution by the Taliban had now reached a new high of gender apartheid. The Council needed to take resolute and decisive action to address the human rights crisis in Afghanistan.

In the discussion, some speakers remained concerned over the increasingly worrying humanitarian, human rights and socio-economic conditions in Afghanistan, saying the situation for women and girls was becoming increasingly grave. In the two years since taking control of Afghanistan, the Taliban had imposed the most comprehensive, systematic, and unparalleled assault on the rights of women and girls. The exclusion of half of Afghanistan’s population from most spheres of life, including the suspension of female education and women working in civil society organizations, severely limited the country’s economic recovery, with detrimental consequences for the entire Afghan society. Their system, founded on the mass oppression of women, was widely considered to be gender apartheid. The international community and donor agencies were urged to continue to provide humanitarian assistance, and continue to apply every pressure and employ every means at their disposal to press for change. The Taliban needed to be held accountable.

Speaking on Afghanistan were the European Union, Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Iceland on behalf of a group of countries, United Nations Women, Qatar, Germany, United Arab Emirates, Luxembourg, Ecuador, Italy, France, United States, Japan, Israel, Belgium, Croatia, Austria, Türkiye, Netherlands, United Nations Children’s Fund, China, Malawi, Canada, Indonesia, Russian Federation, Australia, Pakistan, United Kingdom, Venezuela, Iran, Montenegro, Peru, Kazakhstan, Poland and Spain.

Also speaking were Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Human Rights Research League, Afghanistan Democracy and Development Organization, Human Rights Watch, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, International Service for Human Rights, United Nations Watch, International Commission of Jurists, International Federation for Human Rights Leagues, and Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada.

At the beginning of the meeting, the Council concluded its interactive dialogue on the written update by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka.

Nada Al-Nashif, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, in concluding remarks, said many of the positive developments referred to by the Sri Lankan Government were reflected in the report, and the Office appreciated the cooperation of the Sri Lankan Government. Capacity building and support was being provided, despite the Sri-Lankan Government’s rejection of the mandate. The situation in Sri Lanka had been compounded by underlying challenges of transparency and accountability, and the Government had not done enough to combat corruption. The High Commissioner had been clear that the international community and international financial institutions should support Sri Lanka’s recovery.

In the discussion on Sri Lanka, some speakers were convinced that Sri Lanka was on the right track to achieve sustainable growth, and that having emerged from an armed conflict, the country would be able to achieve sustainable peace through an inclusive and self-tailored reconciliation and accountability process. The Sri Lankan authorities were urged to protect freedom of expression and assembly for everyone in Sri Lanka, including persons belonging to minorities, and speakers stressed that any replacement of the Prevention of Terrorism Act should meet international human rights norms. Some speakers said that it was counterproductive to continue the practice of artificially hyping up the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, where the authorities had shown significant progress in stabilising the economic and financial situation, and were working to ensure truth and reconciliation. The Office should cease to politicise the situation and focus on providing aid in the human rights sphere.

Many speakers in both discussions on Sri Lanka and on Afghanistan expressed their support and condolences to Morocco in light of the recent earthquake.

Speaking in the discission on Sri Lanka were Norway on behalf of a group of countries, Russian Federation, Philippines, Maldives, Pakistan, United Kingdom, Nepal, Yemen, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Venezuela, Nigeria, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Iran, China, Belarus, Uganda, Montenegro, Burundi, India, Nicaragua, Viet Nam, Kazakhstan, Eritrea, Cambodia, Australia, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Algeria and Malawi.

Also speaking were International Commission of Jurists, conseil universel des droits de l’homme, Global Srilankan Forum United Kingdom, World Evangelical Alliance, People for Equality and Relief in Lanka Inc, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, Association Culturelle des Tamouls en France, Association des étudiants tamouls de France, CIVICUS – World Alliance for Citizen Participation, and International Buddhist Relief Organization.

Speaking at the end of the meeting in exercise of right of reply was Thailand.

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-third regular session can be found here.

The next meeting of the Council will be at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 12 September, when it will hold an interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the report of his Office on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, followed by an interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner on his report on the human rights situation in Nicaragua.

Interactive Dialogue on the Written Update by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Situation of Human Rights in Sri Lanka

The interactive dialogue on the written update by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka started in the previous meeting and a summary can be found here.

Discussion

In the discussion, some speakers welcomed the Sri Lankan Government’s efforts to set up a truth-seeking mechanism but stressed the need for such a mechanism to be inclusive and responsive to the needs of victims and their families. Ensuring accountability for serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law was important. The international community should support the people and Government of Sri Lanka in their continuing efforts to strengthen recovery and achieve national unity: these were multi-faceted issues that only improved when all parties were committed to ensuring progress in a spirit of transparency and cooperation.

The Sri Lankan authorities were urged to protect freedom of expression and assembly for everyone in Sri Lanka, including persons belonging to minorities, and speakers stressed that any replacement of the Prevention of Terrorism Act should meet international human rights norms. A number of speakers remained concerned by arrests of peaceful protesters and arrests. Efforts to ensure devolution should include the timely holding of elections at all levels. Some speakers said they supported the recommendations of the High Commissioner’s report and called upon Sri Lanka to cooperate fully with the Office in line with resolution 51/1.

Some speakers were convinced that Sri Lanka was on the right track to achieve sustainable growth. Having emerged from the armed conflict, the country would be able to achieve sustainable peace through an inclusive and self-tailored reconciliation and accountability process. The Government was commended for its continuing and positive cooperation with the Office, and it was urged to work to implement early its commitments to ensure that the fundamental freedoms and human rights of all its citizens were fully protected.

A number of speakers said that it was counterproductive to continue the practice of artificially hyping up the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, where the authorities had shown significant progress in stabilising the economic and financial situation, and were working to ensure truth and reconciliation. Reports of attacks on civil activists were being investigated and measures were being taken to bring the culprits to account. The authorities had taken steps to cooperate with international mechanisms, bringing legislation in line with international standards when it came to fighting corruption and terrorism; however, the Office had, as it often did, ignored this. The Office should cease to politicise the situation and focus on providing aid in the human rights sphere.

It was an expensive mandate to maintain, one speaker pointed out, and the report seemed to shy away from addressing the impact of the global socio-economic situation on Sri Lanka. The steady progress made by the country towards fulfilling its human rights obligations was welcomed. Sri Lanka’s commitment to remaining engaged with the human rights machinery was appreciated. There were concerns for the imposition of external accountability mechanisms that were incompatible with the United Nations Charter and the institution-building package. Despite the cooperation of Sri Lanka, the work of the Office had run counter to the United Nations Charter and its commitment to non-politicisation, and these political purposes ran counter to and impeded the work of the Council.

Many speakers also expressed their support and condolences to Morocco, in light of the recent earthquake.

Concluding Remarks

NADA AL-NASHIF, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, thanked all speakers for their comments and engagement. The High Commissioner had a global mandate to work on all human rights issues, and the highest importance was being given to economic, social and cultural rights and the right to development. Resolution 51/1 specifically requested the Office to support Sri Lanka on the impact of the economic crisis in line with human rights. Many of the positive developments referred to by the Sri Lankan Government were reflected in the report, and the Office appreciated the cooperation of the Sri Lankan Government. Capacity building and support was being provided, despite the Sri-Lankan Government’s rejection of the mandate. Technical comments had been provided on key legislation, including the Anti-Terrorism Bill. The situation in Sri Lanka had been compounded by underlying challenges of transparency and accountability, and the Government had not done enough to combat corruption. The High Commissioner had been clear that the international community and international financial institutions should support Sri Lanka’s recovery.

Addressing questions, Ms. Al-Nashif said the Office of the High Commissioner welcomed steps taken by the President to begin dialogue with Tamils. The Government was encouraged to take the time for broader consultations. Sri Lanka had engaged with the Universal Periodic Review and human rights treaty bodies, and as a result, hundreds of recommendations had been provided to Sri Lanka by the Office. The Office had kept up steady engagement and it invited Sri Lanka to strengthen the Office’s presence within the country. There were many approaches to transitional justice which were holistic, and development partners could also make sure that their programmes provided tangible benefits. Everyone was in the same position, wanting victims to have truth, justice and redress for the crimes they had suffered. Everyone wanted an inclusive and democratic Sri Lanka and aspired to the same vision. Accountability was at the heart of everything and the Human Rights Council needed to support this process. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights remained ready to support the Sri Lankan Government in achieving this.

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

Presentation of Oral Update

RICHARD BENNETT, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, presenting his oral update, said more than two years after the Taliban took power, the Afghan people were experiencing yet more hardship. They were confronted by a humanitarian crisis as well as by a de facto regime that was violating a multitude of human rights, and had eviscerated the

rights, life chances and dignity of women and girls. After two years, the question on many lips, most importantly those of Afghans who opposed the status quo, was not what the situation was but what could be done to reverse the downward slide, calling for more than condemnation of a deteriorating situation, but for the international community to unite and shift gears to achieve tangible results.

The Special Rapporteur said he had reported repeatedly about the systematic violation of women’s and girls’ human rights that limited every aspect of their lives, and recently, the Taliban had restricted women’s activities even more. He called once more on the Taliban to reverse their draconian, misogynist policies and allow women to work and run businesses, and to re-open the doors of schools and universities with a curriculum that met international standards. The compounded impact of these restrictions and the dire socio-economic situation had impacted mental health since the Taliban takeover. The systematic, widespread, institutionalised discrimination that sought to exclude women from all facets of life necessitated an examination of the evolving phenomenon of gender apartheid. More than 3 million girls had been denied access to classroom education.

The Special Rapporteur was also troubled about the collapse of civic space with civil society activists, journalists, and peaceful protestors subjected to restrictions, censorship, arbitrary arrest and detention. Vulnerability to arbitrary arrests and detention had a chilling effect for all national and international media outlets that had staff in Afghanistan – impacting further the ability of the media to give critical accounts in the public interest. The absence of the rule of law, the competition for scarce resources, shifting power balances, and claims of ethnic favouritism by the Taliban were straining already sensitive relationships between ethnic and religious groups, and the Special Rapporteur had received many reports of specific ethnic communities that felt under constant pressure all over Afghanistan.

In addition to restrictions to their rights and freedoms that altered almost every aspect of their lives, Afghans were forced to grapple with a humanitarian crisis. After two years, humanitarian needs remained high, yet only about a quarter of the 2023 appeal was funded. Afghans deserved more; this was not the time for reticence, but to take decisive action to support those in need. There was a great need for accountability and multiple tools needed to be brought to bear.

Statement by Country Concerned

Afghanistan, speaking as the country concerned, welcomed the oral update of the Special Rapporteur and thanked him for his report. Despite numerous reports, recommendations, and the efforts of the Special Rapporteur, the people of Afghanistan continued to suffer in darkness as the situation on the ground deteriorated. Systematic violations and abuses persisted with impunity; the rights to education, cultural and artistic expression were being suppressed; and arbitrary arrests and extra judicial killings remained rampant. Since August 2021, Afghanistan had witnessed unprecedented horrors. As the recent reports showed, the Taliban’s extremist attitude towards human rights remained unaltered, with over 800 former government officials and national security forces falling victim to their brutal tactics. Just over the weekend, Akbar Jurhat, a captain of former security forces and a young father of two, was picked up from his house north of Kabul. In less than 48 hours, his body was handed over to his family in Parwan Hospital. This was part of a new wave of arbitrary arrests and killings.

Regrettably, Afghanistan had become a place where women’s voices had entirely faded away. The Taliban’s oppressive and detrimental regulations had cruelly curtailed the fundamental rights of women and girls, denying them freedom of movement, access to employment, and political participation. Gender persecution by the Taliban had now reached a new high of gender apartheid. Peaceful demonstrations were violently suppressed, and girls were denied the opportunity to pursue education beyond the primary level, effectively limiting their prospects for a peaceful and prosperous future. Young women activists, suppressed inside and disappointed outside the country, had resorted to protests and hunger strikes in Germany, Pakistan and other countries to recognise this gender apartheid in Afghanistan. Afghanistan stood as the sole nation globally where girls were denied the opportunity to pursue education beyond the primary level. Faced with impossible choices, women and girls were driven to desperate decisions to end their lives.

The lack of action by the international community in addressing the human rights crisis in Afghanistan undermined the credibility of the human rights system. The Council needed to take resolute and decisive action to address the human rights crisis in Afghanistan. It was vital that the Special Rapporteur’s crucial mandate was renewed and strengthened; that an independent investigative mechanism be established; and that the recommendations in the June report of the Special Rapporteur and the Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls be seriously pursued. The brave and resilient people of Afghanistan deserved more. The time for action was now.

Discussion

In the discussion, many speakers thanked the Special Rapporteur for his update, which confirmed that the human rights of women and girls in Afghanistan were deteriorating. The Special Rapporteur was commended for his steadfast commitment to the Afghan people and his sobering advice to the de facto authorities and the international community. Some speakers remained concerned over the increasingly worrying humanitarian, human rights and socio-economic conditions in Afghanistan, saying the situation for women and girls was becoming increasingly grave. In the two years since taking control of Afghanistan, the Taliban had imposed the most comprehensive, systematic and unparalleled assault on the rights of women and girls. Through more than 50 edicts, orders and restrictions, the Taliban had left no aspect of women’s and girls’ lives untouched. One recent outrage was the closure of beauty salons, which severely impacted thousands of women, many who were then punished for bravely protesting the decision.

The exclusion of half of Afghanistan’s population from most spheres of life, including the suspension of two million girls from education and women working in civil society organizations, severely limited the country’s economic recovery, with detrimental consequences for the entire Afghan society. The actions of the Taliban system, founded on the mass oppression of women, were widely considered to be gender apartheid. The Taliban policies clearly aimed to eradicate women and girls from all spheres of public life. The measures against the rights of women and girls constituted blatant violations of international law, including specific obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to which Afghanistan was a party.

Many speakers strongly condemned the continued gender-based discrimination by the Taliban regime. The international community and donor agencies were urged to continue to provide humanitarian assistance. The international community needed to continue to apply every pressure and employ every means at its disposal to press for change, including elevating the voices, priorities and recommendations by Afghan women and their organizations.

It was vital to renew the mandates of the Special Rapporteur and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and provide adequate resources for them to continue their work, some speakers said. The Council was called upon to set up an independent mechanism to complement the work of the Special Rapporteur. The complex situation in Afghanistan needed to be correctly assessed and addressed in its historical, security, political, economic and humanitarian contexts. It was vital that the international community remained united in calling on the Taliban authorities to reverse their draconian measures.

The Taliban needed to be held accountable. A number of speakers urged the Taliban to cease their ongoing human rights violations and abuses, safeguard the rights of all Afghan people, and restore civic space, allowing non-governmental organizations, journalists and media workers to operate freely. An inclusive political process, including women and girls and persons belonging to ethnic and religious groups and minorities, was required to ensure sustainable peace, stability and prosperity in Afghanistan. The de-facto Afghan authorities were urged to take steps towards the resumption of female education. Speakers applauded Afghan women and girls who continued to show resilience and defiance. Without them, Afghanistan would never achieve peace, prosperity and stability. Their bravery needed to inspire greater action.

Among other questions, speakers asked the Special Rapporteur about the main avenues for accountability for the human rights violations and abuses documented. What scope did the Special Rapporteur see for promoting opportunities for Afghan women and girls to make their voices heard and influence their own future? What other tools or approaches should the international community consider for addressing the unprecedented women’s rights crisis in Afghanistan? It was noted that not all members of this Council were convinced of the usefulness of an independent investigation and accountability mechanism; could the Special Rapporteur comment on this, to convince the reluctant? How did the accountability mechanisms work together and would additional accountability measures add value?

Many speakers reiterated their support for the people and authorities in Morocco, following the devastating earthquake over the weekend.

Concluding Remarks

RICHARD BENNETT, Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, in concluding remarks, said he was grateful for the support of both Member States and non-governmental organizations for the extension and strengthening of the mandate, and for references to reports that he had written alone and in tandem. On the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and other persons, he was examining the issue and would be including it in his next report to the General Assembly, as they were in a perilous situation. In general, under the Taliban, there was little acceptance of difference and absolutely no tolerance for dissent, applying also to minority religions which had continued to struggle, including Shia and the Sikh, which latter group had been almost decimated. On context, he agreed with those who said that human rights violations did not start in August 2021; Afghanistan had suffered 40 years and more of conflict, and human rights violations had taken place throughout that period. It was important that all those involved in this long conflict took responsibility for what had happened and the violations.

In response to questions on the situation of women and girls, and the situation of impunity and the need for accountability, Mr. Bennett said with regard to the former, the situation was utterly unacceptable, and it was essential for the Council and other bodies to take measures to address this, with a full range of gender justice actions, including exploring potential action to calling Afghanistan to account in the International Court of Justice for violations of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and other international agreements; however, this must be done hand in hand with Afghan women themselves, whose voices must be heard ever more strongly. On accountability, Mr. Bennett said Afghanistan deserved accountability mechanisms that were proportionate to the gravity of the situation and equivalent to mechanisms on other countries. He required more resources, and wished for a two-year mandate in order to continue his work. There should be another independent international investigative mechanism set up to work to fill the gaps that existed. Accountability should not be restricted to criminal justice.

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