Afghanistan: Taliban rights pledges raise concerns, Human Rights Watch says

Afghanistan’s new Taliban leadership has pledged to respect human rights using vague qualifications that heighten concerns about their credibility, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday. During a news conference in Kabul on August 17, 2021, a Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, sought to reassure Afghan civilians and the international community about the new government’s support for human rights, including the rights of women and girls, media freedom, and protections for former government personnel.

Human Rights Watch said the Taliban should publicly commit to upholding Afghanistan’s international human rights treaty obligations and allowing United Nations and independent international observers into the country to monitor and promote protection of human rights.

“The Taliban need to demonstrate their commitment to human rights through actions, not vague words,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Gaining the trust of the nation and the world will require Taliban authorities throughout Afghanistan to respect everyone’s human rights and permit the United Nations and other independent entities to monitor human rights conditions.”

The United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva is scheduled to hold an emergency session on August 24 to consider the human rights situation in Afghanistan. The council should adopt a resolution creating an international fact-finding mechanism to monitor human rights in the country, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Security Council will meet in coming weeks to consider options to renew the mandate for the UN mission in Afghanistan.

At the news conference, Mujahid, the spokesperson, claimed that the Taliban would abide by human rights and international law. He said they were “not going to seek revenge on anybody, we don’t have any grudges against anybody…. The Islamic Emirate [the Taliban government] does not have any kind of hostility or animosity with anybody.” With respect to former government soldiers and interpreters for foreign military forces, he said that “nobody is going to knock on their door to inspect them … or to interrogate them…. They’re going to be safe.”

However, in recent weeks, Human Rights Watch and other organizations have gathered information on Taliban killings of government security personnel taken into custody. Reports of Taliban forces searching for former officials and others have continued since the Taliban took control of Kabul, and the media have reported that Taliban forces have been seen using excessive and lethal force to disperse crowds at Kabul airport and at a protest in Jalalabad. The Taliban have long threatened, and in many instances, killed government workers, human rights and women’s rights activists, and other high-profile women.

On August 16, the Security Council expressed “deep concern” about reported serious violations of international humanitarian law. On August 17, the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Karim Khan issued a statement reaffirming the court’s jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed within the territory of Afghanistan since May 2003, when Afghanistan became a party to the ICC.

The Taliban should stop all attacks on civilians and allow Afghans and their families who fear for their security because of their work, profile, or ethnicity to leave the country, Human Rights Watch said.

Mujahid said that the issue of women was “very important”: “The Islamic Emirate is committed to the rights of women within the framework of Sharia [Islamic law]. Our sisters, our men have the same rights; they will be able to benefit from their rights. …[T]here’s not going to be any discrimination against women, but of course within the frameworks that we have.”

He added: “[W]e are going to allow women to work and study within certain frameworks. Women are going to be very active in the society, but within the frameworks of Islam. Women are a key part of society, and we are guaranteeing all their rights within the limits of Islam.”

The Taliban used similar language about the rights of women being limited by the framework of Islamic law when they were in power from 1996 to 2001. During that time, they banned most education for women and girls, used stoning and lashing as punishment for supposed crimes such as adultery, and confined women to their homes unless they were escorted by a male family member, denying them freedom of movement and access to most employment.

“The Taliban can’t claim women and men have the same rights while simultaneously using discriminatory language about women’s rights,” Sifton said. “It was precisely these sorts of misogynist views that were taken to brutal extremes when the Taliban leadership was previously in power.”

Mujahid also suggested that the new Taliban government would not follow international legal standards or human rights law. He said that “other countries” have “different rules, different policies, different viewpoints, different approaches and policies [and] different rules and regulations.” He noted instead that, “Afghans also have the right to have their own rules and regulations and policies… in accordance with our values… nobody should be worried about our norms and principles.”

On media freedom, Mujahid said the Taliban were “committed to media within our cultural frameworks. Private media can continue to be free and independent, they can continue their activities,” but “nothing should be against Islamic values.” And while he said that the media “can critique our work, so that we can improve,” he also added: “It’s very important that Afghans give importance to their national values, national unity, national consensus. The media should not work against national values, against national unity.”

The Taliban have been implicated in the killing of dozens of journalists in recent years and have issued threats to many more. Mujahid suggested that the Taliban will regulate or censor reporting that is critical of their governance or in some way undermines the “unity” of Afghanistan.

“Even when endorsing human rights such as media freedom, the Taliban convey an underlying threat that is grounds for concern,” Sifton said. “It’s critical that the UN establish an international fact-finding mechanism to monitor human rights and publicly report on the situation.”

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