Ahead of the U.N. General Assembly last week, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Afghanistan Richard Bennett released his first report grading the Taliban’s treatment of Afghans’ rights. It was an F.  In the past year, the Taliban have engaged in a full-scale assault on Afghan’s human rights, denying women access to public life, dismantling human rights institutions, corrupting independent judicial processes, and engaging in extralegal measures to maintain control or to exact revenge for opposition to their rule. That is one of the main reasons — along with their continued support of al-Qaida and a refusal to form a more inclusive government — that Afghanistan has no representation at the U.N. 

A Taliban fighter in Kabul tries to hit a woman who was waiting to enter the international airport with her family Aug. 18, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
A Taliban fighter in Kabul tries to hit a woman who was waiting to enter the international airport with her family Aug. 18, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

A Resource Gap

The grave human rights violations documented by the U.N. and brave Afghan human rights monitors are not being met with appropriate resources for investigations that could put pressure on the Taliban to reduce human rights violations or ultimately hold them accountable. Bennett’s team is strong but small, relying on limited trips to Afghanistan to investigate allegations of atrocities and lacking resources for translation of their work into Afghan languages. The special rapporteur can identify whether the Taliban are upholding their legal human rights obligations but not fully assess the scale and scope of violations or conduct detailed fact finding on specific cases.

The special rapporteur’s report also highlights a gap in U.S. resources. While the United States has taken some promising steps, including appointing Special Envoy for Afghanistan Women, Girls, and Human Rights, Rina Amiri, the diplomatic attention has not been matched by funding that could be used to shore up U.N. monitoring efforts and to maintain an Afghan civil society capable of documenting and reporting on the Taliban’s human rights practices. Amiri has no programming budget and the bureaus that normally fund local human rights monitors have seen their Afghanistan budgets slashed.

Protecting human rights in Afghanistan is both a policy priority and a national security priority for the United States. Taliban atrocities in the 1990s accelerated the involvement of neighboring countries that supported proxies in the Afghan civil war, which in turn created safe havens for al-Qaida to plan the 9/11 attacks. One of the few ways the current situation in Afghanistan could get worse is for there to be a civil war fueled by resentment over widespread human rights abuses.

The index of Bennett’s report reads like a textbook of all categories of human rights that are recognized and protected in U.N. treaties. Most notable, Bennett writes, “In no other country … are they [women and girls] as disadvantaged in every aspect of their lives.” The Taliban claim to be protecting women’s rights under their interpretation of Sharia, but that has meant “suspending girls’ secondary education, enforcing mandatory hijab wearing, stipulating that women must stay home unless necessary, banning women from undertaking certain types of travel without a close male family member (mahram) …” This list could go on and on.

Bennett also states that there are credible reports of retaliatory killings, torture, and arbitrary arrests in areas of ethno-political resistance to the Taliban. In two predominantly Tajik provinces north of Kabul, Bennet cited reports of “civilians being subjected to arbitrary arrest, extrajudicial killings and torture … some amounting to what appears to be collective punishment.”

Protecting Rights, Preventing Impunity

There is a natural tendency to read Bennett’s report and throw one’s hands up in despair. The Taliban haven’t changed; we have little leverage over them. Now what? The pursuit and protection of human rights in Afghanistan is a long game, however, and there is a human rights toolkit that should be applied in Afghanistan. It is also important to prevent impunity for atrocities from becoming entrenched, which increases the chances for more widespread and systematic violence.

First, Bennett has demonstrated that the scope and scale of the human rights violations warrants increased resources to conduct more detailed fact-finding on specific incidents, including forensic investigations as necessary to pursue accountability for violations, not just reporting on them. Bennet’s office also performs a vital public outreach function, including among Afghans that speak in local languages. More money for translation, strategic communications and dissemination of the reports would enhance the impact of his work.

Second, the profound implications of the Bennett report should trigger an increase in funding for U.S. government agencies that support human rights monitoring and advocacy in Afghanistan. Beyond Amiri’s policy mandate, the State Department and USAID should be funded to support Afghan human rights monitors on the ground or in the diaspora. Notably, the United States provided Afghanistan’s previous democratic government with millions in grants and technical support to Afghan human rights organizations. Yet now that violations are occurring at even greater orders of magnitude, the funding has dried up. 

While it is manifestly more difficult for Afghan organizations to publicly discuss human rights under Taliban rule, there are brave civil society actors who are gathering evidence of abuses and pushing the Taliban to practice the Islamic ideals of justice they espouse. Combining quiet documentation work by Afghans in the country with secure evidence storage and more public advocacy by diaspora groups is one way to mitigate risk and apply more pressure on the Taliban — a model that has been used in Syria and by the Uyghur community.

Finally, the U.S. should support the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is considering a request by its prosecutor, Karim Khan, to renew its investigation into war crimes in Afghanistan. Following the Taliban takeover, Khan proposed to focus particularly on alleged crimes by the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan because “the gravity, scale and continuing nature of [their] alleged crimes … demand focus and proper resources.” Providing support to human rights defenders who can give evidence to the ICC will put further pressure on the Taliban and will not involve any investigation of U.S. forces — as some ICC critics fear.

The human rights situation in Afghanistan is getting worse and, unfortunately change is likely to be incremental. But the Taliban’s woeful scorecard over its first year is an urgent warning that more must be done to slow the rate of decline and hold the Taliban accountable. The good news is that this is a problem more resources can help to solve.

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