53rd Session of the Human Rights Council: The World Views the Situation of Women in Afghanistan as Unbearable

By: Amin Kawa

The United Nations Human Rights Council held its fifty-third session in Geneva, with the participation of representatives from over 30 countries and international organizations. During the session, the attendees unequivocally denounced the intolerable situation faced by women in Afghanistan and expressed deep concern over the Taliban’s systematic discrimination and violation of women’s rights. The council emphasized its zero-tolerance stance towards all forms of abuse and harassment, including sexual abuse.

The Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights highlighted that the Taliban’s directives have effectively marginalized women from public life, emphasizing that the discriminatory practices and extreme violence inflicted upon women and girls in Afghanistan are entirely unacceptable. The Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Afghanistan appealed to the council for substantial support in restoring women’s rights, cautioning that the stringent enforcement of the Taliban’s oppressive measures could potentially amount to crimes against humanity and sexual abuse.

Multiple women’s rights activists have reported the harrowing reality that the Taliban’s rule has transformed Afghanistan into a vast graveyard, particularly for women.

On Monday, June 19, the fifty-third session of the United Nations Human Rights Council took place in Geneva, focusing on the annual report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights regarding the human rights situation of women and girls in Afghanistan. During the session, participants voiced criticism over the marginalization of women from public life and expressed deep concerns about the overall human rights situation in Afghanistan. They urged for the revitalization and safeguarding of the human rights of Afghan women and girls.

In her opening speech at the session, Nada Al-Nashif, the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations, highlighted that Taliban orders have excluded women and girls from public life. She expressed deep concerns to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights regarding the discriminatory, restrictive, and terrifying environment that Afghan women and girls are subjected to, emphasizing that access to fundamental rights and freedoms has been denied to them. Al-Nashif stressed that discrimination and severe violence against women and girls should not be tolerated, and it is essential to prevent the normalization of violence in the country. She underlined the importance of demonstrating the global community’s support for the women and girls of Afghanistan through the discussions in this session. Additionally, Al-Nashif reaffirmed the UN’s commitment to finding ways to exert influence on the Taliban and push back against their “deeply regressive” policies.

Volker Turk, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, remains deeply concerned about the human rights situation of women in Afghanistan. He stated, “The deteriorating human rights situation in Afghanistan is a matter of profound concern. The Taliban authorities have undermined fundamental principles of human rights, particularly the rights of women and girls.”

Richard Bennett, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, presented his report on the human rights situation of women and girls to the UN Human Rights Council. Bennett stated that this council has a responsibility to actively work towards reviving, protecting, and promoting the rights and freedoms of women and girls in Afghanistan. He further noted that the human rights situation for women and girls has deteriorated, with little hope for improvement for other marginalized groups under Taliban rule. Bennett’s assessments reveal that individuals associated with the republic regime and those opposing the Taliban ideology face severe repression and violence. The UN Special Rapporteur stressed the urgent need for the international community to address the grave violations of fundamental rights experienced by women and girls in Afghanistan.

Bennett claimed that the Taliban’s strict enforcement of restrictive measures constitutes a crime against humanity. He had previously reported that the Taliban has issued more than 50 orders imposing restrictions on women. During this session, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights supplemented his report with a series of recommendations for governments, urging them to ensure equal participation of women and girls in all consultative and decision-making sessions pertaining to Afghanistan. Richard Bennett stressed the ongoing importance of supporting girls’ access to education and demanded the immediate reopening of schools and universities, with curricula that comply with international standards.

Dorothy Estrada-Tanck, the head of the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls, expressed concern regarding the discrimination and systematic exclusion of women in Afghanistan. During the session, she highlighted that women and their families in Afghanistan face immense pressure due to injustice, poverty, and uncertainty. Estrada-Tanck further pointed out that gender-based killings occur in women’s homes, public places, and detention centers. According to her, under Taliban rule, women lack sanctuaries or legal protection. The UN official observed that despite the absence of legal safeguards, the Taliban’s discrimination and violence are legitimized, resulting in various forms of overt gender discrimination that take place with complete impunity. This disregard for women’s rights, security, and independence signifies a grave situation in the country.

At the same time, Nasir Ahmad Andisha, the Ambassador of Afghanistan to Switzerland and the country’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations declares that the Taliban openly defy the international principles and norms established over the past 75 years. Mr. Andisha highlights that international endeavors to prevent crimes fall short in comparison to addressing the challenges and aspirations of the Afghan people. He urges for the reinforcement of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate on Afghanistan and proposes that human rights reports on Afghanistan in this council incorporate an investigative mechanism to monitor and collect evidence of human rights violations.

During the fifty-third session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, in addition to official government representatives, several women’s rights activists in exile also delivered speeches.

In this session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, multiple speakers voiced concerns about the increasingly dire state of women’s and girls’ human rights in Afghanistan. They highlighted that women face restrictions in accessing higher education, participating in the judicial system, and obtaining employment in international and non-governmental organizations. The speakers pointed out that the ongoing ban on girls’ education beyond the sixth-grade exposes over one million girls to the risks of domestic violence, forced labor, and underage marriages. Moreover, some speakers in this session expressed deep concern over the Taliban’s use of cruel, inhumane, and degrading punishments such as stoning, whipping, and demolishing walls against individuals accused, which flagrantly violates Afghanistan’s international commitments. They urged the global community to intensify their efforts in supporting and empowering the people of Afghanistan.

Shahrzad Akbar, the former head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), likened Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to a “mass grave of women’s aspirations” and urged UN member countries to avoid any interactions that normalize the Taliban’s gender apartheid and create an illusion of recognizing their true nature. She asserted, “The Taliban have transformed Afghanistan into a mass grave, burying the dreams, aspirations, and capabilities of women and girls. The international community passively observes this mass grave and, in some instances, issues statements and contributes to the perpetuation of these conditions. Afghan women have consistently demanded resolute action from the global community when engaging with the Taliban.”

Parwana Ebrahimkhel Nijrabi, who personally endured imprisonment by the Taliban and witnessed the harrowing experiences of women in Taliban prisons, shared her firsthand experiences during this session. In an interview with Hasht-e Subh Daily, she recounted the bitter days she spent, hearing the cries of women and men subjected to torture under Taliban rule. She urged the international community to respond earnestly to the Taliban’s actions.

During this session, multiple speakers expressed their appreciation for Mr. Bennett’s report on the human rights situation in Afghanistan. They asserted that the Taliban have dismantled all legal and institutional frameworks and are practicing the most extreme form of misogyny. The speakers highlighted that the Taliban currently govern through institutionalized gender-based discrimination. Many emphasized that the Taliban have marginalized women and girls from public life, shattering their aspirations for the future. Some speakers reaffirmed their commitment to the Afghan people and vowed to continue opposing the abhorrent conduct of the Taliban, which deprives women and girls of their human rights. They stressed that as long as the Taliban persist with their policies, normalcy, and recognition for the group will remain out of reach.

The report of the United Nations Human Rights Council also highlighted, quoting one of the speakers, the need for a clear and unified response from the international community to convey a message to the Taliban. The Council specified that certain countries have imposed targeted individual sanctions against Taliban ministers responsible for women’s rights violations and called upon others to do the same. Moreover, this session emphasized the importance of prioritizing support for human rights defenders and preserving space for civil society. Participants raised inquiries regarding how the international community can coordinate actions to counter the Taliban’s measures effectively and urged the establishment of an investigative mechanism by the Human Rights Council to gather and preserve evidence of crimes committed in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesperson, responded to Mr. Richard Bennett’s report, claiming that it is unfair and baseless, as it fails to consider Afghanistan’s Islamic values and cultural aspects.