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Oral update on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan

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14 December 2021

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Statement by Nada Al-Nashif
UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights

14 December 2021
Geneva, Palais des Nation, Room XX

Distinguished President of the Council,
Excellencies,
Colleagues, Friends,

The people of Afghanistan today face a profound humanitarian crisis that threatens the most basic of human rights. Economic life is largely paralysed with the collapse of the banking system and a severe liquidity crisis. With winter having arrived, women, men, boys and girls face severe poverty and hunger, and limited and deteriorating public services, particularly health care. As more Afghans struggle to meet their basic needs, people in vulnerable situations – notably women-headed households and children – are being pushed to take desperate measures, including child labour, the marriage of children to ensure their survival, and – according to some reports – even the sale of children.

This situation is compounded by the impact of sanctions and the freezing of state assets. The difficult policy choices that Member States make at this critical juncture – to avert economic collapse - are literally life and death. They will define Afghanistan's pathway into the future.

Excellences,

Up to August, my Office continued to record the impact of the conflict on civilians. Before the Taliban takeover, this year had already seen the highest number of civilian casualties on record, with women and children representing close to half of all civilian casualties. Since August, the harm to civilians due to fighting has receded to a degree, but civilians nevertheless continue to fall victim and remain at risk as ruthless campaigns of lethal attacks are still being carried out by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP) armed group as well as by other armed groups.

I am also alarmed by continuing reports of extra-judicial killings across the country, despite the general amnesty announced by the Taliban after 15 August. Between August and November, we received credible allegations of more than 100 killings of former Afghan national security forces and others associated with the former Government, with at least 72 of these killings attributed to the Taliban. In several cases, the bodies were publicly displayed. This has exacerbated fear among this sizeable category of the population.

In Nangarhar province alone, there also appears to be a pattern of at least 50 extra-judicial killings of individuals suspected to be members of the ISIL-KP. Brutal methods of killings, including hanging, beheadings, and public display of corpses have been reported.

I am deeply concerned about the continued risk of recruitment of children by the ISIL-KP, as well as by the de facto authorities, with boys increasingly visible among security forces at checkpoints, as bodyguards, and in combat roles. Children also continue to comprise nearly all of the civilians killed and injured by unexploded ordnance.

Excellencies,

While the Taliban takeover has brought an uneasy end to fighting against Governmental forces in the country, the current situation leaves the population with little protection in terms of human rights. Women and girls in particular face great uncertainty with respect to the rights to education, to livelihoods and to participation, in which they had made important gains in the past two decades.

The decree on women's rights issued by the de facto authorities on 3 December represents an important signal but leaves many questions unanswered. For instance, it does not make clear a minimum age for marriage, nor refer to any wider women and girls' rights to education, to work, to freedom of movement, or to participate in public life.

In particular, with respect to education, according to UNICEF, out of 4.2 million Afghan children already out of school, 60% are girls. The decline in girls' secondary school attendance has been marked, even in provinces where the de facto authorities permit girls to attend school. This is in part due to the absence of women teachers since, in several locations, such as Bamyan, girls may now only be taught by women. A further 8.8 million children are at risk of being deprived of education amid the non-payment of teacher salaries and continuing school closures.

Women, except for some teachers, health and NGO workers, are largely prohibited from working –– and may not take products to market due to the local de facto authorities' closure of women-operated bazaars. Many Afghan women and girls now have to be accompanied by a male relative, whenever they leave their residence. These are strictly enforced in some places, but not all.

The continued participation of women in all aspects of life will be fundamental to Afghanistan's future. UN partners have estimated that restricting women from working could contribute an immediate economic loss of up to US$1 billion – or up to 5% of the country's GDP. As more and more girls are held back and pushed further behind, that economic and social damage will accumulate for future generations. Insisting on respect for the human rights of Afghan, including women and girls is not only a human rights priority – it is a development priority, an economic priority, and essential for the durability of any future peace and stability of the country.

The High Commissioner and I are deeply affected by the increased reports that we receive of women victims of violence who are unable to seek safety and justice. Women's protection shelters in Afghanistan have been closed, and most incidents of violence and harmful practices against women and girls will increasingly go unreported or left to be resolved through traditional dispute resolution mechanisms.

We are also concerned at reports of localised forced evictions and related displacements since mid-August particularly affecting Hazara and other minorities. These appear to stem from longstanding disputes over land and have reportedly been facilitated or tolerated by local de facto authorities.

Excellencies,

Afghanistan's burgeoning civil society has also been uprooted and attacked. Since August, at least eight civil society activists and two journalists have been killed, with others injured in attacks by unidentified armed men. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has documented 59 apparently arbitrary detentions, beatings, and threats of civil society activists, journalists, and staff of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission attributed to the de facto authorities. Several women's rights defenders have been threatened, and there is widespread fear of reprisals since the violent crackdown on women's peaceful protests in September. In some instances, relatives and family members of civil society actors, and human rights defenders have faced threats and intimidation. Many media outlets have shut down and numerous civil society groups have also closed.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has been unable to operate since August, and the Afghanistan Independent Bar Association faces a loss of independence following the de facto authorities' decision to administer its activities under the de facto ministry of justice.

The safety of Afghan judges, prosecutors, and lawyers – particularly women legal professionals – is a matter for particular alarm. Many are currently in hiding for fear of retribution, including from convicted prisoners who were freed by the de facto authorities, notably men convicted of gender-based violence.

Meanwhile critical aspects of the criminal justice system remain unclear, including the roles of prosecutors and defence lawyers, as well as the applicability of the criminal procedure code. While the Taliban released many prisoners in the initial weeks, the current limbo in the criminal justice system exacerbates the backlog of cases and prison overcrowding.

Excellencies,

How the de facto authorities – and the international community– address the drastic economic and humanitarian crises in the country will determine Afghans' enjoyment of human rights, now and into the future. They will mark the difference between potential lives of dignity and well-being – or accelerating deprivation, injustice and tragic loss of life.

The de facto authorities' respect for and protection of fundamental rights and freedoms of all persons in Afghanistan, without discrimination, is integral to ensuring stability. Failure to uphold human rights will inevitably lead to further turmoil and unrest, and will hold back Afghanistan's development.

Moreover, as a member of the international community, Afghanistan is bound by the existing international obligations of the treaties it has ratified. Obligations under these treaties remain in place, regardless of the particular authorities exercising effective power.

Our Office, through UNAMA, continues to keep its staff on the ground to provide credible and impartial information. We engage directly and constructively with the de facto authorities to advocate on critical issues and offer appropriate advice. We are encouraged by these initial contacts. It is vital that Council members support the continuation of our UN Human Rights presence on the ground and its important human rights work at this crucial juncture for the people of Afghanistan.

In light of the evolving situation in the country, our Office remains available to further discuss with member and observers of the Human Rights Council at the earliest opportunity in the new year.

Thank you.

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