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UN Human Rights HQ in Geneva recently opened its doors to the public. Here’s what they saw and learned.
Statements Special Procedures
05 May 2023
GENEVA/KABUL (5 May 2023) – Following an eight-day joint visit to Afghanistan, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, and the Chair of the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls, Dorothy Estrada-Tanck, shared their preliminary observations*:
“The mission took place from 27 April to 4 May in a context of a chronic humanitarian crisis and profound turmoil due to the most recent edict banning Afghan women from working with the United Nations and non-governmental organisations, adding to a series of discriminatory rulings banning girls from secondary and tertiary education.
In this environment, the independent experts met with representatives of the de facto authorities, civil society, women groups, entrepreneurs, religious leaders, teachers, journalists, victims of human rights violations, United Nations entities and the diplomatic community. In addition to the capital, Kabul, and site visits there, the delegation also visited Mazar-e-Sharif, Balkh province. We wish to extend our gratitude to all those who have shared their insights and powerful experiences, especially women and girls whose rights and fundamental freedoms are being obliterated. We would also like to pay tribute to all these courageous and inspiring women and girls who continue their exhausting resistance and struggle for their human dignity despite the totalitarian rule and climate of fear in which they are surviving.
We deeply regret the continuing deterioration of the human rights situation in the country, plagued by decades of conflict and historical human rights violations affecting all members of society, in particular women and girls, as well as minorities.
Since the collapse of the Republic, the de facto authorities have dismantled the legal and institutional framework and have been ruling through the most extreme forms of misogyny, destroying the relative progress towards gender equality achieved in the past two decades. The Taliban impose certain interpretations of religion that appear not to be shared by the vast majority of Afghans.
Various concerned stakeholders continue to strongly object to the recognition of the de facto authorities. Many actors have sought entry points at the local level so as to continue providing crucial services and protection to the most marginalised populations, in a country ravaged by extreme poverty.
In meetings with the de facto authorities, they noted that women were working in the health, education and business sector, and that they were ensuring that women could work according to Sharia, separated from men. The de facto authorities reiterated their message that they were working on the reopening of schools, without providing a clear timeline and indicated that the international community should not interfere in the country’s internal affairs.
During our mission, we have documented how women and girls’ lives in Afghanistan are being devastated by the crackdown on their human rights. “We are alive, but not living”, said one of our woman interlocutors. Since they took control of the country, the de facto authorities have taken numerous arbitrary measures violating girls’ and women’s rights to education, work, freedom of movement, health, bodily autonomy and decision-making, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and access to justice. They have decimated the system of protection and support for those fleeing domestic violence, leaving women and girls with absolutely no recourse. They have imposed extreme modesty rules and detained women and girls for alleged “moral crimes”.
These measures have reportedly contributed to a surge in the rates of child and forced marriage, as well as the proliferation of gender-based violence perpetrated with impunity. We are also particularly concerned by the fact that women who peacefully protest against these oppressive measures encounter threats, harassment, arbitrary detentions and torture.
Numerous women shared their feelings of fear and extreme anxiety, describing their situation as a life under house arrest. We are alarmed about widespread mental health issues and accounts of escalating suicides among women and girls. As girls and women are prohibited from attending school above grade six, as well as University education, and they can only be provided care by female doctors, unless the restrictions are reversed rapidly, the stage may be set for multiple preventable deaths that could amount to femicide.
This extreme situation of institutionalised gender-based discrimination in Afghanistan is unparalleled anywhere in the world. These appalling human rights violations mask other underlying manifestations of gender-based discrimination that precede the rule by the Taliban and are deeply engrained in society, made invisible and even normalised. If we are to eliminate discrimination and break cycles of violence, gender justice requires a holistic understanding as to why such violations are committed. These acts do not occur in isolation. We recommend that the international community develop further normative standards and tools to address the broader phenomenon of gender apartheid as an institutionalised system of discrimination, segregation, humiliation and exclusion of women and girls.
We are deeply concerned about the apparent perpetration in Afghanistan of gender persecution – a systematic and grave human rights violation and a crime against humanity. While we cannot make determinations of individual criminal responsibility, we consider on the basis of information received, including first-hand accounts, that women and girls are being targeted because of their sex and due to the social constructs used to define gender roles, behaviour, activities, and attributes.
The latest ruling prohibiting Afghan women from working in the UN, exacerbating an earlier edict on banning women from working in non-governmental organisations has placed the system in an intolerable situation. Measures introduced to mitigate the various bans restricting women’s participation in the labour force, must themselves be scrupulously analysed and monitored to avoid gender-based discrimination.
The UN should take a human rights-based approach which requires a deep understanding and analysis of UN principles to their core and a reaffirmation that human rights, including an absolute commitment to gender equality, lie at the centre of everything the UN does. The UN must uphold the normative standards established over decades by Member States and through the drive and dedicated work of thousands of civil society organisations.
The international community cannot turn a blind eye. The issue of women’s and girls’ rights in Afghanistan and their meaningful involvement in any discussion should remain a top priority on the international agenda. Women and girls must not be instrumentalised for political purposes and their rights should never be used as a negotiation tool. The international community should continue to remain engaged in the situation in Afghanistan and take concrete steps towards supporting accountability for serious human rights violations. Technical and financial partners should considerably increase their support to activists and grassroots organisations present in the country and ensure that they duly back the unwavering efforts of a still vibrant civil society to avoid the complete breakdown of civic space which could have irreversible consequences.
We urge the de facto authorities to comply with their obligations under international human rights instruments to which Afghanistan is a State party, especially CEDAW, and honour their commitments towards the protection and promotion of all women’s and girls’ rights.”
*NOTE: While this statement is confined to very succinct and preliminary findings of the visit, a joint report mandated by Human Rights Council resolution 51/20 will thoroughly analyse the situation of women and girls’ rights in the country. It will be presented in June 2023 to the 53rdsession of the Human Rights Council, followed by an Enhanced Interactive Dialogue with Afghan women.
The experts: Mr. Richard Bennett was appointed as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan by the UN Human Rights Council on 1 April 2022. He officially assumed his function on 1 May 2022. The mandate has been renewed at the 51st session of the Human Rights Council (October 2022) for a year.
The UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls was created by the Human Rights Council in 2010 to intensify efforts to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women and girls throughout the world in collaboration with all concerned stakeholders. The Working Group is composed of five independent experts: Dorothy Estrada-Tanck (Chair), Ivana Radačić (Vice-Chair), Melissa Upreti, Meskerem Geste Techane, and Elizabeth Broderick.
Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms. Special Procedures mandate-holders are independent human rights experts appointed by the Human Rights Council to address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. They are not UN staff and are independent from any government or organisation. They serve in their individual capacity and do not receive a salary for their work.
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