Members Stress Urgent Need for Reversal of Taliban Decrees, Ramped Up Response to Humanitarian Crisis, Extension of United Nations Mission in Country
Afghanistan under the Taliban remains the most repressive country in the world for women’s rights, the senior United Nations official in Afghanistan told the Security Council today, spotlighting numerous restrictions imposed on women’s right to travel, study, and work freely, including for non-governmental organizations, making the response to the world’s largest humanitarian crisis even more challenging.
Roza Isakovna Otunbayeva, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), said she had few comforting messages to share with Afghan women and girls on International Women’s Day, noting that, although Afghanistan needs human capital to recover from the war, half of its doctors, scientists and journalists find themselves shut as women in their homes, with their dreams crushed and talent confiscated. “We understand that the Taliban have a highly different worldview than any other Government, but it is difficult to understand how any Government worthy of the name can govern against the needs of half of its population.”
Amid a catastrophic humanitarian situation, in which two thirds of Afghanistan’s population – 28 million people – need humanitarian assistance to survive, and 20 million people are experiencing crisis levels of food insecurity, necessitating funding of $4.62 billion – the single largest country appeal ever – access and security constraints, including the bans on women working in non-governmental organizations, make it difficult to reach those in desperate need. Prior to these restrictions, in 2022, the United Nations and its partners were able to reach 26.1 million people, she said, noting that the situation had compelled humanitarian workers to make uncomfortable compromises to save Afghan lives. “The absurdity of this situation requires no comment,” she added.
Against this backdrop, she also voiced concern about the increasing erosion of human rights, with the Secretary-General’s report noting ongoing arbitrary arrests, killing and torture of former Government officials and security forces, constituting violations of the Taliban’s amnesty decree. Further, judicial corporal punishments were carried out, often in public, constituting torture and ill treatment under international law, in concert with a greater stifling of media and civil society, she added. As well, she expressed concern about the worrying security situation, due to the growing threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan Province (ISIL-K), which will require the concerted attention of Member States to mitigate, with the de facto authorities lacking the capacity to address it.
While acknowledging that trends on the ground remain worrying and negative, making it harder to preserve the necessary space for dialogue, she said UNAMA continues to engage daily with the de facto authorities, local opposition, civil society and, increasingly, Afghan youth, who will inherit the future now being shaped. Expressing hope that the Taliban will pay heed to the unified position of the international community, which has called for the reversal of its decrees, she urged global actors to construct an agenda for discussion with the Afghan authorities, which includes issues that matter to the Taliban, thereby paving the way for a positive outcome.
Her stark message also resounded through the address of Zubaida Akbar, who spoke on behalf of Freedom Now, a civil society organization that defends human rights in Afghanistan, who described the many ways in which the rights of Afghan women and girls have been “decimated” since the Taliban seized power in August 2021. Since then, through more than 40 decrees, it has sought not only to erase women from public life, “but to extinguish our basic humanity”, she stressed. It has been 534 days since teenage girls were able to go to school, she said, and 78 days since women were banned from universities, making Afghanistan the only country in the world where women are prohibited from accessing most forms of formal education.
Women cannot travel more than 75 kilometres without a male guardian and are banned from public baths, restaurants and parks, she went on, pointing out that during a recent visit, even the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohamed, and the Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women) were told that they should not be there without their mahrams – namely, a husband, father or brother. Outlining other ways in which women’s rights have been impacted, she said that women facing domestic violence have no access to justice; the sale of contraceptives was recently prevented by Taliban fighters; and several restrictions have been imposed on women’s right to work, including the recent decision to ban women from working for non-governmental organizations, which has led to more than 100 civil society groups being unable to function fully. “Nothing less than an immediate and unconditional reversal of the ban will ensure that the 28 million Afghans depending on humanitarian assistance, especially women and girls, are able to survive,” she stressed.
Under these grim circumstances, she said that women in Afghanistan feel suffocated and hopeless, with young girls speaking to her directly about ending their lives. “This cannot continue,” she stressed, adding that the Taliban’s human rights violations based on gender amount to gender persecution, which is a crime against humanity, and for which United Nations experts have called for the Taliban to be investigated and held accountable. Citing instances of women-led protest movements resisting such oppression across the country in the face of the Taliban’s violent attacks, imprisonment and torture, she addressed Council members directly, saying: “The brave civic resistance of Afghan women urgently needs your support.”
She stressed the need for a commensurate meaningful international response, beyond outspoken condemnation, and for the Council to demand that the Taliban respect human rights of all Afghans, including women, girls, LGBTQI people and all other marginalized groups, and to end all restrictions on women’s rights. It should be clear that there will be no unconditional engagement – including high-level visits with United Nations officials – with the Taliban until those basic conditions are met, she said, adding: “If you do not defend women’s rights here, you have no credibility to do so anywhere else.”
In the ensuing discussion, Council members expressed concern over the Taliban’s continued and intensifying repression of the rights of women and girls, as well as its alarming oppression of civil society, including protesters and the media. Many members also voiced alarm over the security situation, due to the ever-present threat of terrorism, with several underscoring the need to respond to the grave humanitarian situation and renew UNAMA’s mandate for another 12 months when the matter arises in the Council over the next few days.
Among them was the representative of the United States, who opposed any efforts to interfere with a simple technical mandate extension, urging the Council to preserve the Mission as a lifeline for the people of Afghanistan and extend the mandate without delay. “We have days left,” he stressed, adding: “We cannot sit silently and watch the Taliban silence women from public life.” He called on the Taliban to allow access to aid workers of all genders and safe conditions for humanitarian personnel, urging it to establish a credible process to support representative governance that provides for the full, equal and meaningful representation of women and minorities.
The representative of China asserted that the United States is not entitled to divert Afghan overseas assets for other uses, citing a federal court ruling by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. The United States and other relevant countries should immediately return the assets of the Afghan central bank to the Afghan people, he said, also calling for the lifting of sanctions, which have exacerbated the humanitarian situation on the ground. Taking note of positive signs in the Afghan economy, he said the country should further develop its domestic market, expand connectivity, and promote alternative agriculture cultivation so that root causes of turmoil and instability can be eliminated.
The representative of Gabon, also speaking for Ghana and Mozambique, took note of positive signs, including several institutional changes recently enacted by the Taliban, including the reestablishment of the National Procurement Commission, the creation of 25 additional districts – with the stated intention of improving access to public services – and the successful return of some refugees to Afghanistan. However, he voiced concern over the persisting lack of ethnic and geographic representation in the Taliban’s Government and the challenging situation of women, urging Taliban leaders to respond to calls from the opposition and international community on those fronts.
The representative of Japan called on States to avoid isolating the Taliban, underscoring the importance of continuous engagement to change its course. Recalling that Japan has been conducting dialogues in Kabul with Taliban leaders to deliver messages from the international community, he underscored UNAMA’s bridging role in promoting inclusiveness through dialogue, voicing support for the extension of its mandate, as a co-penholder on Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the speaker from the United Arab Emirates underscored the need for the Council to reconsider and initiate a more strategic overview of international engagement in Afghanistan, pointing out that United Nations reports show that the organ lacks a political strategy for Afghanistan. She went on to spotlight her discussions with Afghan women, including during this week’s session of the Commission on the Status of Women at Headquarters, who asked the international community not to abandon them, and called on Council members to express their solidarity with the women of Afghanistan.
Representatives of neighbouring countries, including Iran and India, then took the floor, with Pakistan’s delegate echoing others’ disappointment over the imposition of further restrictions on Afghan women and girls, while voicing hope that the country’s authorities will find a solution to those matters in line with Islamic injunctions. However, he warned against any attempt to replace the current leadership by force, stressing that such a repetition of past mistakes will only be a “recipe for further conflict and instability”. Moreover, he observed that the Council’s proceedings would have been more productive if members had interacted directly with those who actually control Afghanistan, expressing hope that the anomaly of Afghanistan’s United Nations representation can soon be addressed. As well, he called for the lifting of sanctions on the country’s authorities, including, as a first step, the restoration of travel ban exemptions.
The representative of Afghanistan said that the Taliban has, over the past 18 months, systemically stripped Afghan women and girls of their fundamental human rights and effectively erased them from society. Meanwhile, essential services have been dismantled as poverty and unemployment have increased, he said, adding that people have resorted to selling their body parts because of starvation and hunger. The Taliban has reversed two decades of achievements and abolished human rights protection mechanisms. “In the absence of an effective judicial system, the country is ruled by the force of the rifle without national legitimacy,” he said, adding that the country has been politically and globally isolated because of the Taliban’s barbaric and un-Islamic policies and behaviour, adding: “They do not represent the culture of the people of Afghanistan or Islamic values.”
He went on to welcome the decision and judgment of United States District Judge George Daniels concerning the $3.5 billion of assets belonging to Afghanistan’s central bank, voicing hope that these funds will be used by a legitimate Government with strict, transparent monitoring for the long-term benefit of the Afghan people, not for humanitarian aid. Calling for principled engagement with the Taliban, without making any concessions or compromises on the legitimate demands and rights of the people of Afghanistan, he stressed: “We must be cautious that we should not help the unacceptable become a norm.”
Also speaking today were representatives of the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Albania, Ecuador, Russian Federation, Malta, Brazil and France.
The meeting began at 10:02 a.m. and ended at 12:19 p.m.
ROZA ISAKOVNA OTUNBAYEVA, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), presenting the latest Secretary-General’s report on the country (document S/2023/151), opened her address by saying that, while today is International Women’s Day, she has few comforting messages to share with women and girls in Afghanistan, with bans currently in effect against women working, studying and travelling without male companions. Although the Taliban claims it has unified the country, it has severely divided it by gender, she said, adding that, although Afghanistan needs human capital to recover from the war, half of its doctors, scientists and journalists find themselves shut in their homes, with their dreams crushed and talent confiscated. “Afghanistan under the Taliban remains the most repressive country in the world regarding women’s rights,” she emphasized.
The Taliban says it must be judged by other achievements and that gender segregation is not a significant issue, she continued. The reality, however, is that the 20 December ban on higher education for women and the 24 December ban on their working for non-governmental organizations have serious consequences for the Afghan population and the relationship between the Taliban and international community. As a result, she said that funding for the country is likely to drop, as women-run non-governmental organizations must cease activities. Further, if the amount of assistance is reduced, the amount of cash shipments in United States dollars required to support that assistance will also decline, she said.
“We understand that the Taliban have a highly different world-view than any other government, but it is difficult to understand how any government worthy of the name can govern against the needs of half of its population,” she went on. Noting that UNAMA has always focused on the Afghan people, supporting women’s rights, human rights, and girls’ education, she recalled that the Organization understood by the Taliban’s assurances during the Doha negotiations that these rights would not be curtailed. Some women even welcomed their takeover, as it ended the war, but they soon began to lose hope, stating that being barred from public life was no different from fearing violent death, she said.
Turning to the humanitarian situation, she pointed out that Afghanistan remained the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with two-thirds of the population – 28 million people – in need of humanitarian assistance this year to survive, adding: “This will cost $4.62 billion, the single largest country appeal ever.” Further, almost half of the population, 20 million people, are experiencing crisis levels of food insecurity. Against this backdrop, she pointed out that humanitarian access remains challenging due to the complex access and security environment, along with bans on women working in non-governmental organizations. In addition, she voiced concern that national women staff working for the United Nations will also be banned, noting that the Taliban has tried to prevent Afghan female staff coming to the Organization’s offices in five provinces. She pointed out that, prior to such constraint being imposed, the Organization and its partners were able to reach 26.1 million people in 2022. However, she expressed fear that, in 2023, due to wilfully imposed bans by the Taliban, access will be hindered. Given the situation, humanitarian workers have been forced to make uncomfortable compromises to save Afghan lives, she noted. “The absurdity of this situation requires no comment,” she said.
On the security front, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan Province (ISIL-K) pose a growing threat, she said, expressing concern that the de facto authorities do not have the capacity to address such emerging threats. Therefore, mitigating them will require concerted attention by Member States. She also voiced concern about the increasing erosion of human rights, with the Secretary-General’s report noting ongoing arbitrary arrests, killing and torture of former government officials and security forces, constituting violations of the Taliban’s amnesty decree. There is no transparency around the investigation of such violations, she added. Further, there is continued implementation of the instruction by the Taliban leader to carry out judicial corporal punishments, often in public, constituting torture and ill-treatment under international law as well as a greater stifling of media and civil society.
Turning to UNAMA’s efforts, she recalled that its initial engagements with the de facto authorities were “relatively constructive and gave cautious hope”, but the accumulation of decisions taken by the leadership beginning a year ago have been unacceptable to the international community, adding: “This could not have surprised the Taliban.” The condemnation and imposition of sanctions in response may not have had an effect and may have led to a hardening of positions. While there might be a faction across the movement which does not agree with the current direction of the leadership and wishes to pay attention to the real needs of the people, she pointed out that time is short and demands on donors are multiplying. She voiced fear that history might repeat itself if the Taliban continues to make decisions that increase its isolation. However, unlike in the 1990s, the world is now more focused on Afghanistan.
For its part, UNAMA engages daily with the de facto authorities, local opposition, civil society and, increasingly, Afghan youth, who will inherit the future now being shaped. While trends on the ground remain worrying and negative, making it harder to preserve the necessary space for dialogue, she voiced hope that the Taliban will pay heed to the unified position of the international community, which has called for the reversal of its decrees. Meanwhile, the international community must construct an agenda for discussion with the authorities, which includes issues that matter to the Taliban. She went on to voice hope that UNAMA’s mandate will soon be renewed for another year, adding that the current mandate is robust and balanced.
ZUBAIDA AKBAR, speaking on behalf of the civil society organization Freedom Now, described the group as one that defends human rights in Afghanistan and works directly with 20 grass‑roots, mostly women‑led movements across the country. Noting that it is International Women’s Day, she said the situation in Afghanistan represents the worst crisis for women’s rights in the world. “Since the Taliban seized power in August 2021, the rights of Afghan women and girls have been decimated,” she said. Through over 40 decrees, the Taliban has sought not only to erase women from public life, “but to extinguish our basic humanity”.
It has been 534 days since teenage girls were able to go to school, she said, and 78 days since women were banned from universities, making Afghanistan the only country in the world where women are prohibited from accessing most forms of formal education. Emphasizing that the repercussions of those edicts will be catastrophic for future generations, she said the Taliban has done everything possible to curb women’s freedom of movement and expression. Women cannot travel more than 75 kilometres without a male guardian. They are banned from public baths, restaurants and parks. During a recent visit, even the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohamed, and the Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN‑Women) were told that they should not be there without their mahrams – namely, a husband, father or brother.
Meanwhile, she said, the total collapse of Afghanistan’s legal system – and the exclusion of women from what remains of it – means that women facing domestic violence have no access to justice. Most recently, Taliban fighters prevented the sale of contraceptives, in a country that already has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Several restrictions have also been imposed on women’s right to work, she said, citing the recent decision to ban women from working for non-governmental organizations, which has led to more than 100 civil society groups being unable to function fully. “Nothing less than an immediate and unconditional reversal of the ban will ensure that the 28 million Afghans depending on humanitarian assistance, especially women and girls, are able to survive,” she stressed.
“We keep hearing the international community say that it confronts a dilemma in Afghanistan – to save lives, or to call out the Taliban for its violations of women’s rights,” she said. However, the real question is: Whose lives are being saved, and at what cost? Pursuing humanitarian action without women, or delivering aid that doesn’t reach women, only serves to further eliminate them from society. And while it may save lives now, it can never be a substitute for finding a durable solution to the crisis. Women in Afghanistan feel suffocated and hopeless, and young girls have spoken to her directly about ending their lives. “This cannot continue,” she stressed, describing the situation as a case of gender apartheid. Furthermore, the Taliban’s human rights violations based on gender amount to gender persecution, which is a crime against humanity, and for which United Nations experts have called for the Taliban to be investigated and held accountable.
While outspoken international condemnation is critical, it is not enough, she stressed. Such flagrant violations of international law and the United Nations Charter require a proportional, coordinated and meaningful international response that makes clear that violations of women’s rights are intolerable and unjustifiable and that the Taliban will face consequences. “If you do not defend women’s rights here, you have no credibility to do so anywhere else,” she said. She described strong efforts by grass‑roots, women‑led protest movements across Afghanistan, whose members are risking their lives daily to advocate for the rights of all the country’s people. The Taliban’s response to those peaceful protests has been violent attacks, imprisonment and torture. Nargis Sadat, a woman protester, was arbitrarily arrested on 12 February, and her fate remains unknown. Several other protesters were abducted and disappeared after protesting in Kabul and held for weeks in detention, while another was arrested along with her child and has reported abuse and torture in a Taliban prison.
“The brave civic resistance of Afghan women urgently needs your support,” she told the Council, adding that protesters need the international community to say their names, demand their release and grant them asylum. They also need the Taliban to be held accountable for its actions, as the current total lack of consequences only emboldens it to expand its crackdowns. She added that the Taliban’s all‑male, majority Pashtun caretaker Cabinet has signalled that it has no intention of forming an inclusive Government that represents either the ethnic diversity of Afghanistan or women, or of protecting marginalized ethnic and religious groups. The Taliban has failed to investigate or punish attacks on the Hazara community and has in fact been directly responsible for mass killings of Hazaras that may amount to war crimes. Other groups, such as the Sikh community, have been forced to abandon their homes due to targeted attacks, and members of Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen communities continue to be forcibly displaced, their lands redistributed to Kuchis and Taliban members.
Meanwhile, she said, the Taliban’s brutal return to extrajudicial killings, public floggings and executions is clear evidence that it has not changed since it was last in power. Instead, it is imposing an extremist, patriarchal interpretation of Islam that relies on repression of women and marginalized groups. Against that urgent backdrop, she called on the Council to demand that the Taliban respect the human rights of all Afghans, including women, girls, LGBTQI people and all other marginalized groups, and to end all restrictions on women’s rights. It should be clear that there will be no unconditional engagement – including high-level visits with United Nations officials – with the Taliban until those basic conditions are met. She also advocated for a renewal of the UNAMA mandate for another year, without any changes, and the strengthening of initiatives to ensure accountability for all human rights violations in Afghanistan.
ISHIKANE KIMIHIRO (Japan), noting the Taliban has not been fulfilling its commitments since seizing control, said Member States’ assistance should enable the Afghan people not only to survive but also to receive medical care, education and jobs. Otherwise, the crisis will persist, and history will repeat itself. Urging States to avoid isolating the Taliban, he underscored the importance of continuous engagement to change its course. Recalling that Japan has been conducting dialogues in Kabul with the Taliban leaders to deliver messages from the international community, he underscored UNAMA’s bridging role in promoting inclusiveness through dialogue. Expressing hope that the Mission will help to move the political process forward, as a co-penholder on Afghanistan, he supported the extension of UNAMA’s mandate, expressing Japan’s unity towards “secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan”.
LANA ZAKI NUSSEIBEH (United Arab Emirates), noting the Council members’ strong support of UNAMA, said the Mission is providing the space to work with stakeholders on the ground in an attempt to alleviate suffering and improve lives. There is no doubt it is delivering this to the best of its ability in a highly challenging political and security environment. The Council bears the responsibility to ensure the international approach supports a more prosperous, more self-sufficient Afghanistan that is not a threat to its people, to its direct neighbourhood or beyond. The Council’s support for the Mission should be unwavering and remain the centrepiece of its engagement on Afghanistan. Reports from the United Nations and individual countries, as well as developments since August 2021, show the Council lacks a political strategy for Afghanistan. In her discussions with Afghan women, including during this week’s session of the Commission on the Status of Women at Headquarters, they ask the international community not to abandon Afghan women. “Today, on International Women’s Day, there is no better time to express our solidarity in this respect with the women of Afghanistan,” she said. The Council needs to reconsider and initiate a more strategic overview of international engagement in Afghanistan.
MICHEL XAVIER BIANG (Gabon), also speaking for Ghana and Mozambique, cited several institutional changes recently enacted by the Taliban, including the re‑establishment of the National Procurement Commission, the creation of 25 additional districts – with the stated intention of improving access to public services – and the successful return of some refugees to Afghanistan. Nevertheless, there remains a lack of ethnic and geographic representation in the Taliban’s Government, and the situation of women in the country is a major challenge. Urging Taliban leaders to respond to calls from the opposition and the international community on that front, he drew attention to the December 2022 suspension of higher education and work opportunities for women, adding that such restrictions affect nearly all aspects of life. “The international community must stand firm and demonstrate solidarity on that front,” he stressed, noting that Afghanistan cannot be rebuilt without the inclusion of women.
Turning to the security situation, he spotlighted attacks by the groups known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan and urged the Taliban authorities to take steps to prevent all forms of terrorism. Drug trafficking, coupled with the presence of foreign forces and border tensions, is increasing tensions on the ground. Meanwhile, violence – along with a sharp reduction in development assistance, mistrust by banking institutions, and the freeze of Afghan assets – has worsened the country’s economic and humanitarian situations. The worrying humanitarian landscape is a result of not only those economic and political developments, but also the impacts of climate change, he said, adding that the recent ban on women aid workers is only compounding the crisis. Encouraging UNAMA to continue its critical work, he expressed support for the Mission’s extension for another 12 months and called on the international community to strengthen its support.
JAMES KARIUKI (United Kingdom), noted that the rapid deterioration in the Taliban’s behaviour has all but erased women from Afghan society, urging the Council to remain unwavering and united towards the country. The Council, he recalled, set out its expectations in resolution 2593 (2021) on honouring counter-terrorism commitments, respecting human rights and ensuring humanitarian access. The Council must be clear on consequences should the Taliban continue – that international acceptance will not be on the table and that its decisions are self-defeating. Afghanistan’s economy will continue to suffer when 50 per cent of its population is excluded from society and the workplace. Moreover, there will be no stable and durable peace while large swathes of society and ethnic groups are excluded, he pointed out. The Council should further ensure that UNAMA retains its strong mandate, he continued, adding that the United Nations must continue to engage the Taliban to reinforce the Organization’s expectations, including on progress towards representative governance.
PASCALE CHRISTINE BAERISWYL (Switzerland) underscored that the Council should not limit itself to words in its obligation to make resolution 1325 (2000) a reality on the ground. She called on the Taliban to immediately reverse its bans while condemning its human rights violations. In supporting the renewal of UNAMA’s mandate, she stressed that the Council and that Mission must support all efforts to promote an Afghanistan where all of society can participate without discrimination and reprisal. The Council must also respond to Afghanistan’s humanitarian needs, find durable solutions to its endemic food insecurity, and continue its long-term support. It must come together around a common strategy and support the population’s efforts to regain safety. However, these efforts can only succeed if the Taliban recognizes the key role of women, she pointed out, asking it to rescind its decrees and recognize the importance of inclusive governance and the rule of law.