By :Heather Barr
The first thing I want to say is I’m sorry. I’m sorry that my country, the United States, and so many others promised to defend the rights of Afghan women and girls forever, and then broke that promise. I’m sorry that the plight of Afghan women and girls under the Taliban was used to help build support for war in 2001, after 9/11, only for it to become clearer and clearer as the years went by that the war was never about women’s rights or promoting gender equality.
I pay taxes and vote in the US and feel complicit in the tragedy that has unfolded over the last 21 years, and I am truly sorry for that. I am also sorry that you have not received more solidarity from women’s rights groups around the world, especially in the US and elsewhere in the West. The world has too easily turned the page on Afghanistan.
The second thing I want to say is I know it is very hard to have any faith in the international legal regime and mechanisms given what you are going through, but please keep using these treaties and demanding that they work for you. Your rights are clear under international human rights law. Under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, you have the right to full equality with men and boys. Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, all children—including all Afghan girls—have a right to education.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights protects the right of everyone—including Afghan women—to work. You have the rights to freedom of movement, expression, and speech—those are in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is your right, under international law, to access health care, live free from violence, and wear what you choose.
What use, you might ask, are these treaties if the Taliban can violate them without consequences? This is a fair question. The response from the United Nations, which is responsible for upholding international human rights law, and from countries around the world, to the Taliban’s violations of the rights of women and girls has been weak. There have been many statements of concern, but few concrete actions to hold the Taliban accountable.
But there are mechanisms that exist to enforce rights–including yours–and we cannot afford to give up on them. We must demand more from them because there are few other options.
One of the entities that matters most is the UN Human Rights Council. It is a group of countries that have pledged to uphold human rights and have powers to do so. In September 2021, the council created the position of a special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan. In July 2022, the council recognized the crisis unfolding by holding an urgent debate on the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.
In September, the Human Rights Council will hear from the special rapporteur about his findings. My organization and many others, including organizations led by Afghan women, with whom we are proud to partner, are pushing hard for the council and other UN bodies to do more to monitor the human rights situation in Afghanistan. They need to put pressure on the Taliban to end their abuses and to ensure that there is accountability—and punishment—for violations of the rights of Afghan women and girls.
The UN has tools it can use to advance these goals, including other mandate holders in addition to the Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan, the International Criminal Court, and the UN mission in Afghanistan. The UN Security Council can impose travel bans and other sanctions on Taliban officials implicated in rights abuses. All these tools should be mobilized urgently and have the political backing and resources necessary to help end the current crisis. You have a right to demand that these tools work for you.
The last thing I want to say is that I know this has been a terribly long and hard struggle. I have had the honor and joy of working alongside great Afghan women leaders for the last 15 years. I have sat beside women who lived through the Taliban’s last period in power from 1996 to 2001 and heard their stories of everyday resistance—how they educated girls in secret schools and supported each other through those traumatic times. I have worked with younger Afghan women, some of whom studied in those underground and secret schools, and seen how bravely they stand on the shoulders of their elders and are forging a new path forward for Afghanistan.
The Taliban cannot kill the spirit of Afghan girls and women, and the world owes you its support. The road is long and brutally hard, but I know you are fighting every day. We see your courage.
Heather Barr is associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch.