UN urges Afghanistan's Taliban to reverse bans on women

·7-min read
Afghan people walk pass the Shah-Do Shamshira Mosque during the first day of Eid al-Fitr in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, April 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution Thursday calling on Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers to swiftly reverse their increasingly harsh restrictions on women and girls, which range from severely restricting education to banning women from most jobs, public spaces and gyms.

The council condemned the Taliban's ban on women working for the U.N., a decision the resolution calls “unprecedented in the history of the United Nations.”

The unanimous 15-0 vote, with the United States, Russia and China all in favor, was a sign of the widespread global concerns over the Taliban’s actions. It was a rare moment of unity on a high-profile issue at a time of steep international divisions over the Ukraine war, although both Russia and China criticized the United States after the vote for its past role in Afghanistan and for refusing to return all $7 billion in frozen Afghan government funds.

The Security Council never considered sanctions against the Taliban but the strong rebuke by the U.N.’s most powerful body is a blow to the prestige of Afghanistan’s rulers, who are trying get credibility on the global stage – including formal recognition by the United Nations as Afghanistan’s legitimate government.

When the Taliban seized power in August 2021 as U.S. and NATO forces were pulling out of Afghanistan after two decades of war, they initially promised a more moderate rule than during their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001. But there has been a growing international outcry as Taliban leaders have gradually re-imposed their severe interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia, on women and girls.

During the 20 years after the Taliban were ousted in 2001 for harboring al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, who masterminded the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, schools and universities were opened for girls and women entered the workforce and politics, and became judges, ministers and professors.

U.S. deputy ambassador Robert Wood told the council after the vote, “Today, the Security Council has sent a clear. unanimous message to the Taliban and to the world: We will not stand for the Taliban's repression of women and girls.”

In Kabul on Friday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs described the Security Council's condemnation of the decision to restrict Afghan women from working at the U.N. as an “internal social matter” that did not impact outside states.

“We remain committed to ensuring all rights of Afghan women while emphasizing that diversity must be respected and not politicized," the ministry said in a statement.

Separately, a prominent figure in the Taliban denounced the Security Council's “failed policy” of pressure. Anas Haqqani, brother of the Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, said in a tweet: “It would have been better if UNSC had assessed the removal of diplomatic & financial sanctions instead of such resolutions, which amounts to the collective punishment of Afghans.”

The resolution, co-sponsored by the United Arab Emirates and Japan, expresses “deep concern at the increasing erosion of respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women and girls in Afghanistan by the Taliban” and reaffirms their “indispensable role” in Afghan society.

It calls on the Taliban to swiftly restore their access to education, employment, freedom of movement and equal participation in public life. And it urges all other U.N. member nations to use their influence to promote “an urgent reversal” of the Taliban’s policies and practices toward women and girls.

Under Taliban rule, girls have been barred from school beyond the sixth grade and women are now virtually confined to their homes, unable to go out and travel without a male guardian. In late December, the Taliban banned national and international aid groups from employing Afghan women and on April 4 they extended that ban to Afghan women working for the United Nations.

UAE Ambassador Lana Nusseibeh said over 90 countries from around the world co-sponsored the resolution including many Muslim nations and some from Afghanistan's neighborhood “which makes our fundamental message today even more significant: the world will not sit by silently as women in Afghanistan are erased from society.”

Pressure mounted for a legally binding Security Council resolution addressing the Taliban’s crackdown on women and girls after the U.N. ban.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the Taliban ban “a violation of the inalienable fundamental human rights of women” and Afghanistan’s obligations under international human rights law, his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Female staff members are essential to executing life-saving U.N. operations on the ground, Dujarric said, stressing that out of Afghanistan’s population of about 40 million people, “we’re trying to reach 23 million men, women and children with humanitarian aid.”

The U.N. has warned that the ban could cripple desperately needed aid deliveries, and lead to a U.N. pullout from Afghanistan.

Since April 5, the 3,300 Afghans employed by the U.N. — 2,700 men and 600 women — have stayed home, but Dujarric has said they continue to work and will be paid. The U.N.’s 600-strong international staff, including 200 women, is not affected by the Taliban ban.

Roza Otunbayeva, a former president and foreign minister of the Kyrgyz Republic who heads the U.N. political mission in Afghanistan known as UNAMA, responded to the Taliban’s ban on Afghan women working for the 193-nation world body by ordering an operational review of the U.N.’s presence in the country, which will last until May 5.

Before the review is completed, secretary-general Guterres will host an international meeting on Afghanistan in Doha, the capital of Qatar, on May 1-2. U.N. spokesman Dujarric said last week that the closed meeting will be attended by envoys on Afghanistan from various countries with the aim of seeking a “durable way forward” for the country.

His announcement followed an April 17 speech at Princeton University by Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, who led a high-ranking U.N. delegation to meetings with Taliban ministers in January, previewing the Doha meeting.

“Out of that, we hope that we’ll find those baby steps to put us back on the pathway to recognition (of the Taliban), a principled recognition,” Mohammed said. “Is it possible? I don’t know. (But) that discussion has to happen. The Taliban clearly want recognition, and that’s the leverage we have.”

The UAE's Nusseibeh said the resolution sends a clear signal to the Doha meeting from the international community and the Security Council: Women and girls play an essential role in every society, including Afghanistan, humanitarian access must not be gender-based, and political engagement and dialogue are the only way forward.

While the resolution focuses on the Taliban crackdown on women and girls, it also underscores that it is critical for all Afghan parties, the region and the wider international community to hold talks to reach a political settlement and restore peace and stability "in the country, the region and beyond."

The resolution reaffirms the U.N.’s support for “a peaceful, stable, prosperous and inclusive Afghanistan” and for an “inclusive Afghan-led and Afghan-owned determination of the country’s political future and development path.”

It also recognizes the many challenges Afghanistan faces, stresses the urgent need to address “the dire economic and humanitarian situation” in the country, and reiterates that women are essential to the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The Taliban have ignored numerous appeals from the U.N. and many countries, including the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation, to restore the rights of girls and women. But Japan's U.N. Ambassador Kimihiro Ishikane said “we need to keep reaching out to them” so the message can start resonating.

Nusseibeh said at some point the Taliban will want to be part of the international community, and when they do “I think it's clear what the conditions and the requirements are.”

This story was published on April 27, 2023. It is being republished to correct the U.N. Secretary-General's reference to Taliban ban, instead of U.N. ban.