Will the Taliban deliver on their human rights promises?

October 17, 2021

Top political leaders in the US, the UK, and the European Union have made it clear that rhetoric will not suffice; the Taliban will be judged on the basis of their actions

A Taliban security member holds a rifle to ensure order Kabul. Image courtesy Reuters
A Taliban security member holds a rifle to ensure order Kabul. Image courtesy Reuters

The Taliban’s victory has caused widespread fears and concerns about human rights in Afghanistan - in particular about the protection of women and journalists. Even before the Taliban captured Kabul, the US and its coalition allies were signalling that they will accept a Taliban-led government only if it will uphold the basic rights, especially the fundamental rights of women and girls. The top political leaders in the US, the UK and the European Union have made it clear that rhetoric and promises will not suffice and that they will judge the Taliban’s promises by their actions. The United Nations, the Amnesty International, the Human Rights Watch and numerous human rights defenders have demanded that the Taliban respect basic freedoms. There are also early signs of an indigenous movement within Afghanistan against rights abuses and restrictions.

The Taliban reacted to these demands initially with what appeared to be good political acumen and presented a reassuring face. They declared a general amnesty for all, including rival factions. Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s spokesman, announced that the rights of women will be protected “within the framework of Islam”. Nobody will be harmed in Afghanistan”, he said. Calls were also made upon women to return to work. There was also the assurance that private media would “remain independent” with the advice that journalists “should not work against national values”. It is clear that these promises were caveated but they still sparked hope about a new political settlement that would be underpinned by some basic principles of social inclusion and respect for human rights.

The optimism co-existed with a huge degree of suspicion about these assurances and promises. This is because the international community and some segments of Afghan population genuinely believe that Taliban’s ideology is infused with repression and use of force. The 1990s saw the manifestation of this ideology. The events at Kabul airport in August leading to an exodus are a vivid testament of a huge trust deficit that exists between the Taliban and the rest of the world. This is despite the fact that the Taliban themselves have admitted that there is a huge difference in their worldview now and 20 years ago. These statements tended to portray the picture of a “new” Taliban who are apparently more moderate and willing to refrain from repression and mistreatment of people, and would allow more freedoms to women, journalists and the population at large.

The developments so far have contradicted the Taliban’s reassurances and dashed the hopes for a progressive stance on their side. The announcement of an all-male interim government was the first big blow to their promises about human rights and women’s rights in particular. The 33-member cabinet did not include a woman or a minister for human rights. Even though the caretaker appointments are meant to be temporary, a fair representation of women and non-Pashtun ethnic groups would have provided the Taliban a big opportunity to stand tall against their promises and secure support from international community. The inclusion of hardliners in the cabinet has already increased the fissure between the Taliban’s words and actions.

Several other announcements and actions have also raised eyebrows: the replacement of women’s affairs ministry with the so-called virtue-enforcing force, pause on re-opening of secondary schools for girls, separation of boys and girls in higher education institutions, barring women to travel without a male guardian if out-of-home stay is for more than three nights. There are also reports that the Taliban authorities have been detaining and assaulting journalists and imposing new restrictions on media work. Many human rights defenders are feeling threatened and exploring options to leave the country.

While these developments are shocking, Kabul and other cities have seen local protests from women and rights activists. Apart from some isolated events, the Taliban have not reverted to unleash weapons and violence on those demanding their rights. They have shown some willingness to respect rights, but within the boundaries that they have yet to define. Therefore, it is very likely that the Taliban’s stance on human rights, treatment of women and individual freedoms will be softer than their rule in the 1990s. They will place restrictions and control but will try to avoid draconian treatment and killings. But, it is very likely that their stance on human rights will not fully satisfy international norms and demands of US-led coalition member states and the United Nations for many years to come. There are several reasons to argue along these lines.

The foremost reason is the iron-clad premise of the Taliban’s desire and armed struggle to take over the reins of the country into their hands i.e. to enforce their own version of shariah. They have long said that it is their divine duty to do so. They say that their legitimacy in power depends directly on fulfilling the aspirations of their supporters and the wider public in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other Islamic countries. Therefore, the tensions between aspirations of their own constituency and expectations of the international community to respect human rights in line with their norms and UN conventions poses a big dilemma for the Taliban to resolve. Controversies over the boundaries within which women’s rights, media freedom and other rights should be exercised can easily break the unity of command and bond within the Taliban’s higher ranks. This is something they want to avoid at all costs.

This is not to suggest that aspirations for an Islamic emirate and shariah are inherently incompatible with international standards and norms. Islam places great premium on kindness, welfare, privacy and guarantees the rights of women children, the destitute, minorities and vulnerable groups. But, it is by no means an easy feat to adopt legislation and policies that would suit the Taliban’s interpretation of shariah’s boundaries and at the same time ensure that it is in harmony with UN conventions and demands of the US-led coalition member states in some domains, particularly in relation to empowerment and rights of women and girls. Despite a stronger history of legislation and social change, Pakistan is still struggling to enact progressive laws on child marriage, domestic violence, forced conversion and minority rights due to inconsistencies in the legal frameworks over the age of a child and differences over alignment with historic precedents and interpretations in Islamic history.

What are the options for international community should the Taliban fail to deliver on their human rights promises? Dialogue is the only way forward. Economic progress, basic services and restoration of jobs and livelihoods are vital for the Afghan people to thrive. Disengagement will harm these goals. The international community should come forward for the sake of Afghan people. This might also create opportunities to link economic and financial aid with progress on human rights and accountability in the form of sanctions. As the Taliban have begun to reveal their own boundaries, the world leaders need to set out what their demands mean in practice. For example, the education of girls is non-negotiable but it might be acceptable in the interim to do so in separate schools for girls and boys. Assertions in other areas with the same level of clarity might be difficult but dialogue and listening to the Taliban’s perspective will be crucial to making things creep in the right direction. The world community also needs to invest heavily in a world-class education system and exposure for the Afghan leadership and people commensurate with their expectations about a progressive worldview.

In parallel, there has to be a movement for change within Afghanistan. The country cannot afford disengagement with the external world as it needs both financial and technical support for sustained development and growth. It cannot also afford to let half of its population sit back and suffer within the four walls. Restrictions on media will directly suppress the legitimacy of their rule by widening the trust deficit and gap in public access to information. The Taliban will need to shed off their historic image of tyranny and brutality and find a way to reconcile their interpretation of Islamic laws with international standards and norms. There is only one path to do this: they will have to demonstrate that it is not the messaging only that has changed, but ideology and actions have changed too.

The writer is a social development expert based in Islamabad and can be reached at sirajmazhar  @hotmail.com

Will the Taliban deliver on their human rights promises?