Ali Ahmad in conversation with Richard Bennett, the UN Special Rapporteur on the state of human rights in Afghanistan.
On October 7, 2021, the Human Rights Council passed resolution 48/1 creating the position of Special Rapporteur on the state of human rights in Afghanistan. Richard Bennett was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on the state of human rights in Afghanistan on April 1, 2022, but assumed his job on May 1, 2022,. The views expressed in this interview are those of Richard Bennett and do not necessarily reflect the views of the UN system.
Ahmad: Please provide us with an overview of the human rights situation in Afghanistan since you took on your post as Special Rapporteur in May 2022. What are the main challenges and progress of your work?
Bennett: The fall of the Republic on August 15, 2021, marked a significant turning point, particularly affecting the rights of women and girls. They have been systematically deprived of their rights, and Afghanistan stands as the only country in the world where girls are banned from education beyond the primary level. The Taliban justifies this restriction in terms of Sharia law, but they have been vague about its duration, claiming it is temporary. Unfortunately, there has been little progress in this regard, and numerous human rights violations persist across various sectors of the population, including ethnic and religious minorities. Civil society, human rights defenders, and journalists face severe restrictions on their freedom of expression and operation. Reports of disappearances, arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture, and killings involving members of the previous republic's security forces have also surfaced, despite the Taliban's announcement of a general amnesty. Consequently, many Afghans are fleeing the country. The de facto authority of the Taliban lacks inclusiveness, both in terms of gender and other aspects, and the rule of law remains absent.
Regarding key challenges, the first priority is to halt the violations and alleviate the suffering of the Afghan people. Holding perpetrators accountable and providing remedies and compensation for victims and survivors is crucial. Moreover, policies and practices causing their suffering must be reversed. Afghanistan must meet its international human rights obligations regardless of any change in government, and the pattern of serious violations needs to be addressed.
As for improvements, it is difficult to gauge how much worse the situation could have been without the ongoing documentation and advocacy work in Afghanistan. The Taliban's interpretation of human rights, based on their version of Sharia, deviates from international human rights standards. While the Taliban claims improvements in security, anti-corruption efforts, and counter-narcotics, these cannot justify the denial of fundamental rights that persist in the country.
Ahmad: How do you deal with these challenges in your work as Special Rapporteur, and do the Taliban still allow you to visit the country and report?
Bennett: Yes, it is crucial that I can visit Afghanistan to witness the situation firsthand and understand the challenges. As a Special Rapporteur, my role is to provide reports and recommendations for improvements. I, along with other thematic and country-specific rapporteurs, are part of the UN system, speaking frankly about the situation in various countries. We are appointed by the Human Rights Council as independent experts and report directly to the Member States, not to the High Commissioner for Human Rights or the Secretary-General.
I will continue to speak out and provide credible, professional, and frank reports on Afghanistan's human rights situation. It is in the best interest of Afghans and the country's future to have this kind of reporting. For instance, my most recent report on women and girls was jointly done with the UN Working Group on the Discrimination against Women and Girls. Collecting information in complex situations can be challenging, but modern digital and communication technology allows us to obtain and verify information remotely, making it no less credible.
Ahmad: What actions have the UN and the international community taken so far in response to your reports and findings?
Bennett: For instance, the Human Rights Council has requested additional reports on women and girls, and they have held extra sessions where they directly hear from Afghan women. It is evident that the Member States of the international community are shaping their policies in alignment with the reports and recommendations that I and others have provided.
I am often invited to speak in various countries and regional bodies, and my reports are taken into consideration in shaping policies. While we advocate and press the Taliban to make changes, the outcomes vary, but we continue to be clear that much of their conduct is unacceptable, especially concerning women and girls, making it the worst situation in any country in my opinion. I firmly believe that the Taliban have not done enough to respect human rights to be considered for international recognition.
My impact is probably more on other countries and in solidarity with Afghan civil society, but there is also evidence that the reports and advocacy have some impact on the Taliban. I can communicate with them, send visual communications, receive replies, and have meetings, indicating that what I say does have an effect to some extent.
Ahmad: Given the current challenges and restrictions imposed by the Taliban, what is your vision for the future of human rights in Afghanistan, and what priorities need to be set to achieve that vision?
Bennett: My vision for the future of human rights in Afghanistan is to see a complete cessation of violations and a reversal of policies that lead to such violations, with a particular focus on women and girls. An inclusive and participatory approach is crucial to achieving this vision. While it's challenging to prioritize among the many necessary changes, some key priorities include ensuring girls' access to education and women's participation in the workforce. Improvements should also be made in the treatment of detainees, allowing independent monitoring, and creating ample civic space for civil society and human rights defenders.
Restoring the rule of law is essential, and this entails rebuilding institutions such as a parliament, an independent and professional judiciary, and the Human Rights Commission, among others, which have been dissolved. The role of other Muslim-majority countries is significant, and I hope they provide leadership in addressing the policies of the Taliban's de facto authorities. Many of these policies are not accepted by Muslim-majority countries and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). It is essential that valuable voices come from within the Muslim community, including scholars, to engage in shaping the future of Afghanistan as an Islamic state that respects human rights
Ahmad: What are your views on cooperation with the Taliban and whether humanitarian aid should be conditional, e.g. the right to education for girls? What approach should the international community take in dealing with the Taliban?
Bennett: One of my concerns is that while we debate whether humanitarian aid should be conditioned or not, the level of aid is actually decreasing. If donor countries stop providing funds to Afghanistan, there will be severe consequences and Afghan lives will be at risk. I believe aid should not be cut; in fact, it should be increased to address urgent needs
Regarding conditions, this is a critical issue. For instance, conditioning aid on girls' education is essential, as well as ensuring women's staff can deliver aid without restrictions. Violating the UN Charter by preventing women from participating in aid delivery is unacceptable and should not be normalized. There should be no compromise on human rights, but at the same time, aid must be delivered to those in need.
It's not an either-or situation; it requires ongoing discussion. We cannot ignore the impact of poverty, lack of food, and education, so finding a balanced approach is crucial. While upholding human rights, we must ensure aid reaches its recipients, including women and girls, who are often disproportionately affected by crises. I'm also concerned that if women are not allowed to work and are confined to their homes, it may lead to children taking their place in the workforce, which raises serious concerns about child labor and exploitation. This is a complex question that requires careful consideration and a balanced approach to address humanitarian needs while standing firm on human rights principles.
Ahmad: What could the EU do in response to the situation in Afghanistan?
Bennett: The ongoing human rights, humanitarian, and political crisis in Afghanistan demands attention. It's not just a moral obligation; there's a practical responsibility too. If EU members believe the issue can be confined within Afghanistan's borders, I respectfully disagree. Ignoring human rights and women's rights now could lead to severe consequences that extend beyond Afghanistan's boundaries.
EU members are genuinely concerned about terrorism and immigration, and while this may not be an immediate issue, it should be a priority to promote human rights, equality, and inclusivity in Afghanistan's governance. Failure to do so may lead to significant long-term consequences.While acknowledging concerns about conflicts in other regions, I urge EU member states not to deprioritize Afghanistan but to make it one of their highest priorities. Through my conversations with Afghans, it's evident that many feel abandoned. Their foremost worry before 2021 was the return of the Taliban and a repeat of the 1990s situation, which has unfortunately materialized. Their secondary concern is that the Taliban might regain power without positive change and gain international recognition. This concern should be a priority for both UN member states and the EU to address.