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UN Rights Chief Slams New Afghan Law Restricting Women's Rights

The U.N. Human Rights Commissioner, Navi Pillay says a new Afghan law restricting women's rights violates Afghanistan's constitution as well as universal standards. She urges the Afghan government to rescind the new law.

U.N. Human Rights Chief, Navi Pillay, calls the new Afghan law a huge step in the wrong direction. She says the law is another clear indication that the human rights situation in Afghanistan is getting worse not better.

Her spokesman, Rupert Colville, tells VOA, the new law is extremely damaging to women. He says it violates international laws such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. He says it also breeches Afghanistan's constitution, which calls for equal rights for men and women.

"It is really very reminiscent of the Taliban type decrees in the 1990's. It forbids women to leave their homes except for very exceptional purposes," Colville said. "It forbids them to work or receive education without their husband's express permission. It even permits marital rape, essentially women cannot refuse sexual relations unless they are sick."

The new law which was passed by Afghanistan's Parliament last month, has not yet been published, but President Hamid Karzai, who faces a tough re-election campaign, has already approved it.

News reports say the law strips mothers of custody rights to their children in case of divorce. It makes it impossible for wives to inherit houses and land from their husbands, though husbands may inherit real estate from their wives.

The law only affects Afghanistan's minority Shi'ite community members, mostly ethnic Hazaras, who make up about 10 percent of the country's population.

Colville says this does not sound like very much, but he warns, the law could have far wider implications.

"It is immediately scary for the Shi'a women, particularly the Hazara's minority, but it sets precedents and it could seriously undermine women's rights for other groups as well-those who have managed to acquire some over the years…But, this is really a step backwards," Colville said. "One would have hoped after the Taliban were removed in 2001, that gradually one could proceed forwards and indeed there have been advances."

Colville says girls in Afghanistan have gone back to school and women have gone back to work-at least in the main cities. But, he notes these gains are still very fragile and the new law is a big setback.

High Commissioner Pillay cites a number of other human rights setbacks in Afghanistan that are undermining efforts to build the rule of law in the country. She says freedom of expression by media and civil society is coming under increasing assault.

She says no progress has been made in bringing people responsible for war crimes to justice. She says impunity is widespread and, after a moratorium of some years, the government recently reactivated the death penalty.