The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, says individual Taliban members could be held accountable for what he calls the group’s unacceptable policy to erase women from public life.
In an interview Tuesday with VOA via Skype, Bennett said that the Taliban’s “gender persecution is a crime against humanity” and that the International Criminal Court would have responsibility to act against it.
The Taliban, who returned to power in August 2021, have imposed repressive measures against women, including banning them from secondary- and university-level education, work, long-distance travel, public parks and gyms.
Bennett told Nazrana Ghaffar Yousufzai of VOA’s Afghan Service that this is the time that the world should pay “more attention to Afghanistan.”
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
VOA: Another academic year has started in Afghanistan, but women are banned from high schools and higher education. Other than statements, what is the U.N. doing to help Afghan women?
Richard Bennett, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan: It's not only statements. The U.N. is engaging in many discussions and messages with the Taliban and also encouraging other member states, particularly those in the region who are Muslim-majority countries and other organizations such as the OIC [Organization of Islamic Cooperation], to make very clear to the Taliban that they are on their own, they are isolated. This ban on education for girls and women has no religious justification, and no other Muslim countries support the position of the Taliban on it. Yesterday, I spoke at the session of the Human Rights Council on Afghanistan. After I spoke, many countries, also NGOs, spoke about the situation in Afghanistan. I think there were more than 60 [countries]; I cannot remember one that agreed with the de facto authorities, the Taliban’s position on this, including the neighbors.
They also spoke very strongly in favor of girls' education. Not only the opening of schools but quality education. And this is the point that I think we really need to put together. ... You asked me what more can be done. I think it is important to keep the pressure and to make clear that there really is no other way than to educate girls and women.
VOA: What are some of the leverages that the international community has on the Taliban?
Bennett: Well, I think leverage is a matter of - let’s put it in terms of carrots and sticks, or incentives and penalties. On the side of incentives, it’s to avoid the Taliban having further isolation and becoming more of a pariah state and getting more support, aid, and in terms of education, especially secondary and university level education. In terms of the sticks, it's not really me who has these sticks, but there is the potential of sanctions, which have already been mentioned, not so much by me. The sticks that I mentioned in the reports recently, and also when I spoke yesterday, is that the Taliban is, and I am not saying this particularly about education, but their overall approach is leading to a position tantamount to gender persecution. And gender persecution is an international crime in the Rome Statute, it’s a crime against humanity, and individuals can be held accountable.
VOA: In that case, as in your words, “it's a crime against humanity,” what actions should be expected from the international community?
Bennett: The action should come first from the de facto authorities, who have the power in Afghanistan. They are the ones who should take the first action to avoid being penalized. But from the international community, I mentioned that gender persecution is a crime against humanity. It’s the responsibility of the International Criminal Court. That is an independent institution. I am unable to speak on behalf of that institution and of the prosecutor. They make their own decisions. But that’s where some institutional responsibility lies.
VOA: What’s the future of women under the Taliban?
Bennett: The future should be to stand with Afghan women so they can get back the rights they have lost. I wouldn’t say that 20 years of the republic was a golden age and everything was perfect for Afghans, including women. It wasn’t. It was challenging. But there was some progress made. I don’t agree with those who say no progress was made. I spent years in Afghanistan. I know many Afghan women who feel that progress was made. But nevertheless, since August 2021, there has been a regression, and it is clear. The Taliban clearly have an intentional policy to more or less erase women and girls from public life, and that’s unacceptable in any country in the 21st century.
VOA: If the current diplomacy with the Taliban is not working, does the international community have any other pathway?
Bennett: One pathway that actually worries me is that the international community will turn the other way. And to answer your question, I think you may have been asking to see what more could the international community do. What worries me is that they say, "Well, you know, we're not getting anywhere in Afghanistan. Let's put our resources somewhere else." That worries me - that there is less attention, not more. And, you know, I just was looking at the final few words I made in a statement in Geneva yesterday, and this is exactly what I said. You know, this is the time to get more support, more attention to Afghanistan, not less attention.