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UN Chief Lambastes Taliban for 'Systemic Attacks' on Afghan Women's Rights

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres gives an address after a closed-door summit on Afghanistan in Doha, Qatar, May 2, 2023.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres gives an address after a closed-door summit on Afghanistan in Doha, Qatar, May 2, 2023.

Participants at a United Nations-convened international meeting on Afghanistan in Qatar agreed Tuesday to work together to find a way to engage with the country's fundamentalist Taliban authorities on issues such as human rights, governance, counterterrorism and anti-drug efforts.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and special envoys on Afghanistan from nearly two dozen countries, including the United States, China and Russia as well as international organizations, attended the talks that began on Monday. The Taliban criticized the session for excluding them.

At the outset, Guterres told a post-meeting conference in the Qatari capital of Doha that it was about developing a "common international approach" and not about recognition of the Taliban government.

The clarification stemmed from a senior U.N. official's suggestion in the run-up to the Doha meeting that attendees would also discuss recognizing the Taliban's men-only government.

Taliban takeover

The Taliban seized power in August 2021 when U.S. and NATO troops departed the country after nearly two decades of involvement in the war with the then-insurgent Taliban.

No foreign government has recognized the new administration in Kabul, known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, in part because of its bans on women's access to work, education and public life.

"The current ban on Afghan women working for the United Nations and national and international NGOs is unacceptable and puts lives in jeopardy," Guterres said Tuesday. "Let me be crystal clear, we will never be silent in the face of unprecedented, systemic attacks on women and girls' rights."

The Taliban government has banned girls' education beyond the sixth grade and barred most women from workplaces, including those working with the U.N. and nongovernmental organizations.

"When it is the right moment to do so, I will obviously not refuse that possibility. Today is not the right moment to do so," Guterres said when asked if he would be willing to hold a direct meeting with the Taliban.

The U.N. chief noted that delegates at the meeting were worried about the stability of Afghanistan and expressed serious concerns over "the persistent presence of terrorist organizations" and "the spread of drug trafficking that posed a risk for the region and beyond.

"Participants agreed on the need for a strategy of engagement that allows for the stabilization of Afghanistan but also allows for addressing important concerns," he said.

"To achieve our objectives, we cannot disengage. Many called for engagement to be more effective and based on lessons which we have learned from the past," the secretary-general said without elaborating.

The United Nations is due to conclude by Friday its ongoing review of Afghan operations in the aftermath of the Taliban ban on its female staff, prompting fears the global body could be preparing to withdraw from the country.

Guterres stopped short of ruling out the withdrawal possibility, while noting that Afghanistan is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with 97% of Afghans living in poverty.

"Two-thirds of the population — 28 million — will need humanitarian assistance this year to survive. Six million Afghan children, women, and men are one step away from famine-like conditions. Meanwhile, funding is evaporating," he said.

The U.N. chief noted the world body has received only $294 million, or 6.4%, of its $4.6 billion Afghan humanitarian response plan for 2023.

Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban permanent representative-designate to the U.N., hailed Guterres' announcement that the meeting participants had agreed to maintain engagement with Afghanistan.

"I believe a major flaw of the meeting was the exclusion of the IEA, the main party to the issue. Any meeting without their participation can neither be productive nor help in solving issues," Shahen, who currently heads the Doha-based Taliban political office, told VOA by phone.

He said that Afghanistan faces many challenges, and the Taliban would want to resolve them in line with "our own principles." Shaheen pointed out that the Afghan nation had also been demanding the removal of international financial sanctions that were imposed on the country after the Taliban takeover.

"But there was no discussion on the issue at the just concluded meeting. These sanctions are inflicting collective punishment on the poverty-stricken Afghan people. We welcome any gathering that aims to resolve issues, but if the purpose is to put pressure on us, it won't work. The IEA is a reality, and no one should ignore it."

Hibatullah Akhundzada, the reclusive Taliban chief, has repeatedly rejected international calls for removing bans on women and girls, saying he will not allow any foreign interference in his Islamic governance.

The Taliban previously controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Only three countries recognized their government then, including neighboring Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The hardline group had at the time wholly banned girls from receiving an education and women from working outdoors.

They had also hosted al-Qaida leaders blamed for plotting the deadly September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.