Authors’ Note: Human rights in Afghanistan, especially those of women and minorities, have been grossly violated since the Taliban takeover of the country. The international community has responded by pulling troops and aid, which has contributed to severe and inextricable humanitarian and human rights crises. While some international sanctions on the Taliban have been imposed, the sanctions need to be strengthened and structured to impact the Taliban leadership rather than ordinary Afghans. There is a need to rethink the strategy towards Afghanistan. The article aims to highlight mechanisms that can be leveraged to provide the much-needed aid to Afghan citizens while holding Taliban to international human rights and humanitarian laws and standards.
Afghanistan is currently at the center of one of the world’s worst humanitarian and human rights crises. While food insecurity and natural disasters have increased the need for aid in the country more than ever, Afghanistan’s economy, which had been 75% dependent on foreign assistance, has been devastated by the U.S. and the international community’s withdrawal.[i]
The political crisis in Afghanistan has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis. The ability of humanitarian organizations to distribute aid has been undermined by the Taliban’s restrictions on women. The Taliban’s policies, particularly restrictions on women’s work, women’s mobility, and participation in the economy, have increased poverty to the highest levels. Further, Taliban’s restrictions on non-governmental organizations’ (NGOs) employment of women have reduced aid delivery.[ii] International organizations are reluctant to deliver aid in fear of strengthening the Taliban and endorsing fundamentalist practices that deprive women of their rights and livelihoods.
A three-pronged strategy towards Afghanistan is needed, that should include aid, activism, and accountability. Providing material and monetary aid to the U.N. along with international and local NGOs would help address the needs of the people of Afghanistan who are struggling with widespread malnutrition and low-quality healthcare. Any aid must be distributed equitably, especially to female-headed households, and women must be involved in planning, distribution, and monitoring of the aid. Activism would enable broader changes in the polity of the country and help Afghans, especially women and minorities, regain basic rights that are important to lead dignified lives secure from violence and poverty. Organized and systematic grassroots activism can help raise awareness of socio-political issues and mobilize communities, particularly women, to demand change. However, it is critical to build practices that provide aid and cultivate activism in a manner that is sustainable and reaches the most vulnerable, especially female-headed households. Finally, holding the Taliban accountable on international forums for their human rights violations will be critical to compel them to end the reign of terror against women and minorities.
With respect to aid, foreign assistance targeting healthcare and nutrition should be prioritized and distributed equitably. This assistance must include access to reproductive healthcare, including contraception, which will help reduce poverty and discrimination against women and girls. Women should be involved in developing humanitarian relief policy, distributing aid and monitoring relief programs as well as receiving aid. Organizations should aim to limit monetary aid to only worker salaries and prioritize providing increased material aid in the form of food grain, medicines etc. This will reduce the leakages of monetary funds to Taliban, which can be otherwise used by them to strengthen their regime. Increasing engagement with civil society organizations that work on human rights, democracy, and development will help support Afghan communities without directly funding the Taliban. These organizations can help to build resilience and promote social and political change from the ground up.
Efforts should be made to ensure that this aid reaches the most vulnerable populations directly and equitably. To prevent monopolization of any assistance by certain privileged sections of the society a robust monitoring process will be required. As opposed to providing monetary funding which can be easily misappropriated by the Taliban, medicines should be delivered directly to the hospitals and the food to the people.
Further, it would be important to ensure that the impact of any assistance is sustainable beyond the period of the intervention. Aid programs should focus on building the capacity of local institutions and communities to manage and sustain development initiatives such as supporting education and training programs, empowering civil society organizations, and investing in local infrastructure. Hence, international organizations should also utilize this opportunity to help Afghans cultivate new skills that will enable them to access sustained impact or livelihood even after such organizations stop aid. Such programs that focus on ‘skills for aid’ will be of value to the women as they can develop vocational skills such as sewing etc. and achieve financial independence, which would help further their agency. While the Taliban continues to threaten the security of women in the public sphere, ensuring that women continue working even if at home, would be an important first step towards women’s emancipation. Many women currently are providing significant support inside the country by working for Afghan and international organizations. These women are resisting the Taliban rule, in the delivery of aid to the most vulnerable, especially women-headed households. Stronger sanctions on the Taliban and their allies are needed to support such women so that they can continue their essential work.
Donors should also provide support to U.N. or local and international NGOs that operate in Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan to support Afghan refugees.[iii] While structuring aid to Afghan refugees, donor organizations should also prioritize meeting their basic needs, including food, shelter, and healthcare. Focusing on promoting education and livelihood opportunities will help achieve long-term self-reliance and stability for refugees. All programming should be developed with a focus on women, female headed households and other marginalized groups to ensure that aid is distributed equitably and includes reproductive health care and contraception. Finally, working towards social integration of refugees and host communities will be key to promoting social cohesion and reducing tensions.
Another important resource that the international community should be utilizing is the educated men and women on-ground who have received an education during U.S. presence in Afghanistan and are well equipped to lead local initiatives.[iv] The power of collective action should be leveraged to ensure greater rights for the Afghan citizens, especially women and girls. Community-based learning initiatives can help children gain access to relevant education from the safety of their homes. Such learning initiatives have been implemented in different parts of the world through educated youth and can be adapted to the context of Afghanistan[v]. Educated adults in the community can be trained on simple learning activities that they can conduct with small groups of children in their immediate neighborhoods or home. A growing body of research finds such community education programs useful and impactful in improving the learning outcomes of children. It is important to target both boys and girls; while girls have completely lost access to education, boys are currently studying predominantly religious texts and the Taliban ideology in school.[vi] Equipping young children with the concepts of human rights as well as math and science will be key for the future development of the country.
To this end, internet availability and access to digital media should be leveraged to understand the local situation, mobilize the youth, organize awareness campaigns, and implement learning initiatives. Despite its best efforts, the Taliban has not been able to entirely squash dissent and debate on social media regarding its treatment of women and minorities. With nine million internet users in Afghanistan[vii], social media is an important mechanism to organize collective dissent against the Taliban. Further, with traditional media outlets facing censorship and other restrictions, digital media can be utilized to spread greater awareness, provide information on human rights, and fight misinformation. Moreover, online educational opportunities are especially crucial to provide a lifeline for women and girls who have been closed out of schools and universities by the Taliban.[viii]
Given the status of girls and women in the country, in all international programs gender should be a key focus and aid should be earmarked for women rights’ groups to spread awareness to advocate for equality. The Taliban recently banned women from working in foreign and domestic NGOs, thereby restricting them from serving other women in need.[ix] Organizations should also try to negotiate for the inclusion of women in the workforce at the provincial and village levels.
It is important to also construct the relief response for the Afghans without legitimizing the Taliban. Economic and diplomatic pressure on the Taliban must be increased. Sanctions should be targeted at Taliban leadership. Visa restrictions that impact the Taliban should be adopted and enforced, but this should not impact ordinary people’s movement across borders. Further, freezing assets is a precision guided weapon that can zero in on government officials and their supporting elites without causing extensive collateral damage to the largely innocent civilian population.[x] While diplomatic dialogue with the Taliban is important to negotiate such policies, it will be important to not acknowledge the legitimacy of their rule and the validity of their suppressive laws. A united global community should stress that the Taliban should be held accountable to its obligations under international human-rights law. The international community should engage with the Taliban on a conditional basis, meaning that engagement should be dependent on the Taliban’s adherence to certain standards or commitments, such as upholding human rights or allowing women to participate in political life.[xi] Further, any foreign delegation that meets with the Taliban should have representation of women to indicate that the international community stands strongly against the exclusion of women from the public space.
Finally, the international community should try to hold the Afghan leadership responsible for their violation of several international human rights treaties and conventions that Afghanistan had earlier ratified. Suppression of political rights of Afghans and widespread oppression by the Taliban is in violation of treaties such as Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). These treaties, once ratified, hold a country accountable irrespective of changes in governmental power. The two principal international courts are International Court of Justice (ICJ) and International Criminal Court (ICC).[xii] With respect to the ICJ, Afghanistan is a member state of the United Nations (UN) and therefore has consented to the jurisdiction of the ICJ. However, ICJ mostly deals with disputes between states. In the case of the ICC, Afghanistan is not a state party to the Rome Statute, which means that the ICC does not have automatic jurisdiction over crimes committed in Afghanistan. However, the ICC can investigate and prosecute crimes in Afghanistan if the UN Security Council refers the situation to the court. The ICC has an ongoing investigation into crimes committed in Afghanistan since May 2003, which potentially includes crimes committed by the Taliban.[xiii] However, the international councils and courts should aim to hold the Taliban specifically responsible for violating multiple treaties and violating human rights, especially the rights of women and minorities, since they seized power in 2021. This will require concerted and coordinated efforts by the U.N., the international community, human rights organizations, and Afghan civil society groups. In conclusion, providing aid to Afghans without aiding the Taliban requires a multifaceted approach that considers the political, social, and economic complexities of the situation on the ground. The human rights and humanitarian crises are inextricable. It is crucial for the international community to prioritize the needs and voices of the Afghan people, particularly the most vulnerable groups such as women, children, and minorities, in their aid efforts. This can be achieved by working closely with the U.N. and trusted local organizations and community leaders, leveraging digital technologies to promote awareness, and implementing rigorous monitoring and evaluation mechanisms to minimize the risk of aid diversion and ensure its equitable distribution. Further, strong sanctions against the Taliban will help build pressure on the leadership. Ultimately, the goal should be to support the Afghan people, especially women, in their quest for dignity, freedom, independence, and human rights, while minimizing the risk of providing legitimacy and resources to the Taliban. As the world faces one of the most complex humanitarian and human rights situations, it will be important to not ignore Afghanistan even if the solutions are complicated and difficult to achieve.
[xi] Gohel, S. M. (2021). Engaging the Taliban without legitimizing them: An alternative approach. The Journal of International Security Affairs