Populations in Afghanistan are facing systematic human rights violations perpetrated by the Taliban de facto authorities. Other armed extremist groups also continue to pose a threat to civilians.
On 15 August 2021 Taliban forces entered Kabul, Afghanistan, effectively overthrowing the Afghan government. Since then, the Taliban and various armed groups, including the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K), have committed widespread and systematic human rights violations throughout the country, including regularly perpetrating attacks that predominantly target ethnic and religious minorities. In addition, the Taliban de facto authorities have imposed severe restrictions on fundamental rights, including freedom of religion, as well as access to civic and public space, particularly for women and girls. The Taliban have enforced a sweeping series of decrees that severely restrict women’s rights to fully participate in public and daily life, including restrictions on freedom of movement and expression, employment opportunities and access to education and healthcare. Women’s rights activists and human rights defenders have faced killings, enforced disappearances, incommunicado detention, attacks and harassment.
The Human Rights Service of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented over 2,106 civilians killed or wounded in targeted attacks from 15 August 2021 to 15 June 2022, mostly by improvised explosive devices in attacks perpetrated by ISIL-K. Since then, over 460 people have been killed and injured in a series of bombings and mass casualty attacks, including those targeting Shia neighborhoods of Kabul. Many of these attacks were attributable to ISIL-K. UNAMA has also documented evidence of the Taliban de facto authorities committing a wide range of human rights violations – including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, incommunicado detention and torture and ill-treatment – against former government officials and armed forces, media workers and human rights defenders.
The Taliban have also perpetrated abuses against persons accused of affiliation with armed groups, such as ISIL-K and the self-identified National Resistance Front (NRF). The NRF has been opposing the Taliban militarily in Panjshir and surrounding areas since the Taliban took over Afghanistan. Civilians have faced violations and abuses in the country’s northern provinces, including Panjshir and Baghlan, as the Taliban de facto security forces clash with fighters affiliated with the NRF.
The people of Afghanistan are enduring a severe humanitarian crisis, compounded by the impact of sanctions and the freezing of state assets. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than half the population is currently in need of humanitarian aid, with nearly 20 million people facing acute hunger. On 22 December 2021 the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 2615, allowing for humanitarian aid to flow into Afghanistan without violating UN sanctions against the Taliban, which have been in place since 2011.
The Taliban were the de facto authorities in Afghanistan from 1996-2001 before they were overthrown by a North Atlantic Treaty Organization coalition of military forces. During two decades of insurgency against the internationally recognized Afghan government, the Taliban perpetrated likely crimes against humanity and war crimes while Afghan security forces and members of the United States (US) military and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) also committed likely war crimes. On 5 March 2020 the International Criminal Court authorized the Office of the Prosecutor to investigate alleged atrocity crimes perpetrated in Afghanistan since 1 July 2002. On 27 September 2021 Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan announced the decision to focus on crimes allegedly perpetrated by the Taliban and ISIL-K, and to de-prioritize other aspects of the investigation, including acts committed by Afghan national security forces, US forces and the CIA.
On November 2022 a group of UN independent human rights experts – including the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan and the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls – reported that the Taliban de facto authorities’ targeting of women and girls in Afghanistan may amount to gender persecution, a crime against humanity.
The Special Rapporteur also reported in September 2022 that attacks against ethnic and religious minorities appear to be systematic in nature and reflect elements of an organizational policy, likely amounting to crimes against humanity. These attacks are frequently claimed by ISIL-K and directly target Hazara Shias, other Shia Muslims, Sufi Muslims, Sikhs and other minorities. Their places of worship, as well as educational and medical centers, have been systematically attacked, and their members have been arbitrarily arrested, tortured, summarily executed and forced to flee the country.
The mandate of the Special Rapporteur was created on 7 October 2021 by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) and was renewed in October 2022. The HRC expanded the mandate to document and preserve information relating to human rights violations and abuses, as well as requested the Special Rapporteur and the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls to jointly prepare a report on the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan for its 53rd session.
Despite assurances from the Taliban, the risk of further war crimes and crimes against humanity persists. The Taliban de facto authorities have frequently targeted journalists, civil servants, human rights defenders and those affiliated with the former Afghan government with violations that appear to be perpetrated on a widespread and systematic basis. Impunity for past and ongoing violations has enabled crimes to continue.
Efforts by the Taliban to exclude women and girls from social, economic and political spheres, including the institutionalized large-scale and systematic gender-based discrimination and violence against them, likely amounts to the crime against humanity of gender persecution. Continued restrictions on fundamental freedoms could lead to more severe violations of international law and further atrocity crimes.
Ethnic and religious minorities, particularly the Shia Hazara, continue to be systematically targeted by ISIL-K, indicating that the Taliban is likely unable or unwilling to protect vulnerable populations. Targeted attacks are largely unreported due to the Taliban’s increasing crackdown on independent media.
As the de facto authorities, the Taliban are bound by all existing international human rights obligations codified in the treaties to which Afghanistan is a state party. They must uphold these obligations, including by halting all violations and abuses perpetrated by their officials and guaranteeing the equal protection and promotion of human rights of all people in Afghanistan, regardless of gender, ethnic background, religious belief or political affiliation.
The Taliban must investigate patterns of human rights violations documented by UNAMA and the Special Rapporteur and take immediate steps to prevent future violations, including by holding perpetrators accountable. The Taliban should allow the international community to provide assistance in meeting these obligations. It is imperative that the Taliban cooperate with and facilitate access for the Special Rapporteur, UNAMA and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as ensure the safety of all humanitarian workers and organizations.
The international community should continue to pursue justice for war crimes committed in Afghanistan, regardless of the position, nationality or affiliation of the alleged perpetrator. The UNSC should ensure that UNAMA’s Human Rights Service is preserved in its mandate renewal in March 2023.
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
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