53rd Session of the Human Rights council - Item 2: EID on Afghanistan (with Special Rapporteur and Working Group on discrimination against women and girls)

53rd Session of the Human Rights council - Item 2: EID on Afghanistan (with Special Rapporteur and Working Group on discrimination against women and girls)
Photo Source: GHRD Staff


    Sivasankar, Reva Kulkarni, Shruti Lal

    Team UN Geneva Researchers,

    Global Human Rights Defence.


    On the 19th of June 2023, the 53rd Session of the Human Rights Council commenced at the United Nations in Geneva. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk opened the session with his remarks on the importance of cooperation in order to achieve higher standards of human rights globally. Citing many examples of States who have welcomed efforts by UN organs and partnered with one another, he stated that “human rights must always be above the frame of politics.” In the spirit of enabling fruitful discussion, he further emphasised the need for a victim centred approach to transitional justice, rather than punitive methods that hinder collaboration and tangible progress. Consequently, Deputy High Commissioner Nada Al-Nashif shared her concerns about the grave situation of women and girls in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. She emphasised the need to not normalise such violence in light of the systemic persecution of gender, and other minorities, which has created a “climate of fear” in the country. Further introducing Item 2: EID on Afghanistan (with Special Rapporteur (SR) and Working Group (WG) on discrimination against women and girls), the Special Rapporteur highlighted the key takeaways from his most recent visit to the country and stated that the situation may constitute the Crime Against Humanity of Gender Persecution. Afghan delegate, H.E. Ahmad Shah highlighted that “this is not a local challenge,” and such unprecedented situations require solutions that go beyond the usual. Hearing from more Afghan human rights activists, Ms. Madina Mahboobi branded the ongoing violence as “catastrophic” and “hell on earth” prompting Ms. Shahrazad Akbar to urge the Council and its members to take more action including providing support to civic actors in Afghanistan.

    As the President opened the floor for States to discuss this agenda item, Germany began by stating that the ongoing violence takes away not just the futures of Afghan women and girls, but the future of the whole country. It further aligned itself with the statement of the European Union as did others including Ireland, Austria, Poland, Czechia, and Malta. This cohesive group of states along with Australia, Netherlands, France, and Spain agreed on the urgent need for unified action as they discussed methods including targeted individual sanction on Taliban leadership. There was a strong push for the full, equal, and meaningful participation of Afghan women in public life including in education and work.

    Pakistan and Malaysia (on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) focused on the importance of humanitarian assistance, proclaiming that they stood in solidarity with the Afghani people. Indonesia notably stated that cultural and social grounds were not a valid pretext to hinder women’s rights and they would continue to play a constructive role in fighting against the de facto regime of Afghanistan. The United States of America highlighted that “human rights are universal and do not belong to any culture”, thus arguing against a cultural relativist stance on human rights. The Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic of Iran both criticised American actions in Afghanistan. The former noted that they had not forgotten the war crimes committed by the United States and NATO in that region, while the latter claimed that the challenges Afghanistan faces today is due to the negative impact of American occupation. Iran further went on to highlight the importance of an inclusive government in Afghanistan, which is in stark contrast to the Special Rapporteur’s concerns about their own recent increase in executions and decline in women’s rights.  

    Several speakers referred to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), most notably Switzerland, emphasising women’s need for full, equal, meaningful and safe participation in civic life”, along with the importance of an independent enquiry mechanism to further increase accountability in the country. There were other countries that also brought up prior international commitments, such as Namibia and the Maldives who brought up the UNSC Resolution 1325 and 2681 respectively. The former is a landmark resolution that urges international actors to increase women’s participation and incorporate gender perspective in security efforts. The latter refers to the Security Council condemning the Taliban’s decision to ban women from working in the UN in Afghanistan, calling for the reversal of this policy, and those related to obstructing women’s enjoyment of fundamental freedoms and rights. References to these legal instruments highlighted the existing obligations of all States including Afghanistan. 

    Throughout their statements, many States called for increased action and requested further guidance from the Council on the way forward. Notably, Mexico highlighted their welcoming of Afghan refugees including the Afghan Dreamers, a robotics team, who have received access to further education. UN Women strongly emphasised the need to “deliver with impact” as Costa Rica asked the Council to develop potential solutions to maintain the dignity of women in Afghanistan. Argentina further demanded the “guaranteed inter alia protection for the rights of women and girls.” As there was a demand for peaceful and sustainable solutions, the Chinese delegation rightly emphasised that multifaceted challenges which need to be tackled in a comprehensive manner to protect the fundamental interests of all Afghans. Overall, there was a general feeling of productive cooperation and the urge to take action as many States demanded the Taliban regime to reverse their actions.

    As NGOs took the floor, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom said that “humanitarian aid is politicised by the Taliban'', and that even though they have lost everything, they won't forget how the international community has failed them. A former Afghan detainee spoke on behalf of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development; having lived through tortuous days in detention centres, she said there was “hell on Earth here” echoing Ms. Mahboobi, before asking the Council if they would be happy with mere declarations without action if their kin were in the same position. Other groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also made statements in support of the Afghani women and their fight against their oppressive regime. These groups discussed the slow-motion genocide of the Hazara’s, citing that the actions of the Taliban are inconsistent with Islam and their culture, and that broader independent mechanisms need to be established to commit to the agenda. To end, the Council was asked a sombre question - “what is the worth of life without peace?”.  

    In the concluding remarks, Ms Akbar drew a picture of a reimagined future of Afghanistan ten years from now, where the alternative would be religious education designed to radicalise the masses, calling on the Council to stand on the right side of history. While Ms Mahboobi was happy to see numerous States expressing their support for the women and girls of Afghanistan, she stated that “imposing change from outside is ineffective and will create more challenges and so must be done from the inside. Isolation is not a solution [and] it won't lead to a sustainable outcome.” Ms Estrada-Tanck, Chair of the Working Group, emphasised the need for support with long term flexible funding, giving a message to the women of Afghanistan, “I would not forget you”, and urged the Council not to do this either. At the very end, Mr Bennet welcomed the solidarity seen among the States but asserted the necessity for practical measures. In a reply to those States who had asked the panel what they could do to improve this situation, he identified two broad solutions for them - to disengage in actions that empower the de facto authority’s violations and legitimise or normalise them, and to not lose sight of the intersectional discrimination of the marginalised women of Afghanistan, those from the Hazara community, and women with disabilities. He concluded discussion on this item by announcing the alarm over such radicalisation extending over the boundaries of Afghanistan, before declaring the resources Afghanistan needs from the Council, proportional to the magnitude of the problem that exists. 

    Sources and further readings

    UN General Assembly, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 18 December 1979, A/RES/34/180, https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/cedaw.pdf  

    United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Res 1325 (31 October 2000). UN Doc S/RES/1325, https://www.un.org/womenwatch/osagi/wps/#resolution 

    United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Res 2681 (27 April 2023). UN Doc  S/RES/2681, http://unscr.com/en/resolutions/doc/2681