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Two boys pass members of a Taliban Red Unit, an elite force, in Laghman province, Afghanistan, March 13, 2020. © 2020 Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times/Redux

(New York) – The Taliban in Afghanistan have imposed severe restrictions on rights in areas under their control despite claims of reform, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Residents reported an inability to criticize or question Taliban actions, violations of the rights of women and girls, and severe limits on freedom of expression and the media. Rights abuses by both Taliban and government forces mean that the United States and other countries supporting the peace process should ensure that any agreement has strong human rights commitments and enforcement mechanisms.

The 69-page report, “‘You Have No Right to Complain’: Education, Social Restrictions, and Justice in Taliban-Held Afghanistan” focuses on the everyday experiences of people living in Taliban-held districts and Taliban restrictions on education, access to information and media, and freedom of movement. The Taliban’s widespread rights abuses in areas it controls raise concerns about their willingness and ability to keep commitments on rights in any future peace agreement.

“The Taliban have rolled back some of their harshest measures in areas they control, but it remains difficult and dangerous for people to voice objections to Taliban authorities,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director. “The Taliban appear intent on ruling by fear, without holding themselves accountable to communities under their control.”

The report is based on 138 interviews, including 120 in-person interviews, conducted since January 2019, with Taliban officials, commanders, and fighters, as well as teachers, doctors, elders, students, and other local residents in Helmand, Kunduz, and Wardak provinces.

Taliban forces currently control a significant portion of Afghanistan’s land and population. In many of these areas, residents abide by a parallel set of government laws and Taliban-imposed regulations that govern education, courts, and other services, and establish or reinforce codes of conduct. While there has been progress on access to education for girls and women in Taliban-held areas, there has been little regard for rights to freedom of expression, information, association, privacy, or media freedom.

Although the Taliban officially state that they no longer oppose girls’ education, very few local Taliban authorities actually permit girls to attend school past puberty, and some do not permit girls’ schools at all. Policies apparently based on individual commanders’ personal views have left residents wary.

One teacher said, “Today they tell you that they allow girls up to sixth grade, but tomorrow, when someone else comes instead, he might not like girls’ education.” In some districts, local demand for education has persuaded Taliban authorities to take a more flexible approach. In others, residents said they do not dare to raise the issue of girls’ schools.

Social controls, embodied in “morality” officials who work for “vice and virtue” departments, operate in Taliban-held districts to enforce residents’ adherence to Taliban-prescribed social codes regarding dress and public deportment, beard length, and men’s attendance at Friday prayers.

Taliban officials have said the social restrictions reflect local community norms. However, while such restrictions exist in both government and Taliban-held areas, some residents, particularly younger people, have resisted these constraints as they seek greater freedom. Taliban officials have punished residents who engage in prohibited social behavior. The Taliban justice system is focused on punishment and largely relies on confessions, often obtained by beatings and other forms of torture.

Residents of Taliban-held districts said that Taliban officials have not allowed them to air grievances or express concerns. The Taliban claim that they hold commanders and other authorities accountable for abuses, but in practice Taliban officials have seldom considered practices amounting to war crimes, including unlawful attacks that have killed civilians, to be wrongful acts.

“The Taliban publicly claim that they don’t put civilians in harm’s way but have punished residents who complain about Taliban forces entering their homes to attack government troops,” Gossman said.

Peace talks between the Taliban and an Afghan government delegation are expected to begin in the coming weeks. The government delegation includes some independent civil society representatives including a small number of women. As the talks move forward, they should address concerns about protections of fundamental human rights, including the rights of women and girls.

The current Afghan constitution and laws enacted since 2002 include many human rights protections, including gender equality, but implementation in government-controlled areas has been poor. Government forces have committed serious human rights abuses, including torture, and have often failed to protect women’s rights. Both the Taliban and current and former government leaders have been implicated in war crimes and other abuses. There is near total impunity for serious violations.

“A future Afghan agreement will not only need to endorse broad human rights principles, but  it will be critical for both the government and Taliban to demonstrate that they are willing to accommodate diverse communities, tolerate dissent, and protect fundamental rights, including women’s and girls’ rights,” Gossman said. “To hold the parties to their human rights commitments, explicit, detailed human rights guarantees and robust monitoring are needed.”

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