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Afghanistan: UN Should Ensure Women’s Full Role in Talks

US Should Support a Genuinely Inclusive Process, Not Just ‘Parallel’ Events

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres attends a press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan on June 14, 2017. © 2017 KYDPL KYODO

(New York) – Women should have full participation in the talks between Afghan government officials, opposition political leaders, and the Taliban under United Nations auspices, Human Rights Watch said today. Human rights advocates in Afghanistan have raised concerns that women and victims’ organizations will be sidelined in the talks, tentatively scheduled for April 16, 2021, in Istanbul.

Senior UN officials – notably Secretary-General António Guterres, Deputy Secretary‑General Amina Mohammed, the secretary-general’s personal envoy on Afghanistan, Jean Arnault, and the special representative for the secretary-general on Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons – should make a public commitment to fully include women in the main talks, and not only in “parallel” side events devoted to civil society groups.

“As the Afghanistan conference host, the United Nations needs to ensure that women are full participants in the core talks,” said Heather Barr, interim women’s rights co-director at Human Rights Watch. “UN officials should make clear that women should not be relegated to side discussions but need a central role in determining Afghanistan’s future.”

The Istanbul talks, tentatively scheduled to begin on April 16, 2021, are to discuss proposed peace plans that include a possible interim government. Leading Afghan political figures, including former president Hamid Karzai and other heads of political factions, are likely to attend along with government officials from the High Council on National Reconciliation. The United States government has promoted these talks in an effort to accelerate negotiations before a US troop withdrawal.

A meeting in Moscow on March 18 that aimed to advance peace talks included a similar roster of political figures, including several implicated in serious human rights abuses from the Afghan government and other political groups, plus the Taliban, along with diplomats from partner countries. The Afghan government delegation at that event included only one woman, Dr. Habiba Sarabi, even though the government’s official delegation on intra-Afghan talks that have been ongoing in Doha, Qatar, includes 4 women among its 20 members. In both settings, the Taliban delegation has been entirely male.

The UN has repeatedly stated its commitment to ensuring the full participation of Afghan women in the peace process. In November 2019, Deputy Secretary‑General Mohamed said that “women’s inclusion is critical to sustainable peace and development in Afghanistan. Afghan women can rely on the full solidarity and commitment of everyone here today as individuals, and as representatives of Member States and organizations.”

UN Security Council Resolution 1325, adopted in 2000, calls for women’s “equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.” Since then, the Security Council has passed seven additional resolutions on women, peace, and security.

Women’s rights activists in Afghanistan have for years raised concerns that the government will trade away women’s rights to reach an accommodation with the Taliban. The Afghan government has often resisted including women in peace talks. In June 2015, the government adopted a national action plan to implement Security Council Resolution 1325 from 2015 through 2022, including the goal of “[e]nsuring women’s effective participation in the peace process,” but the plan lacked detail and has not been meaningfully carried out. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has also called for a commitment to women’s full participation in the talks.

The US, in particular, has an important role to play in promoting full participation by women in the upcoming talks, Human Rights Watch said. The US is seeking an agreement in Afghanistan as the administration of President Joe Biden weighs whether to comply with the May 1 deadline for US troop withdrawal that was set in the February 2020 deal between the US and the Taliban negotiated by the previous US administration.

A leaked US government draft plan, dated February 28, calls for a transitional “peace government” in Afghanistan with appointments to that government be made “with special consideration for the meaningful inclusion of women…throughout government institutions.” But “meaningful inclusion” falls short of the “full participation in the peace process” set out under Resolution 1325.

“The US should not stay silent if the Afghan government shuts women out of peace talks,” Barr said. “It’s critical for the Biden administration to be clear that Afghan women need to be full participants in all talks, and that women’s rights are not a bargaining chip.”

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