Women walk along a street in the old part of Kabul on February 29, 2020. Women across the country are nervous about losing their hard-won freedoms in the pursuit of peace.  © 2020 WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images
(New York) – Upcoming talks between the Taliban, the Afghan government, and other Afghan political leaders should make human rights protections a priority, Human Rights Watch said today. The negotiations should include meaningful participation by women, victims’ groups, and proponents of legal and constitutional reforms. The talks are scheduled to begin March 10, 2020.

On February 29, the United States government and Taliban leadership signed an agreement outlining a phased withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in exchange for Taliban commitments not to allow attacks on the US or its allies from Afghan territory. The troop withdrawal is meant to take place in parallel with progress in negotiations between representatives of the Afghan government and other Afghan political groups and Taliban leaders aimed at achieving a political settlement to the armed conflict.

“A durable peace agreement in Afghanistan needs to ensure the protection of fundamental human rights and mechanisms to provide justice for serious abuses,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director. “To achieve these goals those most affected by the conflict should have a meaningful role in the process.”

The intra-Afghan talks will address the legacy of four decades of war, and the future of Afghanistan’s democratic political system. Critical issues include women’s equality in all spheres, from education to justice; due process guarantees; and media freedom. While the Taliban officially state that they do not oppose girls’ education, only a small number of Taliban district officials have permitted girls to attend school beyond puberty. Afghans face considerable difficulties obtaining redress in the courts, particularly when government officials or warlords are implicated in abuses. Journalists in areas under government control risk threats and violence from all sides, while not being able to operate at all in Taliban-controlled areas.

Negotiators will need to agree on a government in Afghanistan that prevents the repetition of atrocities that fomented civil war in the past. Afghanistan’s four decades of armed conflict have taken a devastating toll. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been killed, injured, forcibly disappeared, and tortured, and millions have become refugees or have been internally displaced.

Governments that are facilitating the intra-Afghan talks have welcomed the February deal as an important first step, but only if it leads to genuine negotiations for a comprehensive peace process among the Afghan government, other political groups, and the Taliban.

The structure of the negotiations remains unclear. A US State Department official described the plan for the negotiations as possibly “multi-tiered,” with a leadership component and an advisory body. However, Afghanistan’s disputed presidential election has fuelled divisions between President Ashraf Ghani and other politicians, including the rival candidate Abdullah Abdullah, and undermined efforts to finalize a negotiating team that would include government officials and other representatives. As of March 3, it was not known how many delegates would be women and how many would come from civil society.

The controversy over a proposed prisoner exchange has also revealed unresolved tensions over addressing victims’ rights and accountability. The US-Taliban agreement makes reference to plans for a prisoner exchange involving the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government and 1,000 prisoners held by the Taliban. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has raised concerns about the need for victims of abuses to have access to justice in cases involving the detainees, as well as the due process rights of detainees held by the government.

“The US and other governments facilitating the talks should insist that women, rights activists, and Afghans from diverse rural and urban backgrounds participate in various components of the talks,” Gossman said. “Bringing in views from throughout Afghan society is crucial for ensuring a peace agreement that addresses the concerns of all those affected by decades of war.”