Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, center left, wears a protective face mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, on the last day of an Afghan Loya Jirga or traditional council, in Kabul, Afghanistan on Sunday, August 9, 2020. © 2020 AP Photos © 2020 AP Photos

(New York) – Afghan government and Taliban officials meeting in Doha, Qatar for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations should publicly commit to uphold international human rights, including women’s rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The United States, European Union, and other countries supporting the peace process should use their political and economic leverage to ensure explicit human rights commitments and enforcement mechanisms in any final agreement.

Talks between the Taliban and an Afghan government-backed delegation, which includes opposition leaders and some independent civil society representatives, are expected to begin on September 12, 2020. The government-backed delegation has 5 women among its 21 members.

“Afghans who have endured decades of violence and abuses deserve more than vague promises to uphold human rights,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director. “All participants in any future Afghan government should commit to institutions and processes to uphold women’s rights and a free press, end torture in custody, and ensure justice for abuses.”

Taliban forces currently control a significant portion of Afghanistan’s population. In many of these areas, residents abide by a parallel set of Taliban-imposed regulations that govern education, courts, and other services, and establish or reinforce codes of conduct. While there has been some progress on access to education for girls and women in Taliban-held areas, women have little or no opportunity to participate in public life. Freedom of expression and the media are tightly controlled. Implementation of Taliban policies is largely based on local Taliban commanders’ personal views.

“While the Taliban have rolled back some of the harsher measures they imposed in the past, it remains difficult and dangerous for people to speak openly or voice objections in the areas under their control,” Gossman said.

Afghanistan’s constitution and laws enacted since 2001 include many human rights protections, including on freedom of expression and gender equality. Yet despite many years of donor support, the Afghan government has failed to develop institutions essential to providing justice, or to hold its security forces accountable for serious crimes, including torture, rape, and extrajudicial executions. The government has often rewarded some of the gravest offenders instead of punishing them.

In government-controlled areas, Afghan media play an active role in public life and participate in public issues. Yet journalists critical of the authorities risk threats and violence from officials, security forces, and government-backed militias.

Since 2002, in cities under Afghan government control, millions of girls have gone to school. Women have participated in public life, including holding political office, in greater numbers than ever before in Afghanistan’s history. Yet these gains are partial and fragile, even in government-controlled areas. Officials have often failed to protect women’s rights, and there is near-total impunity for violence against women and girls.

Taliban commanders and many current and former government leaders have been implicated in war crimes and other abuses. Afghan officials have tried to fend off an investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) by asserting that their own national authorities can conduct credible investigations into serious crimes by forces operating in the country, including Taliban. However, abuses by government forces have gone unpunished, and some of the approximately 5,000 Taliban prisoners released as part of prisoner exchanges have been implicated in serious war crimes.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the parties may adopt provisions similar to the 2008 amnesty law or the 2016 immunity deal, which excluded any accountability, even for war crimes. International humanitarian law encourages amnesties for insurgents at the end of hostilities, but excludes those responsible for war crimes.

“The intra-Afghan negotiations offer hope for peace after more than 40 years of war,” Gossman said. “But for a settlement to be sustainable, a future Afghan government will need to provide security, tolerate dissent, respect women’s rights, and prosecute serious rights violations.”