Broken promises: Civil society under siege after 100 days of Taliban takeover

23/11/2021
Dossier
WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP

One hundred days after the Taliban’s violent and illegal seizing of power in Afghanistan, Afghan civil society is under siege. For women and girls, human rights defenders, journalists, and anyone daring to speak up for their rights, Afghanistan is not safe. In an attempt to forcefully suppress civil society and any form of dissent, the Taliban and its allies have carried out serious human rights violations and abuses, from arbitrary arrests and detentions, to torture, violent beatings, and house searches. In addition, over the past 100 days, the rule of law has collapsed. The absence of appropriate mechanisms to investigate abuses means that human rights violations remain largely unaddressed.

One of the Taliban’s first acts since taking over of the country on 15 August 2021 was to reassure Afghans of their safety. The Taliban announced (but never officially promulgated) a general amnesty. No “revenge”, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid declared in the group’s first press conference on 17 August. [1] This was notable given the terror wrought by the Taliban during its campaign to take control of various provinces in the lead-up to its takeover of Kabul, the past 20 years of conflict, and the deeply engrained memories of the Taliban’s first period of rule, from 1996 to 2001.

Correctly identifying women and girls, civil society institutions, and individuals as those who actively denounced and feared Taliban rule the most, the Taliban attempted to convince Afghans and the international community that it would guarantee fundamental human rights of women and girls, and that Afghanistan’s vibrant media could continue to function. Emphasizing the Taliban’s change, Mujahid said: “There’s a huge difference between us, in comparison to 20 years ago.” [2]

These words have been quickly contradicted by the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, where women and girls, human rights defenders, judges, and journalists, have been among the Taliban’s primary targets. Indeed, the past 100 days have shown continuity with the Taliban’s past repressive actions. These actions are not limited to the group’s previous period in power, but include attacks committed in the year leading up to the 15 August violent takeover, when the Taliban’s campaign of targeted killings of government workers and civil society members, and its violent suppression of anyone daring to oppose the group, intensified.

With the start of the intra-Afghan talks in September 2020, [3] this campaign targeted civil society with brutal precision: journalists, media workers, and human rights defenders, were among the Taliban’s primary targets. According to UNAMA, from 1 October 2020 to 31 January 2021, 11 individuals – five human rights defenders and six media workers – were killed. [4]

Reports of violations of the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, [5] reprisals against former members of the armed forces, police and government workers, [6] and systematic intimidation and harassment of civilians also point to the Taliban’s policy of repression.

The Taliban’s severe repression of civil society has left no room for dissent, making it harder, if not impossible, for those inside the country, to hold the Taliban to account for their actions. Although journalists, activists, and protesters, including women and girls, have tried to speak out, the Taliban has shown no willingness to address their concerns, instead choosing to silence and violently suppress those who criticized them.

All these violations have been committed with complete impunity. The rule of law in Afghanistan has fully collapsed since the Taliban takeover, creating a situation in which lack of accountability for abuses prevails. National courts are no longer functioning, [7] while Taliban customary courts around the country continue their work. Police and other law enforcement agencies are not carrying out their duties. Judges and prosecutors live in fear of revenge attacks by former Taliban detainees, [8] and there is no no indication the Taliban intends to respect the existing legal framework and judicial processes. Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, one of the founders of the Taliban and the chief enforcer of its harsh interpretation of Islamic law when the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan, declared that it would once again carry out executions and amputations of hands, though perhaps not in public. “Cutting off of hands is very necessary for security,” he said, claiming such punishment had a deterrent effect. [9]

Since 15 August, the crisis in Afghanistan has been the focus of many international fora, including UN Security Council meetings, the UN Human Rights Council’s 31st special session and 48th regular session, and G7 and G20 meetings. However, the international community has thus far failed to chart an adequate path for the protection of rights, and to hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable.

This briefing note focuses on the impact that the Taliban’s repressive rule has had on civil society, including on women and girls, human rights defenders, and the media. It concludes with recommendations for the international community. The document is based on interviews conducted by FIDH with six members of civil society (five women and one man): four civil society activists and two school girls from Kabul, Badakhshan, and Uruzgan Provinces. Their names have been changed to protect their identities.

Staggering rollback in women’s and girls’ rights

A rapid and steep deterioration in women’s and girls’ rights has left millions of Afghan women and girls deprived of access to justice, education, employment, and healthcare. These violations contravene Afghanistan’s obligations under several human rights treaties to which it is a state party, including: the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

The Taliban is well aware the world is watching. As a result, the group has made numerous public statements to express their commitment to the respect of women’s and girls’ rights. The Taliban has claimed women and girls would have “all their rights within Islam.” [10] Indeed, on 18 August, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen provided a rosy picture of women’s access to education and employment under Taliban rule: “Yes, the women, they have a right to education and to work so they can hold different positions and jobs right now. The doctors who have started serving. The teachers have started teaching. And also in other fields, the women are working. The journalist women, they have started working, by observing hijab.” [11]

However, women’s active participation and contribution to Afghan society is far from reality. Severe restrictions imposed by the Taliban’s on women’s rights to freedom of movement, education, health, and work are in stark contrast to the group’s statements and have had a negative impact on large segments of Afghan’s society.

Restriction on freedom of movement limits access to education, healthcare, and employment

Under Taliban rule, many of the women who had previously contributed greatly to society by working in various professions find themselves forced to stay home and unsure of their future.

Women’s freedom of movement has been impacted by the enforcement of the mahram rule, which prohibits women from leaving their homes without a male relative. [12] Female government workers have been told to stay home. [13] The Taliban’s ban on female aid workers has resulted in fewer women and girls having access to critical aid. [14] The group’s restrictions on women’s freedom of movement and employment mean that fewer women are operating and accessing vital health and education services.

Restricting women’s freedom of movement and access to employment has profound consequences in a country where access to healthcare and education was already limited prior to Taliban rule. Prior to the Taliban takeover, 3.7 million children were not in school in Afghanistan, [15] and 60% of them were girls. In 2020, approximately a third of the population had “no access to a functional health centre within two hours from their home.” [16]

Prior to 15 August, Kawsar, a 23-year-old women’s rights activist, worked to advocate for women’s rights in Keshem, Badakhshan Province. Kawsar raised awareness of women’s rights and domestic violence issues in her community. “Women are not active under the Islamic Emirate [the Taliban], we can not even leave our homes. We feel under threat – unknown numbers call us. It is very difficult for us to live in the Islamic Emirate,” she told FIDH.

Kawsar highlighted how the mahram rule violated women’s rights: “Women who went to the city without mahram were beaten. I was a women’s rights activist myself, and [previously] I did not wear a chadari [a full face and body covering hijab]. It is very difficult for us to go to the doctor or to the city when we have to go with a mahram and to wear a chadari.”

Simin, a woman human rights defender working in Kabul described the changes brought about by Taliban rule: “Now I don’t have the right to work, study or freedom; I don’t have the right to walk around freely. I am now at home like a prisoner. I feel I am in a cage which I cannot escape from.”

In the media sector, where men make up the majority of employees, women have been disproportionately impacted. Following the Taliban takeover, 85% of women media workers employed by the eight biggest media companies in Kabul quit their jobs. [17] At the end of August, it was reported that of the 510 women employed by the eight largest media companies in Afghanistan, only 76 women (39 of whom are journalists) were working. [18] All 140 women employed by state broadcaster Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA) stopped working. [19] Zan TV and Bano TV, two television stations that employed 82 women and had programs that cantered on women, shuttered their operations. [20] On 21 November, the Taliban’s Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, issued an eight-point directive that bans female actors from TV shows and demands that female journalists wear hijab during presentations. [21]

Like all other girls and women FIDH spoke to, Kawsar recounted the psychological impact of the past 100 days - or longer, for provinces, such as Badakhshan, that fell to the Taliban earlier than Kabul. “Under the Emirate, I have developed psychological issues [...]. I have become one of those angry people. If it continues like this that they don’t give women rights, work or jobs – this will destroy us.” She sent FIDH photos showing her speaking to rooms packed with rural women, saying “When I remember my work, I always cry, and I tell myself I wish those days would repeat.”

Access to support and redress mechanisms reduced

Women’s ability to safely access redress mechanisms and vital domestic violence support, such as shelters and complaint procedures, has been weakened by the Taliban’s closure of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. [22] In addition, given the general environment of threats, harassment, and intimidation against women activists, human rights defenders, and other local civil society members, they do not feel safe to continue in their work. [23]

Taliban rule has broken previous networks of support available to women. For instance, it is unclear if shelters can continue to operate under Taliban rule. Shelters have been a vital resource to women in a country where 35% of women experience intimate partner violence (IPV) - a figure that rises to above 84% in Herat, Ghor, and Wardak, which are among the highest IPV rates experienced in any city in the world. [24] For now, Women for Afghan Women, an NGO which runs a network of 32 shelters and other facilities for women and children in 14 provinces, has said it would not be accepting new requests from women. [25]

Women’s rights support mechanisms, have been mostly run by women for women. In addition to curtailing access to these vital mechanisms and services, closure of these organizations also limits employment opportunities for women.

Education for girls banned

The Taliban are marginalizing millions of Afghan school girls who aspire to study and contribute to the development of their country by undermining their right to education. In a country where there is still a collective memory of school-age girls being forced to remain at home, missing out on the chance of an education, shows utter contempt for Afghan women’s and girls’ human rights.

Afghanistan is now the only country in the world in which girls’ secondary education is banned. [26] Since 17 September, secondary schools for girls (corresponding to ages 12 to 17/18) remain closed in at least 28 of the country’s 34 provinces. Media reports indicate schools have re-opened in the provinces of Zabul, [27] Sar-e-Pul, [28] Balkh, [29] Samangan, Jawzjan, and Kunduz. [30] No timeframe has been announced for the complete re-opening. [31] Sources told FIDH they had been told that secondary schools for girls may be open in an additional two provinces, bringing the total to eight, but FIDH has not been able to verify this. During the Taliban’s previous period in power, from 1996-2001, the “temporary” ban on girls’ education lasted in fact five years – the entirety of the Taliban rule. [32]

In another demonstration of its lack of commitment to ensuring girls are able to further their education, the Taliban prevented girls in grades seven to 12 from taking their annual exams in Herat. [33] This will impact all girls, but in particular those in their last year of school preparing for the national university entrance exam. On 6 November 2021, secondary schools in Herat re-opened, in part due to teenager Sotooda Forotan’s impassioned speech to the Taliban, but remained open for only 10 days before being shut again. [34]

Prior to the Taliban takeover, Nazanin, a 16-year-old student attending a public school in Kabul, aspired to study medicine. “After Kabul fell to the Taliban, the Taliban closed schools for all girls, and for a period of three months, we haven’t had the right to go to school. I suffer a lot – thinking about the unknown future I find myself in. And I keep thinking – if only I was like a school girl in another country; without fear I would go to school and study, and I would be able to realise my aspirations. But today I see only an unknown future ahead of me.”

Sosan, a 15-year-old student attending a private school in Kabul, told FIDH: “I had big dreams; I saw my future: having finished studies in journalism, I would serve society and my country. But, regrettably, these wishes died when Kabul fell to the Taliban. Because when the Taliban came to Kabul, they closed school doors in the faces of girls. All these dreams have gone up in smoke.”

In addition to the ban on girls’ schools from grades seven to 12, female students have been unable to attend classes regularly at universities and vocational schools because the Taliban has implemented gender segregated classrooms and a strict dress-code. [35]

Human rights defenders remain at high risk of reprisals

Human rights defenders remain at high risk of reprisals from the Taliban. After consulting with 100 human rights defenders across Afghanistan, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders Mary Lawlor said defenders remain to various abuses, including beatings, arrests, enforced disappearances, and killings. [36]

A report jointly published in September by FIDH, OMCT, and Amnesty International concluded that under Taliban rule, human rights defenders are at more risk than ever. [37] The report also noted that some NGOs had their accounts frozen by the Taliban. [38] FIDH received numerous reports of human rights defenders and their families receiving threatening phone calls, warning letters, and searches of their offices. [39]

The Afghanistan Human Rights Defenders Committee (AHRDC) [40] estimated that a majority of 830 prominent human rights defenders included in a list prepared by the AHRDC members are at “high risk” or “extremely high risk.” [41] Most of the defenders with whom the AHRDC was in contact said they were afraid to continue their work for fear of being targeted by the Taliban.

Tabesh, a female associate professor at Kabul University and women’s rights activist, told FIDH: “Since the Taliban takeover, my family and I moved to a new place leaving our home, job, and everything behind for safety reasons. Except some close friends, we have not shared our address with anyone to avoid being chased by the Taliban. My husband is very careful not to come across any acquaintances while he’s out for shopping to maintain our security of hideout. When my friends and I work on advocacy or protest programs, our entire discussion and planning is done through online platforms.”

While much of the evacuation efforts following the Taliban takeover focused on safe passage for US and NATO “allies,” it is unclear how many human rights defenders - including those who had worked with NGOs or international organizations funded by NATO member states - were able to leave the country. FIDH’s contacts with human rights defenders in Afghanistan suggest many remain at risk and in need of urgent protection in the form of safe passage out of the country.

While human rights defenders have actively sought refuge and looked for opportunities to leave the country, no safe exit route is available to them. The lack of adequate documents, the impossibility of obtaining visas for many countries from Kabul, and the shortage of flights out of the country, among other issues, have made it extremely difficult for most of them to leave the country, leaving many defenders in hiding.

Right to freedom of peaceful assembly violently repressed

The violent repression of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly shows the Taliban is deeply intolerant of citizens’ critique and dissent. Despite the Taliban’s track record of violent repression of dissent, many Afghans have attempted to express their discontent with the Taliban’s policies since its seizure of power.

In August and September, mostly women, in some instances joined by men, protested against Taliban’s violations of women’s rights in Faizabad, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Herat.

During a peaceful protest on 18 August in Jalalabad, the Taliban violently suppressed peaceful demonstrations by opening fire on protesters and violently beating them. [42] At least three individuals were killed. [43] Three people were also killed and others injured at a protest in Herat, [44] while protesters were violently beaten and detained in Kabul, [45] and protests were dispersed in Faizabad. [46]

In Kabul, women protested under a variety of slogans calling for women’s inclusion in decision making in government, and the rights to education and to work. Amid the country’s worsening economic situation, during a 21 October protest in Kabul, women held signs saying ‘Work, Bread, and Education.’ [47]

Ghezal, a women’s rights activist who participated in a protest in the capital after the Taliban takeover, told FIDH: “Our message was to demand women’s access to their right to education and work, the reopening of girls’ schools, and ensuring social justice for all. We advocated with a group of women, and all of us were involved in organizing it. The Taliban did not allow us to continue to protest and reacted violently. They even pointed their guns at protesters and cursed at the women, including myself.”

In September, Tabesh, a female associate professor at Kabul University and women’s rights activist, organized and participated in three protests in Kabul and helped organize another protest in Badakhshan. She recounted: “Two men who had joined our protest [in Kabul] without prior coordination were arrested by the Taliban and tortured until the next day. Their last resort in response to our protest was dropping tear gas and beating the protesters by batons. The protest in Badakhshan was organized by me and a number of friends. The Taliban chased down some of the female protesters and tortured them. Two women were injured during the protest, and some were warned that if they were to be seen in similar protests again, they would be hunted down and killed without anyone knowing.”

Forouzan Safi, a woman’s rights activist economics lecturer, participated in a protest in Mazar-i-Sharif, her home city, in September. In October, her body, along with the bodies of three other women, were found in a house in her home city. Reports suggest she was lured to the house under the pretenses of evacuation. While the Taliban claims to have captured the perpetrators, no details have been released. [48]

The Taliban also suppressed protests by shutting down telecommunications in areas where protesters gathered, [49] confiscating the equipment of journalists covering protests, [50] and arresting, detaining and beating journalists who covered protests. [51] There are also concerns that the Taliban’s identification of protesters by recording personal information, [52] such as names and telephone numbers, could facilitate further intimidation and harassment of protesters.

Protests have significantly quietened following the Taliban’s violent suppression of protesters and media covering the demonstrations. [53] In September, the Taliban effectively banned protests by announcing that such events would only be permitted with prior permission. [54]

Journalists targeted, media outlets shut

Despite the Taliban’s statements that it would “respect freedom of the press because media reporting will be useful to society and will be able to help correct the leaders’ errors,” [55] the Taliban’s treatment of the media over the past 100 days has demonstrated the group’s almost complete intolerance for freedom of opinion and expression.

The Taliban has attempted to silence media in Afghanistan through violent means and it has severely restricted the media’s ability to report freely without fear. According to a survey of 1,379 journalists from 28 provinces, more than 70% of them reported having received threats. [56] “The threat level is high – as with all of Afghanistan,” Mustafa, a journalist who covered developments in Helmand, Zabul, Kandahar and Uruzgan Provinces, told FIDH. “They [the Taliban] tell us to only publish things ‘for the benefit of the country and the Islamic Emirate. Don’t publish rubbish, songs, or anything that goes against sharia.’”

In some cases, the Taliban has subjected journalists to arbitrary detention and torture, as well as confiscation of their equipment. For example, on 6 September, photojournalist Murtaza Samedi was detained after covering a protest in Herat. [57] On 7 September Wahid Ahmadi, a journalist for Tolo News was detained by the Taliban and had his equipment confiscated. [58] On 7 September, Etilaat-eRoz journalists Taqi Daryabi and Nematullah Naqdi were detained and tortured by Taliban after covering a women’s protest in Kabul. [59] Photos released by the two journalists showed marks of the extensive beatings they had received at the hands of the Taliban. [60] Nematullah Naqdi lost 40% of his eyesight in one eye, and suffered a ruptured eardrum, which has impaired his hearing. [61]

The severe shock to the media ecosystem caused by the Taliban’s seizure of power has also led to an unemployment crisis that affected media workers in the country. In a survey published on 7 October 2021, the Afghanistan National Journalists Union (ANJU) found that at least 67% of journalists had become unemployed. Further, according to analysis carried out by Tolo News, in the month following the Taliban’s takeover 153 media outlets across 20 provinces closed. [62]

Recommendations

As a humanitarian crisis potentially graver than any other seen before looms in Afghanistan, the time for action is now.

FIDH calls on the European Union, the UN Human Rights Council, and the UN Security Council to:

• Not provide political recognition to the Taliban authorities.
• Press the Taliban to respect, promote, and fulfil human rights, especially with respect to women’s and girls’ rights.
• Contribute to, and support, efforts to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law, international humanitarian law, and other serious human rights violations, including any gendered dimensions of such violations and abuses, by all parties in Afghanistan, via the establishment of a UN-mandated independent investigative mechanism.
• Contribute to efforts to bring all those suspected of being responsible for crimes under international law to justice in fair trials before ordinary civilian courts and without recourse to the death penalty.
• Contribute to efforts to collect and preserve evidence for future prosecutions for serious crimes under international law, and make recommendations on necessary measures to end impunity and ensure accountability for such crimes.
• Coordinate concrete actions to protect the rights of the people of Afghanistan and to ensure their access to justice, including reparations for victims and survivors, and to prevent further atrocities.
• Press the Taliban to ensure unhindered access to all parts of the country to independent human rights monitors, and to reaffirm the standing invitation to all UN Special Procedures, issued in August 2017, so that mandate holders whose requests for visits are pending are able to do so immediately;
• Press the Taliban to co-operate fully with the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, who will be appointed in March 2022 by the UN Human Rights Council. [63]
• Request that the Taliban respect the country’s human rights obligations in line with Afghanistan’s international legal obligations, including the CEDAW, CRC, ICCPR, and the ICESCR.
• Ensure cooperation with the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in investigating Rome Statute crimes committed in Afghanistan.

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