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UN rights boss warns of looming crisis in Afghanistan

(KEYSTONE/Salvatore Di Nolfi)

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Monday that she is alarmed by the escalating humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover last month, and called for an investigatory mechanism to monitor the situation.

Addressing the Human Rights Council on the opening day of its latest session, Bachelet echoed the criticisms of aid groups and human rights organisations aimed at the body, which has so far not set up such a mechanism despite calls throughout the international community.

“Facing a deepening humanitarian and economic crisis, the country has entered a new and perilous phase, with many Afghans profoundly concerned for their human rights, particularly women, ethnic and religious communities,” she told the council, which will be meeting in Geneva throughout September.

The high commissioner also reiterated her criticism of the Taliban’s human rights record since it seized power in Afghanistan last month. She noted commitments made by the Taliban had not been fulfilled on the ground, including regarding the status of women in the country.

“Importantly, and in contradiction to assurances that the Taliban would uphold women's rights, over the past three weeks women have instead been progressively excluded from the public sphere,” she told the body. Bachelet informed the council that girls over the age of 12 are no longer permitted to attend school and that many restrictions on women’s freedoms had been imposed over the past three weeks since Taliban militants took the capital Kabul.

Bachelet said her office had received “credible allegations” of arbitrary detentions and reprisal killings of former security personnel and civil servants, contradicting public statements by the Taliban that they would grant them amnesty. She also expressed alarm at the unrepresentative composition of the Taliban’s new government, which includes no women and is dominated by ethnic Pashtun.

Her remarks came as donors gathered in Geneva for an international conference to raise funds for the deepening crisis in the country. Addressing the conference on Monday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned that the people of Afghanistan are facing “the collapse of the entire country” and appealed for urgent funds to help Afghans at “perhaps their most perilous hour”.

Even before the Taliban takeover last month, the country was facing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, gripped by a severe drought and spiralling poverty rate. The secretary general noted that hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes in recent weeks, and one in three Afghans do not know where their next meal will come from. The UN says 18.4 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance in the country.

The UN, which has allocated $20 million to support its humanitarian operations in the country, has appealed for $606 million from international donors to get urgent assistance to 11 million people in Afghanistan.

Guterres also asked for help boosting humanitarian access to the country, safeguarding the rights of women and girls and ensuring funds would support Afghan livelihoods as well as lives, to “protect the development progress of the last decade”.

“The international community must find ways to make cash available to allow the Afghan economy to breathe – a total collapse would have devastating consequences to the people and risk [destabilising] the neighbouring countries with a massive outflow,” he said.

There are concerns that UN and US sanctions could hold up the flow of aid into Afghanistan, with many NGOs concerned that they could face fines from the US Treasury. The country's roughly $ 10 billion in foreign assets, held overseas, are also frozen.

The US has been reluctant to provide funds to Afghanistan until it gets clearer commitments from the Taliban that it will uphold human rights, particularly the rights of women. Meanwhile, China has already provided $ 30 million to the country, and neighbour Pakistan has sent food and medical supplies.

Guterres urged governments to rapidly increase funding before it was too late.

“Time is short and events move quickly in Afghanistan,” he said. “Let us extend a lifeline to the people of Afghanistan – and do everything we can – and everything we owe – to help them hold on to hope.”