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UN rights council: No international human rights mechanism for Afghanistan

Nasir Ahmad Andisha, ambassador of the Permanent Representative Mission of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to Geneva, listens to a statement, during the Human Rights Council special session to address "the serious human rights concerns and situation in Afghanistan", at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, 24 August 2021. (KEYSTONE/Salvatore Di Nolfi)

The special session of the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday adopted a resolution on the situation in Afghanistan without a vote – and without provisions for an independent mechanism to monitor Taliban actions for which many member states and humanitarian groups had been calling.

UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet will report back to the council at its forty-eighth session in September on the human rights situation in Afghanistan, under the resolution agreed on Tuesday.

Bachelet told the council that her office “will be working urgently to reinstate arrangements for monitoring human rights violations.”

Many human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch and the International Confederation for Human Rights Leagues, as well as member states such as the European Union, Mexico, and the United Kingdom have been calling for the creation of an international monitoring and accountability body.

“We are seeking a mechanism that would scrutinise the conduct of all parties to the conflict,” John Fisher, Human Rights Watch’s Geneva director told Geneva Solutions.

In addition to the Taliban’s violations, “there is plenty of evidence of violations by Afghan security forces, by some of the troops in the country, by other actors, including ISIS,” he said.

Amnesty International said the resolution had fallen short of expectations and the council “had failed to deliver a credible response” to the escalating human rights crisis in Afghanistan.

“Member states have ignored clear and consistent calls by civil society and UN actors for a robust monitoring mechanism,” Agnès Callamard, the rights organisation’s secretary general, said in a statement.

“UN member states must correct today’s failure when the Human Rights Council meets again in a few weeks. A robust investigative mechanism – with a mandate to document, collect and preserve evidence of ongoing crimes and human rights violations across Afghanistan – is urgently needed,” she added.

No extension to 31 August deadline for evacuations

The council held its session as Afghans continued to crowd Kabul’s international airport hoping to evacuate.  Parts of the airport remain secured by the US military, which together with other countries have been working frantically to evacuate as many as they can before the 31 August deadline.

The Taliban said at a press conference on Tuesday that it would not accept an extension to the deadline and that all evacuations must be completed by the end of the month.

Meanwhile, the group sought to reassure Afghans hoping to flee that they should return home and that they had nothing to fear. “We guarantee their security,” the Taliban’s spokesperson told the news conference.

Human rights concerns

Despite assurances by the Taliban of a general amnesty for all, Bachelet said in her opening statement at the council on Tuesday morning that her office has received “harrowing and credible reports” of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights in Taliban controlled areas.

These violations include; executions of civilians, ex-government officials, and members of the Afghan security forces without trial; restricting women’s movements, preventing girls from going to school, recruiting child soldiers and repressing peaceful protest and dissent.

Women, journalists, and ethnic and religious minorities are among those at greatest risk of Taliban reprisals, Bachelet said.

“There is not going to be what we can call a democracy. The question in everybody's mind is how ruthless a theocracy is it going to be,” Corinne Momal-Vanian, executive director of the  Kofi Annan Foundation told Geneva Solutions.

Towards an international accounting body?

Bachelet urged the council in her opening statement to “take bold and vigorous action” by establishing a dedicated mechanism to closely monitor the evolving human rights situation in Afghanistan.

However, the draft resolution for the council, written by Pakistan as leader of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), did not include the mechanism, nor explicit mention of the Taliban and the threat to women’s rights.

The draft resolution instead requests an oral update in September and “a written report” and “an interactive dialogue” on the human rights situation in Afghanistan to be presented and held at the forty-ninth session of the Council next March.

Afghan activists and rights groups slammed the resolution as weak and questioned why it was tabled by Pakistan – a country with a history of supporting the Taliban.

Human Rights Watch’s associate asia director Patricia Gossman called the initial draft resolution “the weakest possible response” and an “insult” to Afghan human rights and women’s rights activists.

While the revised resolution “expresses grave concern” for the violations of international law and human rights abuses in Afghanistan, it does not explicitly condemn them nor name the parties in question.

As the representative from Austria put it on behalf of the EU, “If we are not willing to call out the parties involved so that the message that we are watching them is clear, then what is the purpose of this resolution?”

No member country requested a vote on the resolution, meaning it passed by default. The representative from Austria explained that while the EU is greatly disappointed in the insufficiency of the revisions, it “will not vote against a resolution that deplores the many sufferings of the people of Afghanistan”.

Existing work

Much work is being done by human rights groups on the ground. Many are already making a difference by gathering evidence, producing reports, building up casefiles, and reporting to the Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch’s Fisher said.

Even when rights groups cannot enter the country, they can still do impactful work through satellite imagery analysis and remote interviews.

However, “there is no substitute for an internationally mandated monitoring and accountability body,” he said.

High Commissioner Bachelet stated that prevention should be an important element of such a monitoring body.

The organisation Geneva Call, which engages with armed non-state groups on their compliance with international humanitarian norms, offers an example of what such a preventative approach might entail.

“You can find in all cultures the equivalent to what the Geneva Convention says, and it's important to make sure that you build the bridge towards what local communities are receptive to – local communities of fighters, commanders,” Marie Lequin, head of the Eurasia region at Geneva Call, told Geneva Solutions.

Geneva Call has an extended network of interlocutors within Afghan communities, within the armed organizations, and within their constituencies, Lequin said. “Because this already existed before the change in the crisis, we can continue our work.”

Switzerland and the UN’s role

Ignazio Cassis, vice president of Switzerland, said over the weekend that he would like Switzerland to play a role in the future of Afghanistan through hosting potential peace talks in Geneva. Most recently, Geneva hosted talks between Biden and Putin.

Read also: 'Geneva: a decades-long tradition of top-level meetings'

The need for concerted action at the UN level will continue to hang over the Human Rights Council, which is facing a barrage of criticism for what many perceive as the resolution’s insufficiency.

“With the withdrawal of Western countries and little focus by neighboring countries on human rights, who will be left to put pressure on the Taliban to rule less ruthlessly than they have in the past? The only organization that can do that is the UN,” Kofi Annan’s Momal-Vanian said.