Expected Council Action
In June, the Security Council will convene for its quarterly meeting on Afghanistan. Special Representative and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) Roza Otunbayeva and a representative of civil society are expected to brief.
Under resolution 2615, the Council is also scheduled to receive a briefing on the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan during June.
UNAMA’s mandate expires on 17 March 2024.
Key Recent Developments
The situation in Afghanistan has continued to deteriorate markedly in recent months, with the humanitarian crisis remaining particularly grim. OCHA’s latest humanitarian update on Afghanistan, which was published on 24 May, said 28 million Afghans—more than two-thirds of the population—will require life-saving assistance in 2023.
Food insecurity levels in Afghanistan are especially high. The 30 April World Food Programme (WFP) Afghanistan situation report noted that the country is currently experiencing its highest risk of famine in a quarter of a century, with more than 20 million people acutely food insecure and 6.1 million people on the brink of famine-like conditions. On 10 May, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned of a large-scale locust outbreak in northern and north-eastern Afghanistan, which it said could dramatically worsen food insecurity in the country.
Efforts to respond to the humanitarian crisis have been complicated by the policies and practices of the Taliban, including the ban on Afghan women working for the UN announced on 4 April. In a 5 April statement regarding the Taliban’s decision, UNAMA said that the Taliban had notified the UN that “with immediate effect, no Afghan woman is permitted to work for the UN in Afghanistan, and that this measure will be strongly enforced”. Among other matters, the statement also said that “several UN national female personnel have already experienced restrictions on their movements, including harassment, intimidation, and detention” and indicated that “the UN has therefore instructed all national staff—men and women—not to report to the office until further notice”.
Council members held closed consultations to discuss the ban on 6 April, following a request from Japan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the penholders on the file. (For more, see our What’s in Blue story of 5 April). On 27 April, the Council adopted resolution 2681, which among other matters, condemned the ban and called on the Taliban to swiftly reverse the policies and practices that restrict the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women and girls. (For more information on the negotiations, see our What’s in Blue story of 27 April.) Resolution 2681 was co-sponsored by more than 90 member states.
On 11 April, UNAMA issued an additional statement in relation to the ban, which said that Otunbayeva had “initiated an operational review period up to 5 May”, during which “the UN in Afghanistan will conduct the necessary consultations, make required operational adjustments, and accelerate contingency planning for all possible outcomes”. The statement clarified that “limited and calibrated exceptions for critical tasks” had been made to the instruction to national staff to not report to UN offices, and indicated that the UN will endeavour to continue humanitarian activities “in line with the humanitarian principles and criteria outlined by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee in January 2022, during which we will assess the scope, parameters, and consequences of the ban, and pause activities where impeded.” The statement also noted that the “matter will be under constant review.”
In a 5 May statement, UNAMA said that it had conducted extensive consultations with multiple Afghan stakeholders while continuing to engage with the Taliban to obtain a reversal of the ban. The statement further said, “we must remain focused on our objective to support the people of Afghanistan. We cannot disengage despite the challenges.” On the same day, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General Farhan Haq said there had been no change to the UN’s “posture on the ground”.
Although UN national staff have been instructed not to report to UN offices, reports have recently emerged which suggest that UN agencies are nonetheless taking different approaches to respond to the ban. During an 18 May press briefing, UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan Fran Equiza said that UNICEF’s female Afghan staff have been able to provide care. On 22 May, UN Women issued a statement which said that all of its national staff, both men and women, have worked from home since the ban was put in place.
Other practices and policies of the Taliban have also had a negative impact on the provision of humanitarian assistance. OCHA’s humanitarian access snapshot for March, which was published on 25 May, says that incidents of interference with humanitarian activities, including aid diversion and interference with beneficiary selection and staff recruitment, had tripled compared to the same period last year.
Despite the scale of the humanitarian crisis in the country, the 2023 Afghanistan Humanitarian Response Plan, which calls for $4.63 billion in aid, was only 8.6 percent funded at the time of writing. It appears that the lack of funding is beginning to affect the humanitarian response. OCHA’s 10 April ICCT pipeline tracking report for April to June notes that several different types of critical supplies are at risk of pipeline break due to funding gaps. According to media reports, the lack of funding may also lead the WFP to cease food distribution in Afghanistan by June.
On 16 March, the Council unanimously adopted two resolutions on Afghanistan: resolution 2678, which extended UNAMA’s mandate until 17 March 2024, and resolution 2679, which requested that the Secretary-General conduct an independent assessment and provide the Council with forward-looking recommendations for an integrated and coherent approach in order to address the challenges faced by Afghanistan by 17 November. (For more, see our What’s in Blue story of 15 March.) On 25 April, the UN announced that Feridun Sinirlioğlu had been appointed Special Coordinator of the independent assessment.
On 1 and 2 May, Secretary-General António Guterres convened a meeting of special envoys on Afghanistan. China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Norway, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Türkiye, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Uzbekistan, as well as the EU, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), were invited to participate. In remarks delivered following the meeting, Guterres said that “the meeting was about developing a common international approach” and that participants had agreed on the need for a strategy for engaging with the Taliban. Guterres also said that he was ready to convene a second meeting of special envoys and that the UN will not waver in its commitment to Afghanistan.
Taliban officials have attended several meetings with regional countries in recent months. On 6 May, Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi met with Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang in Islamabad. In a statement released following the meeting, the three countries noted that they had reaffirmed their commitment to trilateral cooperation under China’s Belt and Road Initiative and to jointly extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan. On 13 April, Muttaqi met with representatives of China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in Samarkand. Muttaqi is subject to a travel ban under the 1988 Afghanistan sanctions regime and was authorised to travel by the 1988 Afghanistan Sanctions Committee.
The security situation in Afghanistan remains precarious. During her last briefing to the Council on 8 March, Otunbayeva said that UNAMA’s ability to deliver has been affected by growing concerns over the looming threat posed by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K). On 27 March, a terrorist attack targeted Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, killing at least six people and wounding several more. The attack, which was claimed by ISIL-K, was condemned by Council members in a 28 March press statement.
On 27 May, at least three people were killed after fighting broke out between Iranian and Taliban security forces along the border between Afghanistan’s Nimroz province and Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan provinces. Each side blamed the other for sparking the clashes, which came amid a dispute between Iran and the Taliban over water rights to the Helmand River.
On 18 April, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) released its Afghanistan Socio-Economic Outlook 2023. The report documents the economic challenges currently facing Afghanistan, including the ongoing fiscal crisis, and projects that Afghanistan will experience a decline in real GDP growth and GDP per capita even if international support remains at 2022 levels. It also concludes that without continuity in girls’ education and women’s ability to pursue work, Afghanistan’s economic progress “will remain severely muted”.
Human Rights-Related Developments
On 11 May, a group of UN Special Rapporteurs and members of human rights working groups appointed by the Human Rights Council released a statement expressing alarm at the Taliban Supreme Court’s 4 May announcement that it had sanctioned the use of punishments that include stoning, flogging, and burying under a wall. The experts noted that the Taliban have been implementing judicially sanctioned and ad hoc corporal punishment since November 2022 and said that “stoning people to death or burying them under a wall constitutes torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment…these cruel punishments are contrary to international law.”
The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, and the Chair of the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls, Dorothy Estrada-Tanck, visited Afghanistan from 27 April to 4 May. In a statement regarding the visit, the experts said that the Taliban have been ruling Afghanistan “through the most extreme forms of misogyny” and destroying the progress toward gender equality achieved in the past two decades. A joint report on the situation of women and girls’ rights in Afghanistan will be presented to the Human Rights Council during its 53rd session in June.
On 8 May, UNAMA released a report on corporal punishment and the death penalty in Afghanistan. The report found that at least 274 men, 58 women, and two boys have been publicly flogged in the last six months alone. On the previous day, UNAMA released its latest report on the overall human rights situation in Afghanistan, which documented a range of human rights violations perpetrated by the Taliban.
Women, Peace and Security
Zubaida Akbar—Afghanistan Programme Officer at Freedom Now—briefed the Council during the 8 March open briefing on Afghanistan. Among other recommendations, she said that the Security Council “should demand that the Taliban respect the human rights of all Afghans, including women, girls, LGBTQI+ people and all other marginalized groups, and end all restrictions on women’s rights”. Akbar also called on the Council to regularly issue resolutions and statements “condemning the Taliban’s abuses against women and girls, and ensure that there are no exemptions to travel bans for Taliban leaders”. Regarding the role of the UN, she said that there should be no high-level visits to Afghanistan by the UN “without a clear objective informed by the priorities and concerns of Afghan women” and urged Otunbayeva to prioritise reporting on the situation of women and marginalised groups in Afghanistan during her briefings to the Council.
Key Issues and Options
The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is a major issue for the Council. An informal meeting with humanitarian organisations working in Afghanistan could allow Council members to learn more about the challenges facing those working to deliver aid in the country, particularly after the Taliban banned Afghan women from working for the UN. Such a meeting could also provide Council members with an opportunity to discuss whether there is anything the Council can do to alleviate the problems faced by humanitarian organisations in Afghanistan.
The human rights situation in Afghanistan, particularly for women and girls, is another significant issue. Council members could hold an informal meeting with representatives of UN Women, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and civil society to discuss how the Council can exert pressure on the Taliban regarding its practices and policies that restrict human rights.
The Council could also consider reviewing the 1988 Afghanistan sanctions regime, which, apart from the humanitarian exception established by resolution 2615, has not been updated since the Taliban seized power in August 2021. Such a review could analyse whether the regime is fit for purpose and whether it should be updated in light of current circumstances.
The security situation in Afghanistan and the threat of terrorism are both key concerns. The Council could request a briefing from a counter-terrorism expert, which would provide an opportunity for Council members to discuss the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and help generate ideas for bolstering the Council’s work in this area.
Although Council members are generally united in their desire to see a prosperous, peaceful Afghanistan free from terrorism and ruled by an inclusive government that respects the rights of women and girls, they are divided over how to achieve this goal. Some members, including the P3 (France, the UK, and the US) and other like-minded states, argue that the Taliban must adhere to international norms if it wants to obtain international recognition and receive economic and development aid from the international community. Several of these members tend to favour maintaining pressure on the Taliban, particularly regarding its policies and practices that violate the rights of women and girls.
China and Russia, on the other hand, have contended that the international community should provide assistance to Afghanistan without linking that assistance to other issues, such as human rights, and appear to prefer dialogue and engagement with the Taliban over increased pressure.
China and Russia have also called for Afghanistan’s frozen assets to be returned to the country, while other members have said that these assets cannot be transferred to Afghanistan until a properly functioning central bank has been established. These members often express concern that the funds could be used for terrorist purposes. Moreover, China and Russia regularly blame the US and NATO for the problems facing Afghanistan, while the US and others contend that the Taliban bears primary responsibility for the issues facing the country. Many of these divisions were evident during the negotiation of resolution 2681. (For more, see our What’s in Blue story of 27 April.)
UN DOCUMENTS ON AFGHANISTAN
|Security Council Resolutions|
|16 March 2023S/RES/2678||This resolution extended UNAMA’s mandate until 17 March 2024.|
|16 March 2023S/RES/2679||This resolution requested that the Secretary-General conduct and provide an independent assessment on Afghanistan.|
|27 April 2023S/RES/2681||This resolution condemned the ban on Afghan women working for the UN and called on the Taliban to swiftly reverse the policies and practices that restrict the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women and girls, among other matters.|