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Afghanistan: Closed Consultations

This afternoon (12 May), Security Council members will convene for closed consultations on Afghanistan. Special Representative and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) Deborah Lyons is expected to brief. The meeting was requested by Norway to address the increased restrictions on the human rights and freedoms of girls and women in Afghanistan that have been imposed by the Taliban in recent months. At the time of writing, Council members were negotiating a presidential statement concerning this issue.

On 7 May, Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s supreme leader, issued a decree requiring Afghan women to cover their faces in public. According to media reports, the decree, which was announced by an official from the Taliban’s Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice at a news conference, said that “women, unless they are very young or very old, must cover their faces except for their eyes” whenever they meet a man to whom they are not related. The decree also said that “they should wear a [head-to-toe burqa], as it is traditional and respectful” and encouraged women to stay home, advising that “the best way to observe hijab is to not go out unless it’s necessary”. Several punishments for male relatives of women who fail to comply are outlined in the decree, including possible jail time and termination or suspension of employment for those who work for the Taliban’s administration.

UNAMA expressed deep concern about the decree in a 7 May statement, which said that “this decision contradicts numerous assurances regarding respect for and protection of all Afghans’ human rights, including those of women and girls, that had been provided to the international community by Taliban representatives during discussions and negotiations over the past decade”. The statement also noted that UNAMA has received information which suggests that the decree is a formal directive that will be implemented and enforced.

The decree is the latest in a series of measures introduced by the Taliban that target women and girls. On 23 March, the Taliban announced that girls’ high schools would be closed, thereby preventing girls above the sixth grade from attending school. The announcement was an abrupt reversal of the Taliban’s 21 March decision to reopen all schools at the beginning of the spring semester, and reportedly came hours after high schools for girls had reopened for the first time in months. On 27 March, Council members issued a press statement that expressed deep concern regarding this decision and called on the Taliban to “respect the right to education and adhere to their commitments to reopen schools for all female students without further delay”, among other matters.

In guidance issued on 26 December 2021, the Taliban’s Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice prohibited women from travelling more than 72 kilometres from their homes unless accompanied by a close male relative. A similar restriction was introduced on 27 March, when the Taliban sent airlines in Afghanistan a letter directing them to prevent women from boarding without a male chaperone. According to media reports, the Taliban have also prevented women in some parts of the country from receiving medical treatment unless accompanied by a male guardian.

Lyons is likely to address these developments, as well as others like them, at today’s meeting. Council members may also be interested in hearing about Lyons’ recent engagement with the Taliban. In a 10 May tweet, UNAMA noted that Lyons met with the Taliban this week and “called for women’s rights to be expanded not curtailed, for secondary schools to reopen to girls and for women to be able to fully participate in work and public life”. Several Council members are likely to condemn the Taliban’s actions concerning women and girls and call on the Taliban to adhere to their commitments and uphold international standards.

On 10 May, Ireland and Mexico sent a letter to the Council in their capacity as co-chairs of the Informal Expert Group on Women, Peace and Security. The letter says that both states are appalled by the Taliban’s decision to require women to cover their faces in public and calls on Council members to unite and reject the measures imposed by the Taliban. Some Council members might convey similar messages in their statements at today’s meeting.

Council members may also seek more information from Lyons regarding other issues facing Afghanistan, including the humanitarian situation and the ongoing economic crisis. According to the latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report on Afghanistan, which was issued on 9 May, 19.7 million Afghans, or 47 percent of the population, are currently facing high levels of acute food insecurity. In its April development update on Afghanistan, the World Bank said that there was a 34 percent decline in per capita income in Afghanistan between the last four months of 2021 and the last four months of 2020. The update also noted that growth will remain stagnant under current conditions and suggested that “widespread poverty will pose important displacement, extremism, and fragility risks”.

The security situation in Afghanistan appears to be worsening. A spate of terrorist attacks has taken place in different parts of the country in recent weeks, including the 29 April bombing of a mosque in Kabul that killed more than 50 people. The Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, claimed responsibility for several of these attacks. A number of the attacks were condemned by Council members in four press statements issued between 20 April and 30 April.

On 16 April, at least 47 people were reportedly killed by air strikes in the eastern provinces of Khost and Kunar, near the border with Pakistan. On the same day, a Taliban official claimed that the strikes were carried out by Pakistan, a claim that Islamabad denies. In a 17 April statement, Pakistani authorities said that Pakistan’s security forces were increasingly being targeted in cross-border attacks from Afghanistan and called on the Taliban to prevent the attacks.

On 7 May, a spokesperson for the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF), an insurgency against the Taliban based in Panjshir province in northern Afghanistan, said that it had “liberated” three districts in Panjshir. The Taliban subsequently denied that a military incident had taken place. At today’s meeting, Council members may ask Lyons for her analysis of the security situation in light of these incidents.

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