Afghanistan: Private Meeting*
Tomorrow morning (13 January), the Security Council will hold a private meeting on Afghanistan. Japan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—the new co-penholders on Afghanistan—requested the meeting, citing the Taliban’s recent edict banning women from working for national and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the country. The expected briefers are Special Representative of the Secretary-General and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) Roza Otunbayeva, Executive Director of UNICEF Catherine Russell, and President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) David Miliband.
A private Council meeting is closed to the public. This format differs from Council consultations, which are also closed, in being a formal meeting of the Security Council which also allows the participation of persons other than Council members and Secretariat officials. In calling for a private meeting, it seems that the penholders wanted to create an opportunity for the Council to receive an assessment from UN and NGO officials about the humanitarian effects of the Taliban’s recent decisions and to facilitate a frank discussion among Council members on the situation in Afghanistan.
In a 24 December 2022 letter, the Taliban’s Ministry of Economy issued a decree directing domestic and international NGOs to suspend all female employees, alleging that women were not observing a Taliban edict requiring them to wear a hijab. The letter warned that the ministry would revoke the operating licenses of any organisation that fails to comply with the order. This decree was preceded by a 20 December 2022 decision by the Taliban’s Ministry of Higher Education to ban female students from attending university. The two decisions are the latest in a series of measures implemented by the Taliban that impose increasingly severe restrictions on the rights and freedoms of Afghan women and girls. These include a ban on girls attending high school and a decree prohibiting women and girls from using gyms and parks.
The Taliban’s December 2022 decisions have been met by widespread criticism. UN officials, member states (including France, the UAE, the UK, and the US), and NGOs have condemned the Taliban’s curtailing of women’s rights, including to education, participation in public life, and access to services. They have also expressed serious concerns about the effects of the NGO ban on humanitarians’ ability to deliver assistance in Afghanistan, at a moment when the country is facing a large-scale humanitarian crisis. A 22 December 2022 World Food Programme (WFP) report estimated that 28.3 million people—two-thirds of Afghanistan’s population—will require humanitarian assistance in 2023. Nearly 20 million people in Afghanistan are acutely food-insecure, including six million people who are on the brink of famine-like conditions, according to WFP.
Following the announcement of the ban preventing women from working for NGOs, some 150 NGOs and aid organisations, including the IRC, have halted all or some of their operations. The move has also affected the UN’s aid delivery programmes. In a 28 December 2022 statement, the principals of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee—which formulates policy and mobilises resources in response to humanitarian crises and is composed of UN and partner agencies—said that while humanitarian organisations will endeavour to continue life-saving activities, they foresee that “many activities will need to be paused as we cannot deliver principled humanitarian assistance without female aid workers”. It further noted that some programmes have already had to stop temporarily due to a lack of female staff.
Russell condemned the Taliban’s decision in a 25 December 2022 statement, calling it “a blatant violation of obligations under international humanitarian law and the most fundamental human rights of women in Afghanistan”. She added that the decision will have far-reaching implications for UNICEF’s programmes—which provide services to 19 million people, including ten million children—especially in the areas of health, nutrition, education, and child protection, in which female humanitarian personnel play a crucial role.
At tomorrow’s meeting, members are likely to seek more information from Russell and Miliband about the scope of humanitarian programmes that have been suspended due to the ban and the effects this has had on the ground. They might also wish to hear from Otunbayeva about UNAMA’s recent engagements with high-level Taliban officials, including the minister of education and the minister of economy, in which UNAMA officials urged the Taliban to reverse its decisions. Members may also inquire about the upcoming trip of Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths, who is reportedly scheduled to travel to Afghanistan in the coming weeks to meet with Taliban officials.
Council members condemned the Taliban’s recent decisions in a 27 December 2022 press statement. They expressed their deep concern about the suspension of access for women and girls to universities, as well as to school beyond the sixth grade, and called on the Taliban to reopen schools and swiftly reverse these policies. Members said that the Taliban’s ban prohibiting women from working for NGOs contradicts the “commitments made by the Taliban to the Afghan people, as well as the expectations of the international community”. Members may reiterate similar messages at tomorrow’s meeting.
It seems that former Council member Norway, which served as penholder on Afghanistan during its 2021-2022 Council term, proposed a draft presidential statement following the Council’s latest regular quarterly meeting on Afghanistan, which took place on 20 December 2022. However, members were unable to reach consensus, apparently due to disagreements about the scope of the product. It seems that some members wanted to focus on the rights of women and girls and recent developments in this regard. Other members—including China and Russia—felt that the text should have a broader scope and address such issues as the security situation and the economic crisis in the country. Due to the inability to agree on a presidential statement, Norway decided to instead pursue a press statement focussing on the Taliban’s recent decisions.
Tomorrow morning, the Council members which have signed on to the shared commitments on women, peace, and security (WPS)—Albania, Brazil, Ecuador, France, Gabon, Japan, Malta, Switzerland, the UAE, and the UK—will read a joint statement before the private meeting. On 6 January, Switzerland and the UAE—the new co-chairs of the Informal Expert Group (IEG) on WPS—together with the UK, sent a letter to the Council condemning the Taliban’s 20 December and 24 December 2022 decisions (S/2023/27). The letter says that these decisions are “a direct attack on gender equality and deprive women and girls of their human rights and fundamental freedoms”. It states that the Taliban’s refusal to honour commitments it has made to the Afghan people and the international community will “result in further isolation, instability, and declining humanitarian aid” and calls on the Security Council to unite behind a “meaningful and effective response”. Some of these points may be echoed in tomorrow’s joint statement. According to the 6 January letter, the co-chairs of the IEG on WPS plan to convene an IEG meeting on Afghanistan later this month.
Members may also raise other developments at tomorrow’s meeting, including those relating to the security or economic situation in Afghanistan. Some may condemn the 11 January suicide bomb attack near the foreign ministry in Kabul, which was claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant—Khorasan Province (IS-KP). According to media reports, at least five people were killed by the blast. Japan and the UAE proposed a press statement condemning the attack, which Council members agreed on today (12 January).
Council dynamics around Afghanistan are challenging, as members continue to differ in their positions about engagement with the Taliban. Some members, including the P3 (France, the UK, and the US) and other like-minded states, strongly criticise the Taliban for its human rights violations and the curtailing of the rights of women and girls. These members argue that the Taliban must adhere to international standards if it wants to obtain international recognition and receive economic and development aid from the international community. China and Russia, on the other hand, have both argued that the international community should provide assistance to Afghanistan without linking that assistance to other issues, such as the rights of women and girls.
*Post-script: On 13 January, following the private meeting, Council members held closed consultations on Afghanistan. According to a 13 January Reuters article, during the meeting, the US called on the Council to adopt a resolution calling on the Taliban to reverse its bans preventing women from working for NGOs and from attending universities and high schools. At the time of writing, a draft text has not been circulated.