Human rights groups are urging the UN to end a Trump-era waiver that allows Taliban members most responsible for the oppression of women in Afghanistan to travel abroad.
In a test for the international community’s willingness to isolate the Taliban, critics argue that those Taliban members curtailing women’s right to leave their homes within Afghanistan should at least be banned from leaving their country.
The UN has imposed extensive sanctions against the Taliban, but the security council is due to debate next week whether to impose a travel ban on all its leading members as a way of signaling that the Taliban’s route to international recognition, let alone legitimacy, is blocked so long as it continues on its course of driving women from public life and teenage girls out of secondary education.
The travel ban expires automatically on 20 June unless the UN renews it, and key figures in the US administration not only want it renewed, but extended. But there is as yet no official US position.
Currently only 41 members of the Taliban administration are affected by the travel ban after it was partially suspended three years ago to permit 14 members to participate in peace talks.
Heather Barr, from Human Rights Watch, says at a minimum travel bans should be imposed on three individuals: Abdul-Haq Wassiq, the head of the intelligence agency; Sheikh Muhammad Khalid Hanafi, the head of the ministry for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice; and Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s top religious leader, who reportedly played a decisive role in extending the ban on girls’ secondary education.
She said: “It’s a false dichotomy to suggest that ending the travel ban exemption means giving up on engaging the Taliban. It’s time for governments to turn consensus that the Taliban’s actions are unlawful into coordinated actions that show the Taliban that the world is ready to defend the rights of Afghans, particularly women and girls, in meaningful ways.”
The former Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström has come out in support of the move, saying: “The longstanding UN ban on travel for Taliban leaders carries a waiver for some of them. Meanwhile, Afghan women can hardly leave their homes. The travel ban exemption should not be renewed without conditions: real progress for Afghan women and girls.”
Annie Pforzheimer, a former deputy chief of the US mission to Kabul, has also urged the state department to act. “Suspending the travel ban has allowed the Taliban to pursue the diplomatic recognition it craves, setting in motion the creeping normalization of an authoritarian and extremist movement that other groups will emulate.”
Critics say the Taliban use overseas visits to mislead diplomats about the potential pluralist trajectory of the Taliban, and it is vital that the international community does not favor engagement for its own sake. Senior Taliban figures were last seen in St Petersburg for the international economic forum hosted by Vladimir Putin.
Asila Wardak, an Afghan women’s rights activist and former diplomat, said: “We talk about a travel ban for the Taliban, well, the real travel ban is on Afghan women who are barely allowed to go outside their homes. But still, the Taliban has all the travel benefits it wants despite that.”
In a statement Henrik Thune, the deputy foreign minister of Norway, said: “The travel ban exemption is first and foremost a tool to facilitate contact with the de facto authorities. In our opinion, this continues to be crucial if we want to influence the trajectory of the future of Afghanistan.” Norway is a member of the UN security council and pen-holder on the Afghan file at the UN, so its voice is significant.
Edicts restricting the rights of women have been pouring out of the Afghan government. Most recently, on 17 May, the Taliban dissolved the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, cutting off a crucial source of support for Afghans facing violations of their human rights, including women and girls experiencing gender-based violence.
Nine days later, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Afghanistan concluded his mission by describing recent measures as “fitting a pattern of absolute gender segregation … aimed at making women invisible in society”.
Michelle Bachelet, the UN human rights commissioner, made no comment on the ban in her address to the UN human rights council, but said: “What we are witnessing today in Afghanistan is the institutionalised, systematic oppression of women. Limiting women’s freedom of movement negatively impacts almost all aspects of their lives, including the ability of women and their children to access and to participate in health services, livelihood and humanitarian aid.”
The human rights council has yet to decide whether to have a special session dedicated to the discrimination facing Afghan women, but there is pressure from Afghan civil society for it to go ahead, probably in the week starting 4 July.