Can the Taliban be trusted? The UN has doubts

Half a year after the fall of Kabul, the human rights situation in Afghanistan remains highly worrisome. Such is, in short, the conclusion of a new report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Michelle Bachelet, which will be presented to the Human Rights Council during its upcoming session, set to open on February 28.

“Afghanistan remained one of the deadliest countries in the world for civilians,” especially in the period that led to the victory of the Taliban in August 2021. “The increased intensity of the fighting, including in densely populated urban areas, exacerbated the harm to civilians, particularly as the Taliban made territorial gains and advanced on provincial capitals in July and the first half of August.” From May to June 2021, following the announcement a month earlier that the United States forces would begin to withdraw, the UN documented 2,392 civilian casualties, almost as many as the previous four months combined. It was the highest rate of civilian casualties since the UN began systematically documenting the grim tally in 2009.

Although widespread fighting generally ceased after August 15 (apart from small pockets of conflict), civilians in Afghanistan remain at risk of harm due to ISIL-K attacks and leftover improvised explosive devices and other explosive remnants of war, which disproportionately affect children, the document assesses.

What concerns the UN today is that despite the end of widespread fighting across Afghanistan, reports of severe human rights violations continue to be brought to the attention of the UN.

In total, between August 15 and November 15, the UN received credible allegations of more than 110 instances—at least 80 of which were extrajudicial killings reportedly attributed to the de facto authorities.

In Ghazni province, for example, a OHCHR fact-finding mission found evidence that “Taliban fighters had killed at least 26 civilians (one woman and twenty-five male civilians between sixteen and 74).” Investigators also received “credible reports that some victims had been beaten before being shot and that Taliban members had set fire to homes and shops in one of the villages. It was also reported that the Taliban had killed, including by beheading, persons hors de combat in Malistan,” the report reads.

In Kandahar province, after July 16, OHCHR received allegations that at least 85 individuals might have been victims of Taliban abuses, including killings, enforced disappearances, and unlawful detention.


OHCHR also warns more broadly of a lack of monitoring in the country, noting that the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has ceased to function and that its legal status remains unclear. Sources familiar with the fact-finding mission tell The Geneva Observer that the situation is serious, and that constant monitoring is essential. The report thus calls for a “strong and independent national human rights institution,” which would be “vital for supporting the implementation of the international human rights obligations of Afghanistan, protecting human rights, and promoting in particular the right of victims, women, minority communities, and other vulnerable groups to have their views taken into account.”

The report casts serious doubts on the credibility of the Taliban’s pronouncements, noting that despite several announcements of general amnesties for former members of Afghan national security forces, OHCHR had good reason to believe that they, and others associated with the previous government, have been killed, tortured, or detained.

Similarly, public statements by the Taliban about protecting the right to education have not been adhered to. In 2021, the UN task force documented at least 47 incidents affecting the right to education, including attacks on schools and education-related personnel, as well as incidents of threats, intimidation and harassment, and the abduction of education-related personnel. “The Taliban were responsible for nearly half of such attacks, all of which occurred between January 1 and August 15,” the report claims.

Following the Taliban takeover on August 15, all awareness-raising activities, workshops, and radio programs on women’s rights were brought to a halt, given the de facto authorities’ general clampdown on civil society and human rights activists. “Women’s rights activists feared for their lives, and many either fled the country or went into hiding in Afghanistan. The de facto authorities’ policy of the curtailment of enjoyment by Afghan women and girls of their fundamental rights and freedoms, such as the right to work, education, freedom of movement and peaceful assembly, although not uniformly applied across the country, stands directly opposed to 20 years of hard-won progress made by Afghans on gender equality and non-discrimination,” the UN report concludes.

Young boys were also targeted: According to the UN, “children in the ranks of [the] Taliban have become more visible since its takeover, leading to perceptions that the recruitment of children has increased, despite much of the recruitment likely having occurred previously.”

The High Commissioner’s report will no doubt prompt frank debates during the Human Rights Council’s session. It will certainly provide ammunition for those Council members who believe that the Taliban cannot be trusted to fulfill their human rights obligations and that the international community’s engagement with the de facto government of Afghanistan should be carefully calibrated.

Western diplomats told the G|O that the report invalidates the claim by some countries that the Taliban has taken steps to fulfill its human rights obligations. One diplomat told us that the report was a pointed response to countries such as China—which has given an “unconditional blank check” to the Taliban, arguing as it did during the Council’s last session that it was US behavior in Afghanistan, in fact, that “ought to be investigated for crimes against humanity.”