Long before the US decided to withdraw its troops, the international community had already largely written off Afghanistan. Such is the harsh reality revealed by the official numbers from the UN relief agencies operating inside the country. Last year, they received barely a third of the aid they requested from major powers to provide food, medicine, and protection to the local population. The UN estimated that 18.4 million Afghans were in need of humanitarian assistance—a figure almost twice as high than in the previous year. In December of 2020, in one of its largest recent humanitarian fundraising drives, ‘the Global Appeal’, the UN requested $1.3 billion in assistance. It received about $450 million—in other words, about 37%.
Today, senior UN sources will openly tell you that the Afghan government and the international community’s failure to provide assistance to the population helps explain, in part, the breathtaking speed at which the Taliban were able to advance in the country, seizing Kabul in just a few days: A population in despair proved to be an easy target.
The number of Afghans in need of humanitarian aid exploded between 2020 and 2021, a staggering increase fueled by the devastating social, economic, and health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. High cross-border mobility, food insecurity, and conflicts were other factors. Statistics from the UN prove grim reading: Almost half of children under the age of 5 in Afghanistan now face acute malnutrition. The pandemic has also forced the temporary closure of schools, leaving 10 million children out of classrooms for most of the year. In addition, almost three-quarters of the population in rural areas lack access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene services. As a result of the pandemic, 59% of Afghans families have experienced a loss of income, while 17% are burdened by unsustainable debts accrued in meeting immediate food and health care needs.
According to the Global Appeal of 2020, “An estimated 30.5 million people are at risk of requiring humanitarian assistance if they are left without urgent social assistance from the government and development actors.” That calculation is now more than a year and a half old. Today, the number may have to be revised upwards.
No power to investigate
With the UN’s power to offer humanitarian impeded, it also became clear this week that the Human Rights Council (HRC) would not be able to get a mandate to investigate human rights violations in the country.
And so it came as no surprise that on Tuesday (August 24), the HRC could only manage to approve a weak resolution on Afghanistan, as superpower politics got in the way once again. Presented by Pakistan under the aegis of the Organization of Islamic Council, the text fell short of the hoped-for aim: Mandating the HRC to create a mechanism to investigate crimes and human rights violations committed by the Taliban and to monitor its future conduct. Human rights defenders swiftly denounced the resolution as a “disgrace” and an “insult” to Afghan victims.
Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner, has previously warned of grave human rights violations already committed by the Taliban in areas under their control, and she reiterated these accusations during the emergency session. She said her office had received credible reports of serious breaches, some of them potentially amounting to war crimes, including “summary executions” of civilians and Afghan security forces who have surrendered, restrictions on the rights of women (including their right to move freely and girls’ right to attend schools), as well as the recruitment of child soldiers.
She additionally told the Human Rights Council that the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls would constitute a “fundamental red line,” and urged its members to create an independent commission to investigate and monitor the situation. In a joint declaration supporting the creation of such a body, UN human rights monitors told the Council that many people were in hiding in the country as the Taliban, despite their denials and promises to respect human rights, “continues to search homes door-to-door,” and that seizures of properties and abuses of women had been reported.
This is particularly worrisome. The possible regression and tragedy can be best understood when measured against the progress made after the Taliban were defeated 20 years ago, a point that was stressed by Bachelet:
“Significant advances in human rights over the past two decades have given the people of Afghanistan a strong stake in a society that values and defends human rights. “Women have assumed public roles and leadership positions in the media and across society. In 2021, 27 percent of members of parliament and one fifth of civil servants were women. Some 3.5 million girls were attending schools—compared to 1999, when no girls could attend secondary school and only 9,000 were enrolled in primary education.
“Human rights defenders have contributed to the economic, political and social development of their communities across the country. A courageous and independent national human rights institution has played a front-line role. A plurality of voices has been reflected in a flourishing and diverse media. Youth movements across the country have empowered young women and men from diverse ethnic and religious communities. A generation of young people has grown up with hope for a better future, and the knowledge of free, individual choice, while also being deeply attached to Afghanistan's cultural and religious traditions.”
In the end, however, the emergency meeting produced a minimal resolution. Crises such as those in Syria, Myanmar, Burundi, Venezuela, El Salvador and many others have had commissions of inquiry created explicitly to investigate human rights violations. But there will be no such commission, for the time being at least, for Afghanistan.
Without the prospect of a strong resolution, the Afghan Human Rights Commission accused the international community of failing to protect the Afghan population, and levelled harsh criticism at foreign governments for “failing to act.” Shaharzad Akbar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, dismissed the draft resolution as a “travesty.”
Nasir Andisha, a diplomat still representing Afghanistan’s ousted government at the UN, deplored the outcome. The Taliban must be held accountable for their actions, he said, describing the situation as “dire and uncertain.” Today, millions of Afghans are under threat, he added.
The EU also made its dissatisfaction known, saying that it saw no sense in a document that did not even name the Taliban. The bloc chose not to vote against the document, however, out of respect for the Afghan people, arguing that it did at least put human rights on the international agenda.
Superpower politics was, once more, on full display at the Council, as Russia proposed that the resolution should refer to the US military presence in Afghanistan as a “foreign invasion.”
The main charge, however, came from China. China’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Chen Xu, said that the US Army and the militaries of other coalition partners, including Britain and Australia, should “be held accountable for the human rights violations committed by their military in Afghanistan and […] this current session should cover this issue.”
“Under the banner of democracy and human rights, the US and other countries carry out military interventions in other sovereign states and impose their own model on countries with a very different history and culture,” the diplomat said, adding, “This has brought great suffering.”
As for the Taliban, he insisted that it had already offered assurances that it is willing to form a government with different actors and will protect the rights of women and girls. Beijing has already signaled that it is willing to maintain “friendly” relations with the Taliban, and on Tuesday gave its support again in a formal meeting at the UN.
In her response, US Under Secretary of State Uzra Zeya defended the human rights advances of the past 20 years and insisted that those achievements won’t be easily undone.
Observing developments, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other NGOs were scathing in their criticism of the resolution. “The UN Human Rights Council at its special session today failed to create a strong human rights monitoring body and meet its responsibility to protect the Afghan people,” John Fisher, head of (HRW) in Geneva, said. “The resolution presented by Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation is a slap in the face to Afghan human rights defenders and women’s rights activists who are watching in horror as the rule of law crumbles around them.”