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Afghanistan: Humanitarian crisis threatens basic human rights

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Two-year-old Fatima has her nutritional status screened at Bab-e-Bargh health centre which is supported by UNICEF in Herat city’s largest health clinic.

Respect for fundamental rights and freedoms by the de facto authorities in Afghanistan is critical to ensuring stability in the country, the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Tuesday in Geneva. 

Briefing the UN Human Rights Council, Nada Al-Nashif detailed how the profound humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is threatening basic rights, with women, girls, and civil society among those most affected. 

Dignity or deprivation 

“How the de facto authorities – indeed, and the international community – address the drastic economic and humanitarian crises in the country will determine Afghans’ enjoyment of human rights, now and into the future,” she said. 

They will mark the difference between potential lives of dignity and well-being – or accelerating deprivation, injustice and tragic loss of life.” 

Staff from the UN human rights office, OHCHR, remain on the ground in Afghanistan, where the economy is largely paralysed and poverty and hunger are rising.   

Ms. Al-Nashif said that as Afghans struggle to meet basic needs, they are being pushed to take desperate measures, including child labour and child marriage. News reports have also surfaced of children being sold. 

A matter of life and death 

The situation is further compounded by the impact of sanctions and the freezing of State assets.   

The difficult policy choices that Member States make at this critical juncture, to avert economic collapse, are literally life and death. They will define Afghanistan’s pathway into the future,” she said. 

Ms. Al-Nashif reported that although fighting has receded since August, when the Taliban took over, Afghan civilians remain at risk of conflict as the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP) and other armed groups are still carrying out lethal attacks. 

Extrajudicial killings 

Despite a general amnesty by the Taliban, announced in August, her office has received “credible allegations” of more than 100 killings of former Afghan national security forces and others associated with the former Government.   

At least 72 killings were attributed to the Taliban, and in several cases the bodies were publicly displayed. 

“In Nangarhar province alone, there also appears to be a pattern of at least 50 extra-judicial killings of individuals suspected to be members of the ISIL-KP. Brutal methods of killings, including hanging, beheadings, and public display of corpses have been reported,” she added. 

Concern for women and children 

Ms. Al-Nashif was also deeply concerned about the continued risk of child recruitment, particularly boys, by both ISIL-KP and the de facto authorities.  Children also continue to comprise the majority of civilians killed and injured by unexploded ordnance. 

Meanwhile, women and girls face great uncertainty when it comes to respecting their rights to education, livelihoods and participation. Some 4.2 million young Afghans are already out of school, 60 per cent of them girls.   

There has also been a decline in girls’ secondary school attendance, even in provinces where the de facto authorities have permitted them to attend school.  This is largely due to the absence of women teachers, since in some locations girls are only allowed to be taught by women. 

Unanswered questions 

Although a 3 December decree on women’s rights was “an important signal”, Ms. Nashif said it leaves many questions unanswered.  

“For example, it does not make clear a minimum age for marriage, nor refer to any wider women and girls’ rights to education, to work, to freedom of movement, or to participate in public life,” she said. 

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Furthermore, women are largely prohibited from working, except for some teachers, health workers and NGO staff.  They also cannot take products to market since local de facto authorities have closed women-operated bazaars.  

“Many Afghan women and girls now have to be accompanied by a male relative whenever they leave their residence. These are strictly enforced in some places, but not all,” Ms. Al-Nashif told the Council. 

She warned that UN partners estimate that restricting women from working will contribute to an immediate economic loss of up to $1 billion

Civil society under attack 

Afghan civil society has also come under attack in recent months.  Since August, at least eight activists and two journalists have been killed, and others injured, by unidentified armed men. 

The UN mission in the country, UNAMA, has documented nearly 60 apparently arbitrary detentions, beatings, and threats of activists, journalists, and staff of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, attributed to the de facto authorities.   

Several women’s rights defenders have also been threatened, and there is widespread fear of reprisals since a violent crackdown on women’s peaceful protests in September. Many media outlets have shuttered, as have numerous civil society groups.  

Justice on lockdown 

Furthermore, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has been unable to operate since August, while the Afghanistan Independent Bar Association faces a loss of independence as the de facto authorities now administer its activities under the de facto Ministry of Justice.   

“The safety of Afghan judges, prosecutors, and lawyers – particularly women legal professionals – is a matter for particular alarm,” Ms. Al-Nashif added. “Many are currently in hiding for fear of retribution, including from convicted prisoners who were freed by the de facto authorities, notably men convicted of gender-based violence.” 

Ms. Al-Nashif stressed that upholding human rights is critical for Afghanistan to move forward. 

“The de facto authorities’ respect for and protection of fundamental rights and freedoms of all persons in Afghanistan, without discrimination, is integral to ensuring stability. Failure to uphold human rights will inevitably lead to further turmoil and unrest, and will hold back Afghanistan’s development,” she said. 

“Moreover, as a member of the international community, Afghanistan is bound by the existing international obligations of the treaties it has ratified. Obligations under these treaties remain in place, regardless of the particular authorities exercising effective power.” 

Afghanistan: Humanitarian crisis threatens basic human rights

People receive food rations at a WFP distribution site on the outskirts of Herat in Afghanistan.

“Avalanche of hunger and destitution”: WFP 

The disintegrating Afghan economy is making it difficult for people to get enough to eat, the World Food Programme (WFP) said on Tuesday. 

The UN agency urgently needs $220 million a month in 2022 as it ramps up operations to provide food and cash assistance to more than 23 million Afghans facing severe hunger. 

WFP has assisted 15 million people across all 34 provinces in the country so far this year, reaching some seven million in November alone, up from four million in September. 

Afghanistan is facing an avalanche of hunger and destitution the likes of which I have never seen in my twenty plus years with the World Food Programme,” said Mary-Ellen McGroarty, the agency’s Country Director there. 

Desperate measures 

WFP’s latest phone survey found an estimated 98 per cent of Afghans are not consuming enough food, a worrisome 17 per cent increase since August. 

Families are barely coping, the agency said, and are resorting to desperate measures with the onset of winter, with eight in 10 eating less, and seven in 10 borrowing food just to get by. 

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