Conflict & Justice

Women's rights at stake if Afghan-Taliban peace negotiations collapse

Tuesday morning’s Taliban attack on areas near Afghanistan's presidential palace and the US CIA headquarters in Kabul may be detrimental to the progress of negotiations leading up to Afghan-led peace talks. The Taliban had previously agreed to take part in talks on the future of Afghanistan with the United States and Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s administration.

A US envoy was in Kabul Tuesday morning in an effort to clear the way for the stalled dialogue to take place in Doha, Qatar—where the Taliban have recently set up an office—before the pullout of the NATO-led troops from Afghanistan, which is set to be completed by the end of 2014. The conference was called off after the attack, which began at 6:30 a.m., led to a 90-minute firefight with Taliban militants claiming responsibility.

This comes just a day after Secretary of State John Kerry’s appearance with the Indian External Affairs Minister in New Delhi in which he said that the Taliban had not yet met the conditions for negotiations.

“This is an Afghan-led process, and it is an Afghan-led process that will only negotiate under certain conditions,” Kerry said. “Thus far, those conditions have not yet been met, so there is no negotiation at this point. If the conditions are met, then there is a negotiation that will take place not with the United States, but with the High Peace Council of Afghanistan.”

One of those requirements—which Amnesty International recently stressed could not go un-discussed—is the assurance that women’s rights will be respected in Afghanistan going forward.

Heather Barr, the Afghanistan researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, last month released an article, which cited recent political developments in calling the future of Afghan women’s rights “dark.” After today’s events and the subsequent indefinite delay on negotiations, the void in conversation may lead to the future of women’s rights post-troop withdrawal becoming even darker.

“If women are indeed abandoned in a deteriorating climate for rights, it would be a betrayal of one of the key promises of the international community to the people of Afghanistan since 2001,” Barr wrote.

In a conversation with GlobalPost yesterday, Barr explained the current state of Afghan women’s rights and what it stands to gain, or lose, from the peace negotiations. The following is a transcript of that conversation:

GlobalPost: Your research back in January of 2012 documented some 400 women and girls in Afghan prisons or juvenile detention facilities for “moral crimes.” In a piece you released last month for Human Rights Watch titled, “‘Dark Future’ for Women’s Rights in Afghanistan,” you said your investigations have determined that that number has seen a 50 percent increase since then to at least 600 women and girls that are now being held in prison, “despite some positive steps by the Afghan government to address the problem.” What do you think is responsible for the spike, if the government is making positive moves?

Heather Barr: I think it’s because the government’s efforts have largely been lip service. I think that some people from the government have said the right thing in some public forums but I don’t think that there’s been a sincere effort by the Ministry of the Interior that runs the police, or the Attorney General’s Office that runs the prosecutors, to say to prosecutors you may not make these arrests and you may not bring these prosecutions—and people who do so will be disciplined. I think there are some good intentions but there is no sincere effort.

GP: In your research article you say that there are “already ominous signs that women’s rights in Afghanistan face a dark future,” before the international community has even fully removed itself from the country, as it plans to do with the drawdown of foreign military forces by the end of 2014. What are some of the signs to which you are referring?

HB: There are a couple of really worrying developments that have happened in the last month or two. The debate over the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women was last month… and not only could they not get the law passed but they could not even have a debate about it because conservatives in the parliament were standing up and saying things like, “there shouldn’t be minimum age for girls to get married,” and “rape shouldn’t be a crime because adultery is already a crime and rape is the same as adultery.” So, people were making statements like this in the parliament, which is alarming enough, but there were also several cities throughout the country that were actually calling for the repeal of this law that criminalizes violence against women. So that was something that was really shocking, I think…

Also in May, another thing happened in the parliament which we only found out about a week ago or so, which is that the lower parliament passed a revised version of the Electoral Law. The previous Electoral Law had required that 25 percent of counsels be reserved for women and the parliament took that out, so we’re actually seeing concrete losses in terms of women’s rights, already a year and a half before the international troop withdrawal actually happens.

So, a year ago I was saying to people “look, we have to be involved because if there’s a loss of interest in women’s rights by the international community, then the situation could seriously deteriorate.” It turns out that that wasn’t nearly cynical enough. We’re not waiting until 2015 or 2016 to see that happening; it’s happening now.

GP: John Kerry, speaking yesterday with the Indian External Affairs Minister in New Delhi, remarked that one of the requirements which the Taliban would have to meet for Afghan-led negotiations to be considered, is to ensure that the rights of women would be respected going forward. How serious a demand do you think that is?

HB: I’m glad to hear Kerry say it. I was glad to hear Obama talk about women’s rights when he mentioned the opening of the office. Every time someone from the Afghan government or the US government talks about women’s rights in the context of these negotiations it’s helpful, but it has to be a deal-breaker, and the question I have is whether it really is that for the Afghan government or the Americans as well. I really question whether, if there’s a possibility to make some kind of a deal with the Taliban, anyone is going to walk away from that over women’s rights.

GP: Do you have any hope that, if all parties move forward with negotiations, the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women will be discussed at all?

HB: Here’s what really frightens me about those talks. If you’re having a negotiation between the Karzai government and the Taliban, you’re having a negotiation between a group which absolutely loathes women, the Taliban, and a group that really doesn’t do anything about that, so as long as these are discussions that happen between two groups of men behind a closed door, I don’t see who in that room is going to be fighting for women’s rights. And that’s what is really frightening Afghan women’s rights activists. They feel that their future will be decided in the discussion they will have no part in.

I don’t think that these negotiations are going to lead to anything happening very soon. I think that the Taliban has a lot of incentive to open this office—I think they got a huge boost out of the spectacle of their office opening and all that, but I think that it’s important to understand that while they have an incentive to do things like open an office and try to get their prisoners freed from Guantanamo, that doesn’t mean that they have an incentive to actually reach a peace agreement, and I don’t think we’ll see very significant progress towards an agreement any time soon because the Taliban knows that they’re winning and time is on their side.

So, putting aside the issue of negotiations for a moment, the international community has, I think, a continuing obligation to support women’s rights in Afghanistan. Just because we are set to leave in 2014 doesn’t mean that people are done with Afghanistan, or it shouldn’t mean that people are done with Afghanistan. The US and all the other countries that are involved with Afghanistan are involved in three different ways: 1) By sending troops, 2) By being involved politically and 3) By sending aid. And the political involvement and the aid are absolutely crucial for the continuation and progress of women’s rights. So, decisions about that sort of engagement need to be separated from decisions about troop withdrawals or troop numbers, and there needs to be a sustained effort on women’s rights that continues regardless of what happens with troops.

Without the US government and US money, President Karzai doesn’t have an army or a police force. You can’t tell me that that doesn’t buy the US some leverage. The question is whether the US will ever use any of this leverage over women’s rights issues.