Afghanistan Peace talks: addressing concerns over women’s rights and justice
“Why should I be the only woman in the room?”
May 1st 2021 was marked as D-day for the removal of US troops in Afghanistan, as negotiated by the Trump administration in the 2019 pre-peace talks. Since President Joe Biden took office, the final departure date has been delayed, but the foreseen gradual removal continues apace.
The planned departure of not only the US, but also of other foreign actors such as NATO, has raised grave concerns in the country, in the international community and by human rights organizations regarding the current peace talks being held between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Two major issues are 1) the conditions that the peace agreements might create -or eradicate- for women and civil society, and 2) accountability and justice mechanisms for the grave crimes perpetrated in Afghan soil over the past decades.
With these two issues at the forefront of civil society’s concerns, this policy brief provides the following recommendations targeted at the international community, including the US. In relation to women’s rights: 1) The US to abide by its own laws; 2) Uphold international commitment to women’s rights; 3) Include a “real” gender lens to the peace process. Regarding justice and accountability: 1) Foreign support for the intra-Afghan peace talks to address grave crimes; 2) The West to step up (and speed up) its immigration policies.
Introduction – What is the issue?
While several actors have been involved in Afghanistan, one of the major players in the country has undoubtedly been the US, who has been present in the country since the 1970’s under the US strategy of countering Soviet influence during the Cold War. After toppling the Taliban in 2001, a US backed National government was created, which established several steps forward with regards to women’s rights. These include the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 2003, the increase of educational opportunities, and health rights for girls and women.
Under the 2020 US-Taliban deal, these appear to be at risk due to the neglect in accounting for women’s participation in the peace talks and peace negotiations. Due to the US strong hand in setting up the precarious conditions of the peace process, its responsibility in advancing these concerns is paramount. However other members of the international community have also had a part in the building of post-2001 Afghanistan; therefore they too have a role in the current set-up of the peace-talks and their eventual outcomes. Many of these actors have advocated for women’s rights, and this brief extends these concerns and brings these actors into the picture, besides the US, since the latter has been failing to uphold Afghans concerns in the peace talks.
In addition to the concerns over women’s rights in a future Afghanistan, there have also been demands for transitional justice and accountability for the grave international crimes perpetrated by the Taliban, the Afghan Government and international troops, including US soldiers, in Afghanistan since 2001. Some actions were planned in 2005 with governmental support, however few of those have materialized. In addition, while ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda was granted a request in 2020 to open an investigation into grave crimes committed in the country since May 1st 2003, the investigation has been on-hold since national authorities have invoked the ICC’s complementarity clause, arguing that such crimes will be brought to justice domestically. On the contrary, this hardly seems to be the case, with nearly all grave crimes committed by national government actors going unchecked.
Some of the current major obstacles are presented below, which address the legacy left behind by the US and other international actors in the state of affairs regarding women’s rights and justice.
- Trump-era negotiations with the Taliban
There are several important aspects of the US peace agreement conditions set forward by the Trump Presidency in 2020: The Afghan government is completely side-lined in the agreement (since it was established between the US and the Taliban only), women and civil society are not referenced in the peace draft and the security of the US and of its allies appear to be the central priority of the agreement. These conditions leave many concerned with the rights and status of women in Afghanistan, who see the US’ fast-paced decision to leave Afghanistan as contributing towards regression of women’s status over the past two decades. As a major peace broker to the Intra-Afghan talks, the Trump peace process presents as a serious contributor to the lack of inclusivity and human rights benchmarks in the peace agreements.
- On-going violence towards women and civil society
After the Taliban agreed to enter intra-Afghan peace talks, primarily due to promises of US troop removal, there have been several acts of violence towards women, human rights defenders, civil society and media workers. These include a failed assassination attempt towards one of the female members of the peace negotiation team and the killing of judges and journalists. These crimes underline concerns that the conditions left by the US-Taliban agreement are not sufficient in keeping women safe, and that the peace talks should not move forward without assuring the safety, inclusion and representation of women in the decision-making of the peace process.
- Past peace negotiations and talks void of women’s participation
The last three-day peace summit held in Moscow in March 2021 between the Afghan government and the Taliban, with the presence of representatives from the US, Russia, Pakistan and China, had only one female invitee from the 12 member Afghan government, and none from the Taliban. This led to Habiba Sarabi, the sole woman present, asking: “Why should I be the only woman in the room?”. Here, alongside the US, as a pivotal actor in advancing the talks, failing to foster the participation of women in the agreement, other international actors involved in the peace process are similarly complicit.
While the Biden Administration has sent a more inclusive peace agreement draft for the Intra-Afghan talks, that includes the respect for the rights of women, children, and overall civil society, and the inclusion of women in the building of a new government, there is still no reference to the presence of women in the actual peace talks and peace agreements.
Policy Recommendations for the International Community
Acknowledging that addressing women rights and transitional justice concerns are vital, the following recommendations attempt to engage with different levels of the international community: the US as the peace-broker for the intra-Afghan talks and other Western actors and institutions such as the ICC that have rhetorically affirmed the need to include women’s and post-conflict justice concerns in the peace agreements and its outcomes.
Women’s rights concerns
- The US to abide by its own laws
As part of US domestic law, the Women, Peace and Security Act from 2017 establishes the implementation of a Women, Peace and Security Strategy, which was established under Trump’s administration. This strategy recognizes the role of women in leading to more successful peace agreements and stability, seeking to support the participation of women around the world in the process of decision-making in matters of conflict and crises, which entails an international connotation in the sense that it seems to bear US responsibility for advancing women’s interests abroad. However, such concerns did not seem represented in the negotiations for the removal of US troops and the overall peace talks, which urges the question of how beneficial are the “advances” of the West if they are not translated into action and policymaking? If the US really wishes to distinguish itself from other countries and world leaders in their commitment to women’s rights and the empirical evidence of women involved in peace negotiations and peace agreements leading to more successful agreements and lasting peace, the US needs to abide by its own laws.
One of the ways to translate the commitment to action could be to delay the withdrawal of troops based on the inclusion of women at the peace talks, making sure they are backed by women civil-society groups – which appears crucial to advance women’s concerns– and are fully engaged in the peace processes.
In addition, when analyzing the reasons for the Bush administration to enter the War on Terror in 2001, one of its goals was the liberation of women, culminating in peace agreements that targeted the inclusion and participation of women and the government opening seats for women. While Trump might have tainted this agenda and its outcomes, Biden can restore the narrative by not following a zero-standard exit policy and supporting the rights of women.
- Uphold international commitment to women’s rights
The advances achieved after toppling the Taliban in 2001, whereby women and girls’ rights were advanced and independent media was established, seem to be hanging by a thread. While women civil society groups have stepped forward and advanced the need for women to be a central piece of the present and future Afghanistan, with many members of the international community backing their voices, it seems difficult that women representation will be significant and much less, equal.
Research has proven that women’s representation in peace negotiations lead to more long-lasting agreements, and many Western countries, such as the US, have created strategies for the equal participation of women in matters of peace, conflict and security. International actors have expressed concern over the inclusion of women in the peace process, with several countries’ representatives and institutions such as the European Union urging women’s rights to be respected.
- Include a “real” gender lens to the peace process
Adding a gender lens to the Afghan peace talks requires an analysis of what such a lens means and how it has been implemented so far, especially by international actors who are strongly involved in the Afghan peace process. Studies have found that the UN has had a positive effect in the inclusion of women when it acted as party to agreements due to its advocacy of a “gender perspective”, which nonetheless is also a term in need of clarification. While the UN may have advanced women’s inclusion, and that “gender mainstreaming” has been part of the UN agenda since at least the year 2000 upon the implementation of resolution 1325, which advocates for women inclusion in matters of conflict resolution, peace and security, and gender mainstreaming in peace agreements; the advances made are worrisome.
Gender mainstreaming has shown to be a tricky concept to grasp – in terms of what the implementation necessarily means and how it is implemented. Some authors have noticed how current mainstreaming is still embedded in notions of femininity that favors gender and power imbalances, therefore perpetuating inequalities that are later observed in the implementation of the peace agreements and the setting up of political measures and governmental policies. This leads to the need of real reckoning of how current resolutions and provisions for women inclusion still do little to alter the nature of war and conflict, and present women as instrumental due to their linkages with more durable peace instead of their active voice in challenging the ways negotiations are held, as well as how to implement recovery and reconciliation mechanisms that address the different ways conflict affect different genders.
This means that the international community, especially the US and those involved in the Afghan peace talks, including the UN as a WPS agenda promoter, need to apply a gender lens to the peace process and ensure women civil society groups are included, and especially reject the appointment of token women. Women have voiced they want a seat at the table – their voices must be heard and the seats must be given.
Post-conflict Justice and Transitional Justice Concerns
While not exhaustive, the following address a few of the issues relating to justice and accountability in Afghanistan.
- Foreign actors to support the intra-Afghan peace talks to address grave crimes
With few signs so far of advancing accountability and prosecution of nationals for crimes committed in Afghanistan by the National Government and the Taliban, the international community should pressure both parties to present strategies and measures envisioned to address these issues. The parties involved in the Afghanistan peace talks, including UN envoys, Qatar as the official lead intermediator, Russia, who hosted the latest peace summit, Turkey who will likely do so very soon, should openly advocate for these measures to be implemented.
By pushing for a strong, independent, victim-centered justice in the current peace process and negotiations that can translate to effective measures once the agreement is signed, and offering support in such matters, perhaps will pressure both the government and the Taliban to follow through. This however must be achieved through the fundamental inclusion of victims and civil society in considering what justice and accountability means at a local level, and addressing justice concerns also includes Afghan demands for international actors, such as the US, to be prosecuted by the ICC for crimes perpetrated in Afghanistan.
- The West to step up (and speed up) its immigration policies
With the looming departure of US and foreign troops, many in Afghanistan fear for their lives in a post-US Taliban-ruled context, where human rights and women’s rights are not guaranteed. Several Afghans, including interpreters have fled the country and sought asylum in countries such as the UK, due to their collaboration with Western troops after the US invasion which the Taliban could likely punish for treason. The international community should open up their immigration and asylum policies to allow fleeing Afghans a safe resettlement where dignity is upheld. While countries such as the US, the UK and the Netherlands have communicated a program to settle Afghans in their territories, the process has been criticized as too slow. The fear of retaliation, in a context of frail post-conflict justice, demands a speeded asylum-seeking process and resettlement of those who fear for their safety, including those who collaborated with Western forces but also civil society.
It is vital that the international community and specially the US do not look away from the peace process – which so far seems little so – and pressure both sides on the inclusion of women and addressing justice and accountability for grave crimes committed in all steps of the peace agreement, as this will deeply affect the success of the peace negotiations and the durability of peace.
It is important to remember that under Taliban rule from 1996-2001, women’s rights were close to non-existent, with severe restrictions upon their freedom. Women were forbidden to work outside of home, access equal health services, appear in public without a male family member escort and even attend school. Should the US and the international community continue on the path of disregarding these examples of the past that have seen no assurance to not happen again, it will be women and girls who will suffer the most from the US intervention in Afghanistan.
In addition, the lack of steps implemented towards post-conflict justice, and the dubious signs of how it will be implemented by the Taliban and the National Government, but also international actors such as the US, demand a strong international response in pushing for accountability that is victim-centered and that upholds victim’s views of justice.