Editorial: Time to end Taliban leaders’ impunity and hold them to account

It is misguided and naïve to still believe the Taliban leadership can be cajoled into sticking to the promises they made before taking over Afghanistan

The Taliban’s relentless persecution of women and girls in Afghanistan “may amount to crime against humanity under the Rome Statute, to which Afghanistan is a state party,” read a statement, issued on 22 December 2022, by German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, on behalf of the Group of Seven (G7) foreign ministers, condemning the Afghan rulers’ decision to ban women from universities. “The world is watching. We will judge the Taliban by their actions,” tweeted the British prime minister, Rishi Sunak. Qatar, the Taliban’s long-time host and ally, joined Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE and others in the Muslim world, with its foreign ministry saying that the ban “will have a significant impact on human rights, development, and the economy in Afghanistan.” And the Nobel laureate, Malala Yousafzai, said she was “devastated.” 

Inside Afghanistan, women protested, male students walked out of their classes and exam halls, and many lecturers resigned – one live on air and another appeared to tear up his diplomas on another show. Former political leaders, including Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, joined the protests via their social media accounts. For others, in and outside the country, social media became the arena to vent anger at the Taliban. 

But global anger did nothing to sway the Taliban to change its position, with the group’s education minister, Neda Mohammad Nadeem, defending the ban as “necessary to prevent mixing of genders” and that some degrees such as agriculture and engineering went against “Islam and Afghan culture.” 

And on 24 December, the Taliban issued another order banning women from working for NGOs, plunging the country’s already dire humanitarian catastrophe into a deeper crisis. Again, international condemnations followed. The UN said it was a violation of human rights. The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, called it “devastating for the Afghan people.” The German government announced it was planning to suspend financial aid to Afghanistan. And the British top diplomat for Afghanistan, Hugo Shorter, said the ban was “blatant discrimination, violating international law & the principles of humanitarian aid.” Major international aid agencies, including the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Save the Children, CARE International and the Norwegian Refugee Council, suspended their operations in Afghanistan, warning that they could not operate without their female staff. 

Again, the Taliban came out defending its decision, with a group spokesperson saying that “there were no need for women to work,” warning that “the West should not judge us by their values.” And another official defended the ban as “protecting our women’s dignity and honour.”

The Taliban’s latest round of assaults on women’s rights, according to Bloomberg, have led to deep divisions within the group. And Zalmay Khalilzad, who struck close relationships with the group’s leaders during the Doha talks, told France 24, that most in the group disagreed with restrictions on women’s rights. An age-old argument put forward by Mr Khalilzad and others in order to keep the world hoping and engaged with the Taliban. 

But why doesn’t the group respond positively to the calls made on it after each egregious act it commits? And why have the supposed “moderates” in its leadership ranks failed to deliver?

The answers lie in the misguided notion that the group and its leaders can still be cajoled into sticking to the promises they made, especially on women’s rights, before taking over Afghanistan. And that that can be achieved through diplomatic and political engagements, without any preconditions and the need for accountability. The Taliban understands this and have exploited it maximally. And the group’s leaders understand too, that millions of starving men, women and children in their captivity are big enough incentives for the international community to remain engaged, whilst they go on about implementing their policies. 

The Taliban must be treated and held accountable as a collective whole. Condemning the group’s actions as crimes against humanity and violation of international law must carry their intended legal force and have real life consequences for the group’s leaders. If not, the people of Afghanistan will suffer for a long time to come.