Taliban-UN talks continue despite warnings over exclusion of women

Taliban officials attended a rare UN-led conference of global envoys in Afghanistan on Sunday, the first such meeting that Taliban representatives agreed to attend, after organizers said Afghan women would be excluded from interviews.

The two-day conference in Doha, Qatar, is the third of its kind. It is part of a United Nations-led effort, known as the “Doha process,” which began in May 2023. It aims to develop a unified approach to international engagement with Afghanistan. Envoys from around 25 countries and regional organizations will participate, including the European Union, the United States, Russia and China.

Taliban officials were not invited to the first meeting and refused to attend the second, held in February, after objecting to the inclusion of Afghan civil society groups present.

The conference drew strong reaction in recent days after United Nations officials announced that Afghan women would not participate in discussions with Taliban officials. Human rights groups and Afghan women's groups criticized the decision to exclude them, calling it too harsh a concession by the United Nations to persuade the Taliban to engage in talks.

The decision to exclude women sets “a deeply damaging precedent” and risks “legitimizing their institutional system of gender-based oppression,” Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, said in a statement referring to the Taliban's policies towards of women. “The international community must adopt a clear and united position: the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan are non-negotiable.”

Since taking power from the US-backed government in 2021, Taliban authorities have systematically curtailed women’s rights, effectively erasing them from public life. Women and girls are barred from receiving education beyond primary school and are banned from most jobs outside of education and healthcare, and are unable to travel significant distances without a male guardian.

Human rights observers described the government's policies as akin to “gender apartheid” and suggested that the systematic oppression of women and girls could constitute a crime against humanity.

U.N. officials defended their decision to exclude Afghan women from this week’s talks, insisting that women’s rights will be raised in discussions with the Taliban. They also said they would meet with Afghan civil society representatives before and after talks with Taliban officials.

“The question of inclusive governance, women’s rights and human rights in general, will be part of every single session,” Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN political chief who is chairing the meeting, said at a press conference on Thursday.

Many Afghan women have also called on Afghan activists invited to attend the sideline talks in Doha to boycott the discussions in protest.

The meeting represents an effort by the international community “to normalize the Taliban,” Rokhshana Rezai, an Afghan activist, wrote in X. “I call on all those who believe in freedom and humanity to boycott this meeting, because it is neither for the benefit of the Afghan people nor for the benefit of Afghan women.”

The controversies sparked by the conference highlight the strong tensions in the West over how to deal with the new Afghan government.

Some groups have pushed to isolate the Taliban by using sticks, such as sanctions, rather than carrots to convince them to change their most controversial policies toward women. Others sought to engage the new government, hoping that promoting greater dialogue would bring about political changes within Afghanistan to make the government more palatable to the West.

Officials seeking to engage the Taliban want to focus on critical issues such as counterterrorism, given the presence of terrorist groups, including the Islamic State affiliate in the region, on Afghan soil. They also say that without broader dialogue, Afghanistan could ally itself more closely with Russia and China, both of which are willing to ignore the Taliban's human rights record in engaging with their government.

United Nations officials stressed last week that the conference with Taliban officials was not a step toward formally recognizing the group as Afghanistan's legitimate ruler. To date, no country has done so.

Taliban chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who leads the delegation, said at a news conference Saturday that his government hoped to discuss economic issues and international sanctions affecting Afghanistan.

Taliban authorities “recognize the problems related to women,” she said. “But these problems are Afghanistan’s problems,” she added, suggesting that the Afghan government does not believe the international community should be involved in shaping domestic policy related to women’s rights.

Najim Rahim contributed a report from San Francisco.

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