Zan Times* interview: The UN’s Richard Bennett on human rights abuses, gender apartheid, and the Taliban’s quest for recognition 

Eight months after the Taliban regained power in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett was appointed to be the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan. The New Zealander has a long career working on human rights issues, both at the United Nations as well as independent organizations, such as Amnesty International. 

Now, his focus is the human rights situation in Afghanistan, where the misogynistic and repressive edicts of the Taliban regime are rapidly transforming the country into one of the most tyrannical countries in the world. Bennett calls the Taliban’s edicts against women including the “absolute erasure” of them from public life to be “irrational.” Not only are girls and women being forced out of public life, but the economic collapse after the Taliban took over in August 2021 has worsened the existing poverty in Afghanistan. A year later, almost the entire population of Afghanistan (98 percent of those surveyed in a Gallup poll) say they are “suffering,” while only two percent say they are “struggling.” 

As Bennett explains, the issues facing Afghanistan, as well as any possible actions by the international community are complex and challenging. Though his answers may be frustrating to those demanding swift, more decisive measures, as he explains, the international system, including the United Nations, necessitates a measured response and careful documentation, in part so that any future investigations or prosecutions are on solid legal ground.   

In January 2023, Richard Bennett was interviewed by Zahra Nader, editor-in-chief of Zan Times. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.  

Zan Times: Mr. Bennett, thank you for giving us this time to speak with you. We know that part of your mandate is “to seek, receive, examine, and act on information from all relevant stakeholders pertaining to the situation of human rights in Afghanistan.” How do you do that? 

Bennett: Let us look at this mandate: “seek, receive, examine and act on.”  

“Seek” is on me. I go out and look for that information. Just before this interview, I was talking to a group of women in Afghanistan directly online. They were sharing their situation with me. I was asking them questions.  

I am able to reach out and speak to Afghans. I spent a lot of my time reaching out and talking to different groups and individuals.  

On the “receive” part, there is an official website. I even tweeted my email address. It is publicly available; all you have to do is google “Richard Bennett special rapporteur Afghanistan.” On the website you can find information regarding the mandate and the activities, and how to engage with a UN special rapporteur.  

If people want to email, they can use their own language, such as Dari and Pashto. I can translate it.  I get a lot of emails, so it takes a while for me or my team to reply.  

It is within my mandate when people have human rights information or analysis to share. When they are asking for personal help such as for money or to migrate, it is more challenging because it is not my mandate and I don’t have the capacity to help everyone. I am sympathetic to suffering and where appropriate I may refer people to different agencies.  

I visited Afghanistan twice with this mandate last year, I am also planning to visit again this year, and to visit the region as well. I did visits last year to Turkey and Qatar. This year I would like to meet Afghans who have left but still live in the region. So that really “seek and receive.”  

The third part is to “examine and act on.” “Examine” means I want to see if the information is a human rights violation, and I take steps to verify the information because there are UN standards that apply to my mandate. I make reports to the Human Rights Council and General Assembly, and I also make public statements. And I go in person to make presentations, when both states and NGOs can ask me questions.  

Regarding “act on,” I have put out quite a few statements in the last month: about qisas and hudud punishments [flogging and public execution]; about the closure of universities to women; and another statement on the banning of women from working in NGOs. I usually try to have other colleagues sign on. Recently I made a joint statement with the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.  

I also reach out to the Taliban de facto authorities in writing. For example there is something called an official communication, which is confidential, usually detailed, and not immediately made public. It usually involves sending detailed allegations to any government, in this case to the de facto authority, and requesting a response. I also write letters and other less formal communications, raising concerns. For example, raising concerns about the detention of protestors and requesting that they be released. 

Added to the mandate in October last year was [the requirement] to document and preserve information about human rights abuses and violations. We’re setting up a database and documentation system. No one has access to it, and it is strongly protected. It is very important that there is this bank of information, and Afghans feel that when their rights are being violated, that they are properly documented, recorded, and preserved, so that they are not forgotten.  

ZT: As journalists, we know how hard it is to verify information from Afghanistan. For those suffering human rights violations and who cannot contact NGOs, what kind of documentation and evidence are you looking for? 

Bennett: We want information to be as detailed as possible. So people should include where an incident took place, who was involved, and what date and time. If they are sharing information visually, by photo or video, try to keep the metadata. So if the picture and videos can be geolocated, that is very helpful. But I also realize that people need to stay safe. The first principle is do no harm – do no harm to others but also do no harm to yourself.  

Another option for people is to simply give basic details. And then we can set up a situation, where people can be interviewed confidentially and safely. Not everyone finds writing easy; they might find it easier to speak in their own language. If they can’t go through an NGO, they can write or they can leave a voicemail.  

You know, being a journalist, a human rights monitor, or researcher is not very different, actually. The training of journalists is very good for human rights. The difference with human rights is that you are using a legal framework. You start with the questions: Is this a human rights violation? What is the violation? How, where, when did it happen? What are the facts and the verification of them?  

ZT: So many human rights violations are taking place in Afghanistan that I don’t think your team can document all of them. An estimated 20 million women are being denied the right to work and to be educated, which are obviously human rights violations. Each of them can submit a report to you complaining about how their rights are being violated. What are the main issues that you and your team are looking at right now, and documenting?  

Bennett: The issue of women’s rights and girls’ rights are the highest priority because the situation continues to get worse. Of course, we don’t have the capacity to document every violation. We need to look at issues in terms of themes and trends.  

We look at what the violation is and its impact, so we look at the impact of the ban on education for girls, and on women’s employment with NGOs. We look at the restrictions of the movement of women, requirements for mahram, requirements to more or less stay home, and the restrictions on women participating in any kind of public life.  

We also want to have actual cases. I think it is like how, as a journalist, you want to bring your stories to life by understanding what is really happening at a human level. We need that as well. We have to be a bit selective, but that does not mean we deny anyone the right to claim their rights. We hope the cases we take are representative, or emblematic, of a broader concern.  

Another area that we have been looking at lately is minority rights including religious and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan. I have noted my concern about the Shia and Hazara minorities and have spent some time with the Uzbek and Turkeman communities. There are many minority people in Afghanistan: ethnic communities, linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, and the LGBTQI community, as well. They are very marginalized in Afghanistan and quite difficult to reach.  

Another concern has been ongoing violence that includes ill treatment and torture, killings, disappearances, and arbitrary and unlawful detention. We are getting reports for a range of reasons, in some cases it has to do with reprisals against certain groups, such as members of the previous government’s security forces. Even though there is a general amnesty, in practice there are many reports that indicate it is not being respected. In the legal community, judges and prosecutors appear to be subject to reprisals, either because they were responsible for prosecuting and sentencing Taliban members, ISIS members, or criminals, including the perpetrators of domestic violence.  

And there is violence being committed in violation of international law, such as public flogging which is a type of unlawful and cruel punishment. There are massive changes in the way the legal system works: judges replaced, prosecutors no longer used, respect for the right to a trial is questionable.  

There are also conflict-related events that have been reported, particularly in Panjshir, Andarab [district of Baghlan province] and Takhar, and other northern provinces. Some of this comprises violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law. If there is armed conflict, there are laws that apply to the treatment of civilians and to the treatment of the fighters, especially those who are captured and are no longer armed. We have received reports of cases of them being severely ill-treated.  

What I also think needs more attention are economic, social, and cultural rights – people have the right to access to healthcare, education, and so on. The very serious economic and financial situation in Afghanistan, which has led to a humanitarian crisis, means that most people do not have access to those rights.  

When my mandate was renewed, there was a request to have a child rights perspective. The treatment of children is another really very crucial area. We got many reports of forced marriage, underage marriage, of people actually selling children, and people also being forced to sell body organs. Sometimes people are forced into negative coping strategies by the Taliban, they say, but other times they are forced into them simply because of poverty. They have no money and so have to find a way to feed their families.  

ZT: You mentioned that the Taliban’s public punishments are clearly breaking international laws. In your September report, you state: “The de facto authorities have effective control over the country and therefore are responsible for fulfilling the obligations emanating from the international human rights and humanitarian treaties to which Afghanistan is a party, regardless of whether there is recognition of a formal change of government.” But the Taliban supreme leader and their only law making authority has said that they do not accept man made laws.” How does that affect your work, and how do you talk about Taliban policies towards international law, and the fact that they have said they won’t accept the principles you want to use to hold them accountable?  

Bennett: I think there are a number of contradictions in the Taliban position. What I said in my report is accurate: whether or not the Taliban are not recognized as legitimate government of the country, they are still responsible for the international treaties that Afghanistan has ratified. And the country has ratified quite a few of them.  

In terms of the response, there are mixed responses. You quoted [Taliban supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada] saying that they do not recognize man-made laws, but the international law applies. Secondly, they continue to say that they want a seat at the UN – you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. If the Taliban want a seat at the UN, then there are certain rules that cover that, and one is the UN Charter, the second is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You don’t get a choice with those two things. You don’t ratify the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To be a member of the UN, you must accept it, there is no choice.  

Countries can choose to ratify other treaties, like CEDAW, or the Convention Against Torture, which Afghanistan has chosen to ratify, and then they are bound by them. When I talked to the de facto minister of foreign affairs, Mr. Muttaqi, he told me that the Taliban recognizes and will respect them as long as there is no conflict with Islamic sharia. Of course, saying this also creates doubt. The Taliban need to be more detailed about what that means. So there is a mixed picture.  

When it comes to existing laws in the country, I have been told that Taliban authorities are reviewing them to see if they are compatible with Islamic sharia. That is not the same thing as abiding by international law, because international law is not regulated by sharia. Then there is the issue of the Muslim world, as a whole; no Muslim-majority countries have the same approach as the Taliban to Islam. There was a communique recently by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which stated they strongly believe that girls have a right to education.  

We need to keep persuading them [the Taliban] that these rights apply irrespective of any religion. It does not matter if you are Muslim, Christian, or Hindu. These are universal standards that go back 80 years to when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted by a committee of countries that included Muslim countries.  

ZT: What we are seeing is that the international community is concerned and they are trying to do something, but it feels that there is no concrete action to hold the Taliban accountable. Your work is to document but how do we go about making the Taliban accountable? What sort of international law could be useful? Is there a way Afghanistan can be recognized as a gender apartheid? What measures can countries use to pressure the Taliban, or at least reverse the laws that they have implemented so far?  

Bennett:  Before I come to gender apartheid, let us look at the other international laws that may be violated, which I have included in my reports. There are laws on civil and political rights, economic, social, and cultural rights, torture and race discrimination. All of these are laws that apply to Afghanistan. And then there are the laws that regulate armed conflict protecting the rights and lives of civilians or disarmed soldiers. There can also be crimes against humanity that affect ethnic groups. And there can be multiple or “intersectional” discrimination, for example  because you are Hazara or a woman, both, or maybe you have a disability as well. Discrimination underlies most violations of human rights and can reach the level of serious international crimes, including crimes against humanity. 

So, coming to the situation of women in Afghanistan, it is clear there is systemic discrimination. Is this something that can be looked at, or who would look at it in international law? It is possible, for example, that the International Criminal Court could look at these crimes against women, and when this reaches its extreme form, there is a law, a part of the Rome Statute, which refers to gender persecution. Gender persecution can be an international crime, such as a crime against humanity.  

We have not seen much impact yet, partly because there is an assumption that national systems have the first responsibility to investigate and hold perpetrators accountable, and then international systems back that up. We know that the International Criminal Court opened its investigation of Afghanistan not long ago. There is a possibility that there will be cases in the International Criminal Court for crimes being committed in the current time, as well as possibly in the past. There is also the possibility of the exercise of universal jurisdiction, under which a country can prosecute someone from another country for international crimes – for killing, torture, or possibly even for the crime of gender persecution.  

And then finally to the issue of gender apartheid. Of course we know the laws on apartheid were introduced many decades ago to deal with a situation in South Africa. And as you pointed out, when you look at the legal definition of apartheid and switch the race lens to a gender lens, it seems that the situation in Afghanistan could fit the definition of apartheid. However, the law does not say gender but only says race so there will need to be a development in international law before this can be prosecuted. 

Gender persecution can be prosecuted now. Legally speaking, gender apartheid is perhaps something for the future but it is an important concept that can involve the complicity of others and can also engage states in opposition. South Africa was isolated by the rest of the world. Eventually the apartheid regime was toppled. Change came from within, but there was also pressure from outside: South Africa was removed from the General Assembly because of apartheid; the UN then recognized the African National Congress, a freedom party, which eventually became the government in South Africa.  

It is not my role to advocate for one thing or another here, I am just pointing out what happened in apartheid South Africa. 

ZT: If there are already laws that the Taliban have clearly violated, situations that you and other UN experts have said amounts to crimes against humanity, I wonder why there is hesitancy in terms of acting? What measures can the international community take?  

Bennett: The tools that exist are mainly legal and political tools. For example, sanctions and incentives. A lot of people talk about sanctions, like travel bans and financial sanctions; there is perhaps less talk about incentives. I think if the Taliban care about the people of Afghanistan then they will realize that having money coming back into the country, having humanitarian aid and development aid would be helpful.  

There are also very tough questions because some NGOs suspended their operations after the recent [Taliban] order that women should not work for NGOs. They said, “If women cannot work for us, we cannot carry out our operations.” That is a principled position but there is also a need to talk to Afghans, especially Afghan women about the impact of international NGOs no longer delivering humanitarian aid. Will people lose their lives? So these are really, really tough decisions, and there is no doubt that the Taliban have put their own people into this very desperate situation. The question is a very hard one to answer. A bottom line should be that women’s rights must not be traded away; they are sacrosanct.   

ZT: You have visited Afghanistan twice and you have talked with all parties – Afghan civil society, the Taliban – you have worked with the UN in Afghanistan before, including between 2003 and 2007, and have worked in other conflict situations. What is the most challenging part of your job in Afghanistan? And do you have recommendations or suggestions to journalists, civil society members, or human rights activists on what they can do to change the situation in Afghanistan?  

Bennett: The most challenging part is the discrimination against women, the absolute erasure of women. It is so irrational. It doesn’t make any sense. I understand it is being expressed from a religious perspective, but I don’t understand, women and girls suffer discrimination globally but  no other country treats its women as they are being treated in Afghanistan currently, including no other Muslim country.  

And secondly, the very mixed messages, for example, that women can be educated but then schools don’t open and universities don’t open. Yet, in a segregated society, women are needed in the medical system to treat other women. How is that going to happen if they can’t work and if they can’t get an education? The irrationality on gender issues is hard to understand. I think there is also a lot of irrationality around minorities, particularly religious and ethnic minorities such as the Shia and Hazara population.  The lack of respect for diversity, for people’s differences, is a challenge.  

As for recommendations for journalists and civil society – I think change in Afghanistan will come a lot from within the country, supported, I hope, by others who are not Afghans from the outside and also by Afghans on the outside. So civil society has a role to keep hope alive, to keep information going [into Afghanistan], to keep alive a commitment to  human rights principles.  

For journalists: the principles of freedom, information, the right to know, and of the right and will to express yourself. These rights are so important to respect, even in very dark times because they bring light. They are helping people and protecting women and children, physically and mentally, as well.  

ZT: Thank you Mr. Bennett for giving us your time and sharing your insightful perspective.  

*Alongside Zan Times, Women’s eNews is publishing stories from mainly women journalists working both inside and outside Afghanistan, telling stories of the marginalized populations who rarely have a voice to shape and inform public discourse, believing that change begins with awareness. Having previously worked as journalists in Afghanistan, they are aware of the challenges, dangers, and opportunities of working in the media landscape and are doing their part to make sure the stories of the country are told.

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