Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Taliban at the United Nations: An Unexpected Bid For Legitimacy?
The Taliban at the United Nations: An Unexpected Bid For Legitimacy?

The Taliban at the United Nations: An Unexpected Bid For Legitimacy?

Bottom Line

  • In June 2023, the Taliban unexpectedly submitted a report to the United Nations Commission on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
  • The report is filled with falsehoods and elisions regarding the treatment of women under the Taliban, but signals an attempt by the Taliban to conform to international agreements as they seek official recognition from other nations.
  • The Taliban’s gambit is also an opportunity for the international community and women’s rights advocates to reinforce notoriously weak tools of international law and diplomacy in this area.

When they reestablished control over Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban claimed they would respect womens’ rights, trumpeting a newly-discovered moderation. Instead, they have constructed one of the world’s most repressive regimes: Afghan women are banned from attending high school or university, and cannot work for nongovernmental organizations–indeed, the Taliban have “barred women from working most jobs outside the home.” Women have effectively been written out of political life. As one Afghan woman peacebuilder wrote, “Thousands of women used to work for ministries across the country. Now, some of them have to line up for a bag of flour to feed their children.”  Yet despite their transparent efforts to roll back women’s rights, the Taliban has been writing reports assessing its progress toward eliminating all forms of discrimination against women.

In June, human rights activists and civil society organizations circulated screenshots of a report they said the Taliban had submitted to the UN’s Commission on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, decrying its brazen dishonesty. The Taliban’s crimes against women in the two years since retaking power in Afghanistan have been well documented, but not by the Taliban themselves.  Instead, the Taliban’s claims, as they appear in the reports received by the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ website, range from downplaying extreme violence against women (“Some incidents may have happened on very low level,” they write, but “It is not fair and good that in spite of number of achievements Islamic Emirate is challenging or blaming/claiming for doing nothing in this regard.”) to blatant falsehoods (“Since the Islamic Emirate came into power, not a single incident/case has been recorded in which a women maltreated and immorally.” [sic]).  As Maryam Marof Arwin of the Afghanistan Women’s and Children Strengthen Welfare Organization wrote, the report “is an obvious lie. The Taliban group cannot hide the sun with two fingers … Do not be fooled by the false letters of the Taliban group, we have thousands of recorded crimes from this group.”

Evidence that the Taliban is not making a good-faith effort to eliminate all forms of discrimination against Afghan women is staggering. In August, the UN group of experts charged with independent fact-finding and monitoring human rights in Afghanistan under the special procedures of the UN Human Rights Council wrote, “In comparison to last year, the Taliban has even further implemented a system of discrimination with the intention to subject women and girls to total domination so egregious, that the collective practices constitute gender persecution, a crime against humanity, and has necessitated a discussion about the codification of ‘gender apartheid.’” 

So why would the Taliban submit a report to the United Nations on its compliance with a key women’s rights agreement when the Taliban is clearly violating women’s rights in the most extreme ways possible? Why go through the motions of explaining how you’re adhering to a human rights agreement that you’re very clearly not adhering to, and that everyone knows you’re not adhering to? Why would a group whose treatment of women constitutes “a crime against humanity” and “has necessitated a discussion about the codification of ‘gender apartheid’” write to the United Nations to explain how it is upholding the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)? If the Taliban is planning to continue flagrantly repressing women, then, in fact, the Taliban would seem to have little reason to update the United Nations about how it is trying to meet its obligations to end discrimination against women. 

But human rights institutions do not always serve the purposes they were intended to serve, and submitting a report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women may instead advance some of the Taliban’s other political goals. First, as they seek international recognition as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, it may be a strategy for them to build legitimacy with international actors by acting as though they’re bound by the letter of international law. This is a tactic that’s common among violent groups seeking international recognition, and particularly ripe for pursuit given how weak the international instruments to protect women’s rights in particular, and human rights in general, are. Second, submitting the report may be a strategy of normalizing their treatment of women for an international audience. And third, it may be a strategy of redefining women’s rights on their terms, exploiting the weakness of human rights protections and the strength of state equality under international law to build a coalition of states willing to support their claims of legitimacy. In each case, no one need believe that the Taliban is actually upholding women’s rights—producing even a clearly absurd report for the UN’s commission may be just enough engagement with human rights institutions for some states to argue the Taliban is making an effort, and to move to block collective ostracism, action, or sanction from other states.  

Seeking Legitimacy and Recognition 

Since seizing power in August 2021, the Taliban has been seeking international recognition as the legitimate government of Afghanistan with comparatively little success. While a growing number of countries have opened engagement with the Taliban’s representatives, diplomats have been explicit about recognition being “nearly impossible” while extreme restrictions on women’s rights remain in place. As UN Special Envoy for Afghanistan Roza Otunbayeva told the UN Security Council in June, the Taliban have asked to be recognized by the United Nations, “but at the same time they act against the key values expressed in the United Nations Charter. “I am blunt,” she said, “about the obstacles they have created for themselves by the decrees and restrictions they have enacted, in particular against women and girls.”

Without international recognition, the Taliban cannot fully participate in international organizations, aid schemes, and financial institutions; enter into multilateral agreements; and serve as Afghanistan’s representatives as an equal sovereign nation in a society of states. In this context, their decision to submit a report—even an informally written, unsourced, and mendacious report—to a UN human rights committee that monitors countries’ compliance with CEDAW allows them to demonstrate an interest in upholding international rules and procedures. This is a strategy that other groups seeking international recognition have pursued: as international relations scholar Tanisha Fazal has argued, separatists, for example, tend to be close adherents to international law, paying close attention to the signals and practices that other countries and organizations send about how to behave in a society of states. 

Critically, of course, the Taliban’s report gestures at the letter of the law while their repressive rule fails to meet any of its substance. Even this, however, is not an unusual way for countries to approach their human rights obligations. Human rights law is, practically speaking, weak. It relies on often-repressive states themselves for enforcement, and the obligations it creates for other states to support individuals’ rights are all secondary to a state’s sovereign right to treat its own citizens as it prefers. But human rights law is rhetorically powerful in contemporary politics—and this duality means many states try to look as though they are complying with human rights law without making too much of an effort to do so. 

These efforts can range from cheap talk, which pays homage to human rights without undertaking any actions to bolster them, to what human rights scholar Kate Cronin-Furman calls quasi-compliance: when repressive states that have no intention of complying with human rights obligations respond to international pressure by building often-toothless human rights institutions while simultaneously obstructing international observers and increasing repression. In Cronin-Furman’s argument, states that feign at compliance are gambling on doing just enough to avoid penalty from the international community without actually doing what they’re being asked to do—a process that offers peer states cover to side with repressive states in a world where enforcement of human rights rests on a diffuse, weak set of tools. 

Protection for women’s rights rests on an especially weak set of instruments. While human rights are famously also women’s rights—the Universal Declaration of Rights is gender-neutral, and subsequent covenants on rights prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender with similar language—the UN General Assembly adopted CEDAW, the key agreement on sex discrimination, in 1979, because, in the language of the Convention itself, “despite these various instruments extensive discrimination against women continues to exist.” The agreement defines discrimination against women and outlines state obligations to eliminate it via law, practice, and custom. It then lays out states’ specific obligations to eliminate discrimination against women across political, social, economic, and cultural spheres, in sixteen ambitious, substantive articles that aim for equality in both public and private life.  

CEDAW was widely signed and widely ratified–189 of the 193 UN member states are party to CEDAW, and only two–the United States and Palau–have not ratified the treaty. But a quick glance at the signatures reveals how many countries adopted reservations to the convention, essentially crossing out provisions and articles that they did not view themselves as bound by. As with other human rights treaties, states self-monitor how well they are meeting their international obligations to eliminate discrimination against women. State parties were supposed to file reports on CEDAW implementation within one year of ratification, and then every subsequent four years. However, many states fail to meet this schedule. 

Once they have submitted reports, the committee of independent experts reviews it; country representatives meet with the committee and engage “in a constructive dialogue with representatives of the reporting State;” and then the committee adopts concluding observations. States should provide a written account of how they address the committee’s concluding observations—but practically speaking, nothing happens to states who choose to do none of this: all international obligations are voluntarily adopted, and there are no direct penalties for non-compliance with human rights treaties. 

In this context, where states register widespread disagreement on what eliminating discrimination against women involves in practice, and where enforcement is weak, the Taliban’s decision to submit a report to the CEDAW committee can be understood as a play for legitimacy and an appeal for cover from states that may want to help end the Taliban’s isolation. Just like the bet that other states make when they build toothless human rights institutions, this strategy doesn’t require that anyone believe the Taliban are actually trying to uphold women’s rights. It just requires that they find some states that lean toward letting this box-checking be the beginning of rehabilitation, and that are willing to point to the fact that they submitted a report to block coordinated ostracism, action, or sanction.

Normalizing Misogyny and Redefining Women’s Rights 

As Afghan scholar Orzala Nemat told the BBC in August, the Taliban’s outreach efforts have also been a way for them to normalize their misogyny as they seek diplomatic engagement. Accordingly, another way to understand the report is as a strategy for them to normalize their treatment of women by degrees and redefine women’s rights on their terms. Importantly, their report isn’t just a series of bald-faced lies about how they are meeting the goals and aspirations for combatting discrimination against women that CEDAW outlines. Instead, they make the claim that women’s rights eroded under Western influence, and that they are involved in a restorative project: 

“Western countries repeatedly stated that they came here to support Afghan women, but slowly and gradually this issue disappeared. The international community thought that they had two or three women representatives in the cabinet, but they took everything away from Afghan women … Rape and sexual assault and sexual harassment was another one of those cases which the previous government, dealing with perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault had turned into a culture of immunity and liberty. The previous government did not want to weaken the unity of its allies by implementing Sharia laws. Therefore, women’s rights were one of the first things that were neglected [before the Taliban’s return to power].” 

This strategy of redefining women’s rights as the Taliban’s conception of women’s rights will not work with the CEDAW committee, and it will not sway other key UN actors, who have not hesitated to call the Taliban’s treatment of women a crime against humanity. But again, it may sway some states, particularly those who are reluctant to have their own domestic conceptions of rights challenged. And swaying some states may be all the Taliban needs to tip the diplomatic balance toward its favor. In a historic December 2022 vote to oust Iran from the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women, for example, sixteen out of fifty-four countries abstained from voting, while eight, including Russia and China, voted against expelling Iran from the Commission. While it’s nearly certain that twenty-four out of fifty-four countries do not wholeheartedly support Iran’s treatment of women, the question of what costs they think Iran should pay for that treatment, and what precedents they want set in punishing Iran, is much more open. In that context, the Taliban’s efforts to say they have a distinctive vision of women’s rights that they are advancing may, again, be enough cover. 

Women’s Rights and Principled Engagement 

The Taliban’s report is also, nevertheless, an admission that it believes it is bound by the letter of international law. And accordingly, that admission is also an opportunity to advocate for women’s rights; to insist on women’s rights to education and employment on their terms, not on the Taliban’s terms; and to reject the Taliban’s efforts to redefine women’s rights in their own mode. 

Submitting a CEDAW report is both a potential pathway toward political cover and another avenue to push the Taliban toward ending gender discrimination. Afghan women have too often been instrumentalized and essentialized by both their own government and outside actors, and they certainly do not need international actors to speak for them. Afghan women do, however, need international actors to ensure that their own engagement with the Taliban is principled, as Human Rights Watch’s Sahar Fetrat has said, by insisting on the value of women’s rights; by insisting that Afghan women are involved in any discussions international actors have or host about the future of Afghanistan; and by striving to provide the aid, advocacy, and support that Afghan women ask for. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.