On 15 August 2021, the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan and unleashed a systematic assault on civic space.
Following the takeover, civil society organisations were targeted for their work. The Taliban raided their offices and froze their bank accounts forcing many CSO offices to close. The Taliban also repressed protests, especially by women’s rights activists, disrupting their demonstrations by firing shots into the air, detaining, interrogating and ill-treating them. In some cases, teargas and batons were used.
Activists have been arbitrarily arrested and detained for their criticism of the Taliban. Others have faced harassment, intimidation, and violence and some have been killed. Journalists face increased risks following the Taliban takeover with scores arrested, detained, tortured or ill-treated, or attacked for covering the situation on the ground. The Taliban also shut down key institutions including the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).
The international community took some steps in response to the situation in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the takeover by the Taliban. It appointed a Special Rapporteur to monitor the status of human rights in Afghanistan in October 2021 and in December 2021, the UN General Assembly, indefinitely postponed international recognition of the Taliban government.
However, these efforts have failed to halt the repression of fundamental freedoms and two years on the violations have escalated leading to the downgrade of Afghanistan’s civic space ratings by the CIVICUS Monitor from ‘repressed’ to ‘closed’ in March 2023
The following are some of the civil and political rights violations the CIVICUS Monitor has documented in Afghanistan over the last year:
Human rights defenders arrested and ill-treated
Over the last year activists especially women human rights defenders have faced arbitrary arrests and detention by the Taliban. Women’s human rights defender Zarifa Yaqobi and four of her colleagues were reportedly detained by Taliban intelligence agents on 3 November 2022 in western Kabul. Yaqobi had been involved in women’s protests and was apparently taking part in a press conference where a new women’s organisation was being launched at the time of her arrest. On 8 November 2022, young activist Farhat Popalzai was arrested by the Taliban. She is one of the founders of the ‘Spontaneous Movement of Afghan Women’.
In February 2023 women’s rights activist Parisa Mobarez, a founder of the Takhar Women’s Protest Movement and her brother were arrested at her home in Takhar province and badly beaten by the Taliban after she refused to provide her mobile phone password. On the same day, women’s rights activist Nargis Sadat, who had been involved in organising protest activities was arrested at a checkpoint in Kabul and detained for two months.
On 8 March 2023, women’s rights activist Habiba Sharifi was detained alongside her father in Ghor province. She was arrested after she held a solo protest outside the provincial governor’s office on International Women’s Day. She was forced to sign a statement that they would not take part in any further anti-Taliban protests. In the same month, women’s rights activist Waheeda Mahrami was detained in the capital Kabul on 20 March and held for four days after having referred to the Taliban’s policies towards women as ‘gender apartheid’ on International Women’s Day.
Education activist Matiullah Wesa was detained by the Taliban on 27 March 2023 outside a mosque in Kabul where he was attending evening prayers. He has been bringing education services to remote communities since 2009 via his PenPath NGO.
Targeting of journalists and banning media outlets
The clamp down on journalists and media workers has persisted. The Taliban have raided media offices, confiscated equipment, and detained journalists. Some have been tortured and ill-treated. The Taliban has also imposed restrictions on the content that can be published or broadcast and many media outlets have been shut down. For the few independent news sources operating in the country, many journalists are self-censoring due to safety concerns.
Taliban officials on 3 October 2022 banned two media outlets - the Hasht-e Subh Daily and Zawia News outlets - for publishing ‘false propaganda’ against the Taliban. In November 2022 the Taliban blocked two international radio stations - Radio Azadi (run by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) and Voice of America’s (VoA) Dari and Pashto services - from broadcasting inside the country, accusing them of distributing ‘biased’ news and violating media principles.
A radio journalist was detained in northern Takhar province on 9 December 2022 by armed police and taken to the provincial headquarters of the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI), where his interrogators said his radio station’s broadcasts had not been approved. They allegedly beat the journalist with an iron rod, administered electric shocks, and suffocated him with a plastic bag.
Afghan-French reporter Mortaza Behboudi was detained in January 2023, two days after entering Afghanistan while waiting for press accreditation. After being held in Kabul for 11 days he was transferred to another prison in Kabul and is said to be accused of spying. In February 2023 local journalist Mohmmadyar Majrooh was detained in the southern city of Kandahar and held for 5 days. He was detained after being summoned to meet officials from the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI).
In June 2023, journalist Raza Shahir was detained and beaten for two days when he returned to Afghanistan to arrange visa paperwork, having previously moved to Iran for his safety. On 12 July 2023, officers with the Taliban General Directorate of Intelligence stopped journalist Irfanullah Baidar near the Eidgah Mosque in the eastern city of Jalalabad, covered his head with a sack and forced him into a vehicle, He was released on 24 July 2023. The Taliban did not issue any official statement regarding his arrest or subsequent release.
Crackdown on protests
The Taliban have continued to crackdown on protests over the last year especially by women’s rights activists around their right to education and employment with some arbitrarily arrested and ill-treated.
In September 2022, protests in eastern Paktia province, prompted by the Taliban’s re-closure of girls’ schools was dispersed by Taliban soldiers firing warning shots in the air. The Taliban also warned local journalists not to cover the protest. In the same month, Taliban security forces snatched and tore the banners before firing in the air to disperse a rally by women held a rally outside the Iranian embassy in the capital Kabul in solidary with protests taking place in neighbouring Iran.
In October 2022, around 100 women reportedly marched in the western city of Herat on 2 October 2022 for education rights The Taliban beat participants with sticks and fired in the air to disperse them; one woman claimed a Taliban soldier grabbed her hijab and her hair and pushed her to the ground. A group of female university students wanted to join the Herat rally but were prevented from doing so by Taliban soldiers, who locked them inside a university building and threatened them with a pistol. Several women participating in a rally in December 2022 in Kabul after the university ban on women was announced were beaten by Taliban soldiers. Female students in Herat were beaten with tree branches and also was pushed back with a water cannon as they attempted to hold a demonstration.
A small group of young women were reportedly hit with whips by Taliban soldiers when they attempted to hold a peaceful protest outside Kabul university on 6 March 2023 on their right to education. Their protest was held to mark the beginning of yet another academic year while girls are still banned from secondary school and university. At another peaceful rally later that month, three women protesters were detained in Kabul on 26 March 2023 and interrogated overnight before being released the following day. The women were reportedly forced to sign documents vowing not to talk to the media or take part in any further protest activities.
Around 50 women gathered in the Shar-e Naw district of the capital and held banners after the de facto authorities said that they would forcibly close beauty salons. Taliban security forces reportedly fired shots into the air, beat women with rods and used water cannon to disperse the gathering. Some protesters reported the Taliban had used electric stun guns against demonstrators. Others said their phones had been confiscated.
Women barred from university, working in NGOs and the UN
The Taliban continued to expand restrictions on all aspects of women’s lives banning girls and women from education above a sixth grade level, banning women from most employment and imposing severe restrictions on the ability of women and girls to travel. The end of 2022 saw a further deterioration in the already dire human rights situation when the Taliban banned women from attending university, sparking international condemnation.
In December 2022, the acting Minister of Economy issued a letter barring woman from working in international and national NGOs, citing the non-observance of Islamic dress rules and other laws and regulations of the Islamic Emirate as reasons for the decision. The ministry said that non-compliance will result in revoking the licences of NGOs. The ban has prompted several major aid organisations to suspend their operations, worsening the humanitarian crisis. Following this, the Taliban in April 2023 banned Afghan women from working for the UN in the country.
Critical academics detained
Academics critical of the Taliban have been arrested in order to silence them. University Professor Ismail Mashal was detained on 2 February 2023 by the Taliban while he was handing out free books in the capital Kabul. Mashal became well known in December 2022 for ripping up his academic qualifications on national television in protest at the Taliban’s ban on women attending universities.
Another university lecturer, Zakaria Osuli was detained the day before in Kaul. Osuli, a lecturer and writer from Panjshir had reportedly recently published a book about Ahmad Shah Massoud, a late anti-Taliban military commander. He was held for more than two months and finally released on 10 April 2023.
University lecturer - Mohammad Ismail Rahmani – was detained on 18th February 2023, reportedly in connection with his writings and social media activism. Academic Rasul Abdi Parsi was detained in early March 2023. His arrest was reportedly linked to Facebook posts.
Silencing of artists
Artists in Afghanistan have come under increasing attack from the Taliban. In January 2023, the Taliban arrested Musa Shahin, a local singer of Panjshir province. They transferred him to an unknown location where he was allegedly tortured. Musa Shahin sings songs about Panjshir, a province which is one of the main bases of the resistance forces against the Taliban. Poet Haseeb Ahrari was reportedly detained from his home on 1 June 2023 shortly after he returned to Afghanistan from Iran. He had posted poetry discussing freedom and patriotism on social media and is originally from Panjshir province, which is a centre of anti-Taliban resistance.
The de facto authorities are also attempting to ban music. The Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice said in June that wedding halls in Kabul would no longer be allowed to play music. The ministry in July 2023 that it had destroyed a batch of instruments that had been ‘used to promote music and immorality’.
Social media restrictions
The Ministry of Telecommunications announced on in September 2022 that they would ban TikTok but Afghans use VPNs to get around such restrictions. Social media content producers have also been targeted by the Taliban. Local reports suggest that at least 13 YouTubers and their colleagues were detained during November and December 2022. Most of these people were released relatively quickly, but they were threatened to stop their activities, and some had their filming equipment destroyed or stolen.
The international response
While the UN and states have documented violations and condemned the crackdown in civic space and other abuses by the Taliban there has been a lack of progress in establishing an effective accountability mechanism and ensuring the inclusion of women rights activists in dialogues on Afghanistan.
On 6 September 2022, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan released his first report. The report highlighted the clampdown on press freedom, the detention and ill-treatment of journalists and media workers as well as physical attacks, threats, intimidation and harassment. It also documented how the Taliban have increasingly limited the freedom of peaceful assembly and the rapidly shrinking civic space and constant pressure human rights organisations, are subjected to.
The 51st session of the UN Human Rights Council discussed Afghanistan in September 2022, but failed to agree on an expanded monitoring mechanism despite calls from multiple local, regional and international human rights organisations. The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on 10 November 2022 accusing the Taliban of violating the human rights of Afghan women and girls, failing to establish a representative government, and plunging the country into "dire economic, humanitarian and social conditions."
In another report published in February 2023, the UN Special Rapporteur identified a pattern of ‘rapidly shrinking civic space’. In it, he expresses concerns that: “human rights defenders, who peacefully protest the increased restrictions on women and girls, are at heightened risk and have been increasingly beaten and arrested. The intention is clearly not only to punish them for protesting, but also to deter others from protesting.”
A Security Council resolution in March 2023 asked the UN to conduct and provide to the Security Council, by 17 November, “an integrated, independent assessment” with “forward-looking recommendations for an integrated and coherent approach among relevant political, humanitarian, and development actors” to the crisis in Afghanistan. The resolution called for the assessment to include consultations with relevant stakeholders, including Afghan women.
In April 2023, Afghan women protested against statements made by Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, that suggested the international community should officially recognise Taliban rule. Women activists also called out their exclusion from a two-day closed-door meeting in Qatar organised by the UN on Afghanistan.
Following an eight-day joint visit to Afghanistan in early May 2023, UN experts reported an extreme situation of institutionalised gender-based discrimination unparalleled anywhere in the world.
During an Enhanced Interactive Dialogue at the UN Human Rights Council on 19 June 2023, Afghan activists and civil society pointed to the continued lack of serious and sustained attention of the international community despite the grave situation in Afghanistan, and the urgent need for an accountability mechanism has not diminished.
Recommendations to the international community
- Publicly urge the Taliban to respect human rights, including fundamental freedoms in line with international human rights law and standards.
- Call on the Taliban to ensure all people in Afghanistan can exercise their rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, and release immediately and unconditionally release all human rights defenders detained including Mathiullah Wesa
- Call on the Taliban to revoke their ban on Afghan women working for the UN and NGOs
- Take proactive steps to provide immediate practical support and protection to human rights defenders, journalists and civil society activists at risk.
- Provide Afghan human rights defenders in exile with financial, diplomatic and political support, including by issuing humanitarian visas and effective funding resettlement programmes.
- Ensure that UNAMA has a robust mandate to monitor and report on human rights and has the resources and capacity to extend its reach, and support local organisations to carry out their human rights work.
- Continue to support, strengthen and sufficiently fund the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan and urge the Taliban to co-operate fully with the mandate.
- Support efforts to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law, international humanitarian law and other serious human rights violations, including gendered dimensions of such violations and abuses, by all parties in Afghanistan, via the establishment of an independent investigative mechanism, such as a fact-finding mission or commission of inquiry, mandated by the UN Human Rights Council.
- Call on the UN Security Council to facilitate inclusive, intra-Afghan peace talks with the effective representation of human rights defenders, particularly women and representation from all ethnic groups, and include guarantees of safety and effective and equitable representation of views.
- Offer strong political and practical support to the International Criminal Court’s investigation on Afghanistan and provide adequate resources to allow the Office of the Prosecutor to investigate all crimes perpetrated by all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan.
- Ensure that political recognition and representation is not extended to Taliban-affiliated authorities.
Civic space in Afghanistan is rated as CLOSED by the CIVICUS Monitor