Taliban talks with UN continue despite alarm 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 in the US-backed government in 2021, Taliban authorities have systematically denied women's rights, effectively erasing women from public life. Women and girls are barred from education beyond primary school and barred from most jobs outside of education and healthcare, and cannot 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 amount to crimes against humanity.

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

“The issue of inclusive governance, women's rights and human rights in general, will be part of every single session,” Rosemary DiCarlo, the U.N. political chief who is chairing the meeting, said in a news conference Thursday.

Many Afghan women also called on Afghan activists invited to attend the parallel talks in Doha to boycott the debates 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 using sticks, such as sanctions, rather than carrots to persuade them to change their most controversial policies toward women. Others have sought to engage the new government, hoping that fostering greater dialogue would bring about political changes within Afghanistan that would 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 branch in the region, on Afghan soil. They also say that without more dialogue, Afghanistan could become a closer ally with Russia and China, both of which are willing to overlook 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 women's problems,” 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 setting its domestic policy regarding women's rights.

Najim Rahim contributed a report from San Francisco.

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