Activists call on UN to criminalize gender apartheid in Afghanistan

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A group of high-profile activists including Hillary Clinton, Malala Yousafzai and Gloria Steinem have signed a call for the United Nations to criminalize gender apartheid, according to a letter sent to member states Thursday.

The letter, which is also signed by some of Afghanistan’s most prominent rights activists, comes as the international community grapples with how to hold the Taliban government accountable for its grave abuses against Afghan women.

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“The failure to codify gender apartheid perpetuates an accountability vacuum that leaves many victims and survivors without remedy or reparation,” the letter, which is spearheaded by the Atlantic Council and the Global Justice Center, states.

“The Taliban’s ever deepening and institutionalized oppression of Afghan women and girls is a case in point. The codification of gender apartheid will assist victims and survivors holding perpetrators to account for the totality of crimes committed against them.”

The letter, seen by AFP, urges UN member states to amend a draft crimes against humanity treaty to include gender apartheid.

There will be a general debate on the treaty next week, and member states have until 2024 to submit written comments.

Some high-level UN representatives, including Secretary General Antonio Guterres, have already labelled the situation in Afghanistan as “gender-based apartheid,” but the term is not currently recognized among the worst international crimes.

The draft treaty does cover apartheid -- but only based on race.

“Codifying gender apartheid in the draft treaty does not require the creation of a completely new and separate crime; it only involves inserting gender into the definition,” the letter states.

Since ousting the Western-backed government in 2021, the Taliban authorities have imposed their austere interpretation of Islamic law, barring girls from secondary school, pushing women out of many government jobs, preventing them from travelling without a male relative and ordering them to cover up outside the home.

Among the high-profile Nobel laureates, diplomats, politicians, international criminal law experts and rights activists signing the call is Fawzia Koofi, a member of parliament in the previous internationally-backed Kabul government.

“It’s a systematic erasure of women from the social, political spheres of Afghanistan, from the economic spheres of Afghanistan,” she told AFP.

The UN making gender apartheid an international crime would throw up a “legal barrier” protecting women’s rights -- though, she added, it was not only those rights at stake.

“It’s about the security of Afghanistan. It’s about the economy of Afghanistan. And it’s about the next generation ... How are we going to expect Afghanistan to have a future and prosperity when women’s breathing is being controlled?” she said.

The letter comes after the head of UN Women, Sima Bahous, also urged the Security Council last month to criminalize gender apartheid.

“The tools the international community has at its disposal were not created to respond to mass, state-sponsored gender oppression,” she told the Council.

“This systematic and planned assault on women’s rights is foundational to the Taliban’s vision of state and society and it must be named, defined, and proscribed in our global norms, so that we can respond appropriately.”

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