The International Obligation to Counter Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan

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Karima Bennoune is the Lewis M. Simes Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School. From 2015–2021, she served as United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights. She conducted fact-finding missions in different regions of Afghanistan for Amnesty International in 1996 and 2005, and in her personal capacity in 2011.

Since they returned to power in August 2021, the Taliban are again imposing a regime of gender apartheid in Afghanistan in violation of international law, just as they did in the 1990s.  Given that it is pervasively discriminatory, gender apartheid poses specific human rights problems requiring particular, heightened responses. A system of governance based on subordination of women institutionalizes sex discrimination across state political, legal, and cultural infrastructures. It necessitates different counter-strategies.

This Article suggests conceptual architecture for analyzing and responding to this aspect of the current Afghan crisis.  Specifically, the robust international legal framework that helped end racial apartheid should be urgently adapted to address gender apartheid and concert the responses of other states to it. 

There are three principal arguments in favor of this approach. 1) It is essential for fulfilling states’ international legal commitments on sex discrimination across every document in the International Bill of Human Rights, as well as the specific target they affirmed in the Sustainable Development Goals to achieve gender equality by 2030. 2) Any other stance leads to an unacceptable imbalance in the manner in which international law addresses discrimination on the bases of sex and race. 3) This may be the only way to effectively tackle systematic Taliban abuses, as the organization is deeply committed to its violations of women’s rights and already sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council. Such an approach marshals the resources of the international community to constrain the Taliban, and is the best hope for ensuring the credibility, legitimacy and effectiveness of the international legal response.

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