n the face of it, the rare, major gathering of Afghan leaders last week in the capital of Kabul, looked to be a positive effort towards an inclusive peace process.
Some 3,000 delegates from across Afghanistan met for the Consultative Peace Loya Jirga to discuss the ongoing United States-led peace talks. About 30 percent of the representatives were women, and in attendance were civil society and community representatives, who have often been excluded from previous peace initiatives. With 30 percent of the jirga’s committees also chaired by women—two hold jirga leadership positions—there are hopes that women may finally have their say in the Afghan peace process. But it remains to be seen just how much say independent civil society will have and whether the jirga’s decisions will be respected in practice, given bitter experiences so far.
Restrictions on civic space—the space for civil society—and women’s rights in Afghanistan remain under serious threat. And a successful outcome for peace negotiations does not automatically translate to a positive result for fundamental freedoms in that country.
Renewed peace talks with the Taliban that began late last year have gathered pace with the United States reconciliation envoy Zalmay Khalilzad given short time to reach a settlement. Separate parallel processes—one led by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and another intra-Afghan peace talks initiative between Taliban and prominent politicians and some civil society members—were launched this year.
But this sudden and rushed negotiations push by the U.S. has side-lined Afghan civil society and raised alarm among activists, and women in particular that important human rights advances made so far could now be in danger of being rolled back and lead to a further constriction of civic space.
Under Taliban control, from 1996 to 2001, severe restrictions were imposed on women’s access to education, free movement, work and health, as well as the freedom of expression. In the past few years, as part of their insurgency campaign, the group has attacked schools and targeted students, teachers, health workers, journalists and human rights defenders, particularly women activists.
But despite this threatening environment, and with women’s rights particularly at stake, women representatives from across the country have been mobilising and have set "red lines" for the peace talks, calling for their fundamental and constitutional rights not to be negotiated at any cost. To ensure a sustainable peace, it is vital that civil society and women’s groups are provided a safe space and given the adequate opportunity to take active part in the negotiations. Although there is speculation that the Taliban’s position on women’s rights has softened, women groups are sceptical and are demanding strong guarantees that their constitutional rights will be respected following the peace deal.
Their fears are well founded. Previous peace negotiations that have excluded civil society failed to address the grievances of victims of the armed conflict and respect for human rights and have been a threat to critical CSOs and journalists. The last peace process between the Afghan Government and the armed group Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) in 2016 left victims without the prospect of justice or reparations. Many, including the HIG’s leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord accused of horrific atrocities against civilians were granted immunity from legal prosecution for past crimes.
Before this, the Bonn Agreement, which was signed behind closed doors after the ousting of the Taliban in 2001, also led to notorious warlords entering politics. This created a threatening and restrictive environment for CSOs and journalists for exposing human rights violations by these powerful individuals and advocating for justice for their victims.
Cursory attempts to bring women into the peace process until now have had mixed successes. In February, a national “Peace Consensus” gathering brought together more than over 3,000 women from 34 provinces to raise views, concerns and suggestions on the peace process. But an intra-Afghan peace conference between the Taliban and prominent Afghan representatives, scheduled for April 20-21 in Doha and due to include women and some civil society members, was cancelled over a “disagreement” over the proposed participants. President Ghani’s updated peace plan envisages an advisory role for civil society, but this has not yet been established and it is unclear who will be part of it and to what extent it will influence decision-making.
So, while there has been some opportunity for women and civil society to engage with the peace process in Afghanistan, activists are sceptical of these efforts. Proposed women’s participation is still inadequate and with most representatives handpicked for their links to the government or other powers, there is little prospect or space for dissent. They argue that for the peace consultations to be constructive and genuine, civil society and women activists have to be engaged right from the beginning and given sufficient place at the table with 50 percent women representation. Priority must be given to independent civil society organisations (CSOs) and women’s rights activists.
It is crucial that this new peace process break with the history of neglect of victims’ rights and impunity for war crimes. It must ensure inclusivity, providing a place at the negotiations table and enable decision-making for women, victim groups and other civil society members so they can preserve their rights.
Aside from the struggle for an effective say in their nation’s peace process, these remain threatening times for Afghan CSOs. According to The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in Afghanistan and 195 other countries, civic space faces serious restrictions as a result of growing insecurity and direct threats, attacks and intimidation of media and CSOs by the Taliban, state and security officials and other groups.
If the Afghan government and Taliban are serious about their commitment to an inclusive peace process, they must show respect for the right of CSOs, women’s groups and journalists to free speech and stop attacking them for speaking out. All parties involved in the peace process must ensure the meaningful participation and representation throughout the peace negotiations, including during decision-making, of civil society, women, minorities and victims’ groups.
As the U.S. and the Taliban undergo another round of talks, the U.S must ensure that concerns of civil society are considered and create the space for civil society inclusion in this process. In this crucial time for human rights, the international community must put pressure on the parties to the negotiations and support civil society to ensure that a peace settlement with Taliban will guarantee and preserve the basic rights of all Afghans, including women’s rights, rights of victims and freedom of expression.