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SC/14596
6 August 2021
8831st Meeting (AM)

As Taliban Offensive Escalates, Afghanistan at Dangerous Turning Point, Special Representative Warns Security Council amid Calls for Ceasefire, Aid Access

Permanent Representative Recommends Joint Session with Human Rights Council, as Military Advance Exacts Record Civilian Casualties

Swift action must change the current catastrophic trajectory of violence and humanitarian suffering in Afghanistan, briefers warned the Security Council today, as delegates called for an immediate halt to the recent Taliban offensive that has led to record numbers of civilian casualties and targeted killings.

With Afghanistan at a dangerous turning point, a united Security Council must seize the current opportunity to quickly reinvigorate peace talks and prevent the crisis from spilling across national borders, said Deborah Lyons, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).  “Ahead lies either a genuine peace negotiation or a tragically intertwined set of crises,” she said:  “an increasingly brutal conflict combined with an acute humanitarian situation and multiplying human rights abuses.”

She urged the Council to issue an unambiguous statement that attacks against cities must stop now.  Members engaging in talks with the Taliban Political Commission should insist on a general ceasefire and resumption of negotiations while reiterating that the international community will not recognize a Government imposed by force.  These next weeks could be decisive, she said, pressing the Council to set aside differences and send a strong signal that the fighting must stop and parties must negotiate.  Otherwise, she warned, there may be nothing left to win.

Shaharzad Akbar, Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said the ongoing storm of atrocities is costing lives and spreading terror, pushing the possibility of peace further away.  Gains made are under attack and rapidly shrinking, she said, adding that the rights of women and girls, including access to education, markets and basic health services, are diminishing.  Access to information and the freedom of expression is equally concerning, as independent media in the provinces is shut down, she said.

She called on the Council, the United Nations and international human rights mechanisms to respond with a greater sense of urgency, drawing attention to the impact on Afghanistan, the region and the world if the violence continues.  The Council still has leverage to prevent a catastrophe by using all the tools at its disposal.  She expressed support for the call by the Government for a special session of the Human Rights Council and for creating a fact-finding mission that would, among other things, identify perpetrators of human rights violations.  “We cannot wait and watch history repeat itself,” she warned.

Offering a national perspective, Afghanistan’s representative said that with the departure of foreign troops nearly complete, the Taliban and their foreign associates are fighting to turn the country, once again, into a safe haven for transnational terrorism.  Indeed, the scale, scope and timing of the Taliban’s military offensive is akin to an invasion unprecedented in the last 30 years.  Since mid-April, these groups have launched more than 5,500 attacks in 31 of 34 provinces.  Twenty groups — including Al-Qaida and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) — are fighting alongside the Taliban against the Afghan population and security forces.

“This is not a civil war, but a war of criminalized and terrorist networks fought on the backs of Afghans,” he warned.  He called on the Council to use the effective implementation of sanctions under resolutions 1988 (2011) and 2513 (2020) as a way to pressure the Taliban to engage in meaningful peace talks ahead of an 11 August meeting in Doha.  He also asked it to convene a special session with the Human Rights Council to avert a ruinous level of human rights violations and the large-scale displacement of civilians.

In the ensuing discussion, Council members condemned recent violence and called for greater humanitarian access and tangible progress at forthcoming peace talks.  Several raised grave concerns about human rights violations, including against women and girls, with many insisting on their full participation in peace talks.  Reiterating that there is no military solution to the war, others said a Government installed by force will not be recognized.

“We will not accept a military takeover of Afghanistan,” the United States representative asserted, adding that the Taliban will become an international pariah if it chooses such a path.  International support to any future Government depends on adherence to inclusive participation, fair elections, human rights protections, counter-terrorism commitments and compliance with international law, he said, pledging his country’s continued support for the Afghan people, as it continues withdrawing its troops and going forward.

Niger’s delegate, speaking also on behalf of Kenya, Tunisia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, said the two sides must respect a ceasefire and give the Doha talks a better chance of success.  Meanwhile, the Council must prioritize incentives and red lines that will compel the Taliban to stop using terrorism for political ends.  He warned that a return to chaos in the country would signal to terrorists that they can gain legitimacy and power through force.

Echoing concerns about the deteriorating situation, especially with the withdrawal of foreign troops, the Russian Federation’s representative also pointed to record increases in drug production and rising refugee populations.  In addition to advancing peace negotiations, all international and regional efforts must now be consolidated, with the Afghan people deciding on the political makeup of their Government.

China’s delegate added that all efforts must work to prevent a civil war, advance peace talks and prevent terrorist forces from gaining strength.  Interference by external Powers will fail, he warned, calling for more transparency with neighbouring countries.

The representative of India, Council President for August, spoke in his national capacity, saying that the time has come for the Council to decide on how to bring about a permanent ceasefire and an immediate cessation of violence.  “Anything short of this will constitute a serious threat to regional peace and security,” he said, reiterating support for an inclusive, Afghan-led, -owned and ‑controlled peace process.

Also delivering statements were representative of Norway, Estonia, Mexico, Viet Nam, Ireland, France and the United Kingdom.

The meeting began at 10 a.m. and ended at 11:48 a.m.

Briefings

DEBORAH LYONS, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), said the country is at a dangerous turning point.  “Ahead lies either a genuine peace negotiation or a tragically intertwined set of crises:  an increasingly brutal conflict combined with an acute humanitarian situation and multiplying human rights abuses,” she said, adding that the Security Council has an opportunity today to demonstrate its commitment to prevent a catastrophe that would stretch beyond Afghanistan’s borders.  The Council and the international community more broadly can help to prevent the most dire scenarios, but it will require acting in unity and acting quickly, she said.

Summarizing recent developments in a war that has entered a new, deadlier, and more destructive phase, she said the Taliban campaign has begun to attack large cities.  Escalated fighting in Kandahar, Herat, Lashkar Gah and other areas have triggered a distressing human toll and deeply disturbing political message.  With 104 civilians killed and 403 wounded in Laskhar Gah since 28 July, she said the Taliban closed all roads in and out of the city, hospitals are reaching capacity and food supplies are diminishing.  “This is a different kind of war, reminiscent of Syria recently or Sarajevo in the not-so-distant past,” she cautioned, adding that attacking urban areas defended by the Afghan National Security and Defence Forces will cause massive civilian casualties and damage such basic infrastructure as electricity and water networks.  Meanwhile, an unfolding humanitarian crisis and severe drought has left 18.5 million people in need of assistance, compounded by attacks on aid workers.  In 2021 alone, 25 aid workers were killed, 63 injured and 83 detained or arrested.

Many in the international community have dealt with the Taliban as a potential partner for peace in Afghanistan despite serious reservations, she said, noting that the 2020 deal with the United States came with expectations of reduced violence and enhanced peace talks.  However, there is a striking contrast between the activity on the battlefield and the quiet stalemate at the negotiating table.  It should be made clear to the Taliban Political Commission that the exemptions to the travel ban and the high protocol with which they have been received by many countries were predicated on a commitment to a peace process.

Turning to humanitarian concerns, she pointed to reports from Taliban-controlled areas of summary executions, beatings and clampdown on media.  Among the grave concerns civilians voiced to UNAMA, she said women have said they fear being killed for having worked for the Government or a non-governmental organization and that their daughters would be forced to marry Taliban fighters.  “Let me be clear, because I know that the Taliban also pay attention to what we say in these sessions,” she said, “I am reporting comments that have been expressed directly to us, not incidents we have been able to confirm.”  Also noting Taliban denials of these statements, she said the reports are so consistent, uniform and urgent that she simply cannot wait for them to be proven before bringing them to the Council’s attention.  She said one Afghan’s recent statement to her was that:  “we are no longer talking about preserving the rights we have gained; we are talking about mere survival”.

The Council must issue an unambiguous statement that attacks against cities must stop now, she said, recommending several ways for the 15-member organ to take action.  Countries that engage with the Taliban Political Commission should insist in such meetings on a general ceasefire, a resumption of negotiations and a reiteration of the position of the Security Council and that of the regional and international community that a Government imposed by force will not be recognized.  She noted that the travel ban exemption on Taliban members — which exists to allow them to travel for the sole purpose of peace negotiations — is to be renewed on 20 September.  Meanwhile, the Council and nations that meet with the Taliban should urge them to grant humanitarian access to areas they control, and Member States should contribute to the severely underfunded aid appeal for Afghanistan.  Efforts must swiftly end impunity, and the Council should give serious consideration to providing the United Nations with a mandate that allows it to play a greater role in facilitating negotiations, if requested by both parties.  As a demonstration of the Council’s seriousness in resolving this conflict, she strongly recommended that each permanent member propose an expert to be part of this facilitation team.  These next weeks could be decisive, she said, urging the Council to set aside differences and send a strong signal that it is essential to stop the fighting and negotiate.  Otherwise, she warned, there may be nothing left to win.

SHAHARZAD AKBAR, Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, noting that she is briefing the Council for the third time since June 2019, said the situation in Afghanistan today could not be more urgent.  The civilian death toll is growing and many Afghans are fleeing the worsening storm as refugees.  “Millions of Afghans are living in terror to see what comes next.”  The Commission is verifying the details of horrific war crimes daily, including extrajudicial and targeted killing of civilians working for the Government.  The fatal shooting of Dawa Khan Minapal in Kabul today is a brutal reminder of the Taliban’s refusal to acknowledge Government employees as civilians, she added.

The ongoing storm of atrocities is costing lives and spreading terror and uncertainty, pushing the possibility of peace further away, she continued.  Gains made in human rights are under attack and rapidly shrinking.  The rights of women and girls, including access to education, markets and basic health services, are diminishing.  Access to information and the freedom of expression is equally concerning as independent media in the provinces is shut down.

Drawing attention to the impact on Afghanistan, the region and the world if the violence continues, she said the Council still has leverage to prevent a catastrophe by using all the tools at its disposal.  The Council, the United Nations and international human rights mechanisms must respond with a greater sense of urgency.  She supported the call by the Government of Afghanistan for a special session of the Human Rights Council and for the establishment of a fact-finding mission that would, among other things, identify perpetrators of human rights violations.  “We cannot wait and watch history repeat itself,” she said, adding that hopefully her briefing to the Council will this time make a difference.

Statements

GHULAM M. ISACZAI (Afghanistan) said his delegation requested this urgent meeting, as the situation in his country has rapidly deteriorated due to increased violence by the Taliban and their brutal military offensive on major cities and population centres in several provinces.  In these deliberate acts of barbarism, the Taliban are assisted by transnational terrorist networks.  Together, they are threatening peace, security and stability — not only in Afghanistan but in the region and beyond.  The scale, scope and timing of their military offensive is akin to an invasion unprecedented in the last 30 years.  Since mid-April, the Taliban and their affiliate foreign terrorist groups have launched more than 5,500 attacks in 31 of the country’s 34 provinces.  Fighters representing 20 groups — including Al-Qaida and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) — are fighting alongside the Taliban against the Afghan population and security forces.  “This is not a civil war, but a war of criminalized and terrorist networks fought on the backs of Afghans,” he said.  Pointing out that the Taliban continue to enjoy a haven in Pakistan, he urged that country to help remove and dismantle Taliban sanctuaries, and their supply and logistics lines by establishing a joint monitoring and verification mechanism.

Stressing that the Taliban have become more violent in their actions, cruel in their treatment of local populations, extremist in their thinking and vengeful against Government sympathizers, he said that since the start of the group’s offensive, more than 5,300 civilians — including 1,960 women and children — have been killed and injured, while thousands others have been displaced, adding to the 4.8 million total number of people displaced in the country and 18.4 million in need of humanitarian assistance.  The fall of 10 border crossings to the Taliban has also led to the suspension of trade and a surge in the prices of primary goods.  The Taliban have also destroyed more than 260 public buildings including schools, hospitals, bridges and communications towers, amounting to $500 million in damage and depriving 13 million people of public services.

The Government has offered a peace plan and made painful concessions, including the release of more than 6,000 prisoners, he stressed.  Yet, the Taliban continue to defy the call by the international community and more specifically, the Council.  With the departure of foreign troops from Afghanistan nearly complete, the Taliban and their foreign associates are fighting to turn the country once again into a safe haven for transnational terrorism.  It is “high time” for the Council to use “every means” at its disposal to compel the Taliban to end their campaign of violence, including through the effective implementation of sanctions under resolutions 1988 (2011) and 2513 (2020), as a way to pressure the Taliban to engage in meaningful peace talks.  Currently, six cities — Herat, Lashgargah, Kandahar, Ghazni, Zaranj and Sheberghan — are under Taliban attack and soon others, including Kabul, will be targeted.  He called on the Security Council to convene a special joint session with the Human Rights Council in order to avert a catastrophic increase in human rights violations and large-scale displacement of civilians.  He also requested the Council and the Secretary-General to provide support to the ongoing peace talks, as well as to the regional and international meetings scheduled next week in Doha.

ODD INGE KVALHEIM (Norway) said the Taliban’s military offensive — and reported Taliban abuses such as so-called revenge killings and the execution of prisoners of war — must stop immediately.  He also voiced serious concern about reported abuses by members of the Afghan security forces and called for alleged human rights abuses to be investigated.  “We all share a responsibility to put effective political and diplomatic pressure on the Taliban to engage in negotiations,” he said, adding that the international community will never support a Government established by military force.  Any internationally acceptable political solution must uphold human rights for all, in particular women and girls.  He added that it could make a significant difference if the key international and regional stakeholders joined together in one peace format to coordinate their efforts and align their messages.

ANDRE LIPAND (Estonia) described attacks against United Nations personnel and compounds, such as the recent incident in Herat, as “utterly reprehensible”, stressing that they may constitute war crimes and that the perpetrators must be brought to justice.  Since the start of the offensive, the number of civilians killed and injured has reached a record high, with the Taliban responsible for the largest share of casualties.  Meanwhile, half the population is need of aid, yet humanitarian access is shrinking, and aid providers are being killed at an alarming rate.  He reiterated the call, particularly on the Taliban, to uphold an immediate ceasefire and to engage in a comprehensive, inclusive peace process in Doha, stressing that Estonia does not support the restoration of an Islamic emirate.  He also emphasized the importance of the full, equal and meaningful participation of women in the peace process, calling for an outcome that preserves constitutional protections for women´s and minority rights.  Estonia will continue its political and financial support, conditional upon the preservation of Afghanistan’s human rights and democratic achievements.  Estonia will also consider the easing or lifting of sanctions; however, the Taliban must first demonstrate a credible commitment to peace.

JEFFREY DELAURENTIS (United States) strongly condemned the increase in violent attacks, as such acts reverse gains made over the last two decades.  “We will not accept a military takeover of Afghanistan,” he said, adding that the Taliban will become an international pariah if it chooses such a path.  The Taliban’s lack of action to curtail violence jeopardizes the peace process and will affect the Council’s view on sanctions outlined in resolution 1988 (2011).  Against that backdrop, he called on the Taliban to uphold its commitments to protect civilians and infrastructure and to permit humanitarian organizations to continue their vital work, especially as the population suffers from the COVID-19 pandemic alongside continued violence.  Expressing support for a peace process with women’s full participation, he said a just, durable settlement hinges on an inclusive Government, fair elections, human rights protections, counter-terrorism commitments and adherence to international law.  International support to any future Government depends on compliance with those five elements, he said, welcoming the role of the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy and expressing appreciation for partners and allies to continue diplomatic relations in Afghanistan.  As the United States continues with its withdrawal, he reiterated that Washington, D.C., remains committed to the Afghan people and the pursuit of peace.

ABDOU ABARRY (Niger), speaking also on behalf of Kenya, Tunisia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, said the military option will not lead to a lasting solution that is acceptable to all Afghan parties.  The two sides must cease fire and give the Doha talks a better chance of success.  International and regional efforts to restart intra-Afghan negotiations must be redoubled.  The already precarious humanitarian situation could worsen as international forces leave Afghanistan by the end of September.  Condemning the attack on a United Nations compound in Herat and suicide bombings in Kabul, he called on the belligerents to ensure the safety of civilians, end hostilities and resume dialogue.

Afghanistan must not fall back into a civil war that will put at risk the gains made in recent years, he said.  Nor must the peace process reward or legitimize the use of military force or the recognition of terrorist groups.  The Council must prioritize incentives and red lines that will compel the Taliban to stop using terrorism for political ends.  He called for an urgent and sustainable solution to Afghanistan’s severe humanitarian crisis, with donors making good on their pledges for the 2021 Afghanistan humanitarian response plan.  He concluded by wondering what message the Council would be sending if it abandoned Afghanistan at the moment it is on the brink.  A return to chaos would signal to terrorists that they can gain legitimacy and power through force.

JUAN RAMÓN DE LA FUENTE RAMIREZ (Mexico) said the international community cannot and must not allow the progress made in Afghanistan over the last two decades to be lost.  “Our common position must be clear,” he said, emphasizing that the international community will not accept the return of an Islamic emirate that is a safe haven for terrorist groups and in which the rights of women, children and minorities are not respected.  Afghanistan’s future must be decided upon democratically, not unilaterally imposed by force.  He noted the resilience of the Afghan people in the face of such harsh circumstances and acknowledged the challenges faced by the Government, including the difficulty of conducting dialogue during a rapidly worsening security situation.  He went on to acknowledged UNAMA’s efforts to facilitate humanitarian assistance, promote human rights and advance the women, peace and security agenda.

VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation), noting that UNAMA plays an important role in coordinating international efforts in Afghanistan, said the deteriorating situation is of great concern, especially with the withdrawal of foreign troops.  The recent instability demonstrates a persistent terrorist threat, including from ISIL and others, he said, also raising concerns about record increases in drug production and rising refugee populations.  Regional organizations must enhance cooperation and coordination to address those and other concerns, and substantive negotiations must be launched as there is no military solution to the conflict.  For its part, the Russian Federation has supported negotiations and trusts that the forthcoming meeting in Doha will help drive forward the political process.  All international and regional efforts must now be consolidated, with the Afghan people deciding on the political makeup of its Government.  He also emphasized the importance of regional efforts to enhance Afghanistan’s economic development.

DINH QUY DANG (Viet Nam) reiterated that there is no military solution to the conflict, while calling on the parties to honour the ceasefire, engage in negotiations and set aside their differences to achieve a fruitful meeting in Doha.  Condemning targeted attacks against civilians and United Nations staff, he said all relevant parties must fully respect international humanitarian law and stop attacking infrastructure.  He also called for increased efforts to address the situation in Afghanistan, which threatens to jeopardize regional security.  Turning to the humanitarian situation, he called on the United Nations and other actors to continue to provide much-needed assistance and support to the Government’s efforts to strengthen socioeconomic development.  Support from UNAMA and regional partners is also critical to advancing peace talks, he said.

BRIAN PATRICK FLYNN (Ireland), condemning in the strongest terms the recent attacks in Afghanistan, said the Afghan people are suffering violence which has risen to a shocking scale in recent months.  “The Taliban must end their military offensive, commit to a comprehensive ceasefire and engage constructively in peace negotiations,” he stressed, describing the Doha process as the international community’s best hope of achieving peace.  Voicing regret over the Taliban’s failure to engage meaningfully in talks, he called on all sides to commit to a negotiated settlement that guarantees inclusive governance and human rights protections — especially for women, young people and minorities — as well as adherence to international law.  “Afghanistan must never again become a haven for international terrorism,” he added, reiterating Ireland’s support for resolution 2513 (2020) and the 2020 Afghanistan Partnership Framework, and emphasizing that the deliberate targeting of civilians is a war crime that must end.

NATHALIE BROADHURST ESTIVAL (France) said peace cannot be built on chaos, violence and barbarism.  The Taliban must end its military offensive and reduce violence, as it had committed to do.  The protection of civilians, including women, is an absolute priority, and those responsible for violence must be held accountable for their crimes.  “We know who is responsible for this barbarism and it is the Taliban,” she said, calling on the group to abandon violence and break its ties with terrorists.  Underscoring the grave humanitarian situation and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and drought, she said the suffering of the Afghan people must be heard and assistance provided.  Meanwhile, international humanitarian law is non-negotiable.  She went on to say that peace talks must take place in an atmosphere of calm and trust, based on the democratic gains of the last 20 years and with women present at the table.

BARBARA WOODWARD (United Kingdom) said the Council should leave no doubt that there will be consequences if the Taliban pursues its offensive.  The United Kingdom will not recognize a Taliban Government that comes to power by force, she said, adding that if it wants power, it must engage meaningfully in a peace process.  Stressing that the United Kingdom is clear about the standards it expects any Government to adhere to, she voiced support for the Government of Afghanistan and its security forces but said it will not give assistance to a State that fails to respect or uphold human rights, including those of women, children and minorities.  Any easing of sanctions will depend on the Taliban making sustained efforts to embrace peace.  She encouraged all parties in the Doha talks to engage and support, in good faith, an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned quest for peace, with Afghanistan’s neighbours and the Council playing an important role to that end.

DAI BING (China) said Afghanistan is at a juncture between war and peace, as the United States and foreign forces withdraw.  As violence and civilian casualties increase and tens of millions of people are displaced, he emphasized that there is no military solution to the conflict, stressing that interference by external Powers will fail.  Pointing to three pressing tasks ahead, he called for preventing an all-out civil war and urged foreign troops to withdraw.  To ensure a smooth transition in Afghanistan, there should be more transparency with neighbouring countries, he said, expressing hope the United States will fulfil its commitment to assist Afghanistan in maintaining peace.  Second, it is crucial to advance the peace and reconciliation process.  He welcomed the recently resumed dialogue between the Government and the Taliban in Doha, noting that China is willing to host intra-Afghan talks.  He also called for efforts to prevent terrorist forces from gaining strength, adding that China will continue to coordinate with relevant parties through mechanisms, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.  Drawing attention to China’s support to the Government in the fight against COVID-19, he said 700,000 doses of vaccine and other medical supplies have arrived in Kabul, with an additional 1 million doses of vaccine to be provided soon.  Stressing the important role of UNAMA, he strongly condemned the recent attacks on the United Nations compound.

T.S. TIRUMURTI (India), Council President for August, spoke in his national capacity to highlight record levels of civilian casualties and targeted killings, including against religious and ethnic minorities, girl students, Afghan security forces, the United Nations compound and the Defence Minister’s residence.  An Indian journalist was murdered while he was reporting.  It is time for the Council to decide on actions to bring about a permanent ceasefire and an immediate cessation of violence.  “Anything short of this will constitute a serious threat to regional peace and security,” he said, affirming a call by India’s External Affairs Minister for a double peace — both within and around Afghanistan.  The Taliban must engage in negotiations in good faith, eschew violence, sever ties with Al-Qaida and other terrorist groups and fully commit to reaching a political solution.  He reiterated support for an inclusive, Afghan-led, ‑owned and ‑controlled peace process, stressing that any political arrangement must preserve the constitutional democratic framework and protect the rights of women, children and minorities, notably as any regime devoid of legitimacy would find it difficult to garner humanitarian and development assistance.  He called on the Secretary-General to take initiative in finding a lasting outcome and welcomed any move towards genuine political settlement that leads to these objectives.  For its part, India will continue to support Afghanistan in realizing its aspirations for a peaceful, prosperous future.

For information media. Not an official record.