UN-led Doha meeting with Taliban sparks outcry over women's rights

An Afghan woman carries empty containers to fetch water in Nahr-e-Shahi district in Balkh province

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Afghanistan's Taliban government is due to send officials to Qatar next weekend to meet top U.N. officials and envoys from up to 25 countries for a two-day gathering that rights groups have criticized for not including Afghan women.

It will be the third such U.N.-led meeting in Doha, but the first attended by the Taliban, which has not been internationally recognized since seizing power in August 2021 as U.S.-led forces withdrew after 20 years of war.

The U.N. has been trying to find a unified international approach to dealing with the Taliban, who have cracked down on women's rights since returning to power.

"Excluding women risks legitimizing the Taliban's abuses and triggering irreparable harm to the U.N.'s credibility as an advocate for women's rights and women's meaningful participation," Tirana Hassan, executive director at Human Rights Watch, said of the third planned Doha meeting.

U.N. political affairs chief Rosemary DiCarlo, U.N. special envoy on Afghanistan Roza Otunbayeva and envoys from various countries are due to meet separately with Afghan civil society groups after meeting with the Taliban, the U.N. has said.

The Doha meetings are "part of a process and not a one-off" and women and civil society continue to be part of it, U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said on Sunday.

"It also aims to encourage the de facto authorities to engage with the international community through a coordinated and structured approach for the benefit of the Afghan people," Dujarric said. "Human rights and the rights of women and girls will feature prominently in all the discussions, certainly from the part of the U.N."

'INSUFFICIENT' TRUST

Since the Taliban returned to power, most girls have been barred from high school and women from universities. The Taliban have also stopped most Afghan female staff from working at aid agencies, closed beauty salons, barred women from parks and curtailed travel for women in the absence of a male guardian.

The Taliban say they respect rights in line with their interpretation of Islamic law.

"Sidelining critical discussions on human rights would be unacceptable and set a deeply damaging precedent," Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard said of the planned Doha meeting.

Otunbayeva said the Doha meeting would focus on private sector business and counter-narcotics, issues she described as linked to women's rights. She also said the upcoming meeting had "generated significant expectations that cannot realistically be met in a single meeting."

"We are trying to establish a process and preserve an important mechanism of consultation. We must be realistic about how much each meeting in this process can deliver, especially at this early stage where confidence and trust are insufficient," she told the U.N. Security Council on Friday.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres first convened envoys on Afghanistan from various countries in May last year to work on a unified approach to dealing with the Taliban authorities. The Taliban were not invited.

The Taliban then refused to attend the second Doha meeting in February, when the U.N. rejected its demand to act as Afghanistan's sole official representative, Guterres said.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Bill Berkrot)