UN expert urges international recognition of ‘gender apartheid’ as crime


A United Nations (UN) expert on rights in Afghanistan has called on countries to consider classifying “gender apartheid” as an international crime, in order to hold the Taliban accountable for their severe and systematic mistreatment of Afghan women. Since their takeover in August 2021, the Taliban has enforced strict Sharia law, denying girls access to secondary education, excluding women from numerous government positions, imposing travel restrictions without male accompaniment, and enforcing dress codes.

Richard Bennett, the UN special rapporteur on the situation in Afghanistan, emphasized the importance of addressing these issues during a session of the UN Human Rights Council. Presenting his latest report, he stated that the actions of the Taliban may constitute the crime against humanity of “gender persecution”. Bennett further expressed concerns that the Taliban’s ideology and rule perpetuate grave, systematic, and institutionalized discrimination against women and girls, potentially amounting to gender apartheid.

While gender apartheid is not currently recognized as an explicit international crime, Bennett stressed that it warrants further examination due to its serious human rights violations. Designating gender apartheid as an international crime would underscore the responsibility of other nations and the international community to take effective action in ending this practice, as stated in the report.

Shaharzad Akbar, the leader of the Rawadari rights group and former head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, described the plight of Afghan women and girls as being trapped, unable to fully participate in society due to restrictive measures and punitive actions. She condemned the Taliban for transforming Afghanistan into a graveyard of aspirations, dreams, and potential for Afghan women and girls.

While the UN has already referred to the situation in Afghanistan as “gender-based apartheid,” this term is not currently recognized as one of the gravest international crimes under the Rome Statute. Bennett, along with others, called for countries to consider rectifying this omission. Akbar supported this plea, urging the UN Human Rights Council to include gender apartheid in the Draft Convention on Crimes Against Humanity.

The report drafted by Bennett, in collaboration with the UN working group on discrimination against women and girls, called on countries to mandate a comprehensive investigation into gender apartheid as an institutionalized system of discrimination, segregation, humiliation, and exclusion of women and girls. The objective is to develop additional normative standards and tools, mobilize international condemnation, and take action to bring an end to this form of oppression and ensure that it is not repeated.

Several country representatives expressed their support for this initiative, including Bronwen Levy from South Africa, who drew parallels with the global response to South Africa’s struggle against racial apartheid, urging the international community to take action against gender apartheid as described in the report.

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