Women, Peace & Rights

Afghanistan Catastrophe & Women, Peace and Security Agenda

August 22, 2021 Women's Regional Network
Women, Peace & Rights
Afghanistan Catastrophe & Women, Peace and Security Agenda
Show Notes Transcript

Guest: Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin (Ireland), United Nations (UN)  Special Rapporteur on Human Rights & Counter-Terrorism.
Host: Rita Manchanda, Women's Regional Network (WRN) Board Member.

"If the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda doesn't mean something now it's worthless!” says Ní Aoláin to governments and women’s networks on 20 years of commodification and misuse of Afghan women’s voices.

1. What kind of response is possible of the international community and how do you see your role in particular, especially vis-a-vis the most vulnerable in Afghanistan today? Girls and women.

2. How do you feel about in fact this whole militarization of the women, peace and security agenda?

3. What are the issues that you have actually prioritized and engaged with/without governments?

4. You're seeing de-radicalization camps set up in Sri Lanka, the suspect community, this time being, of course the Muslims. Do you engage on this?

5.  With COVID 19, how do you assess the gender impact, particularly on women of this expansion of the securitized infrastructure?

6. In view of what is happening in Afghanistan and the slew of security measures, anti-terrorism measures that are likely to be brought in by nervous states, particularly like India?

7. Do you feel a roll back of authoritarian exceptionalism, justified in the name of COVID, that we're likely to see actually more repressive measures, more surveillance or more authoritarian, regulatory laws? 

Conversation: 17 August 2021

17 August 2021

Rita: Welcome to the Women, Peace and Rights Podcast hosted by the Women's Regional Network. WRN is a network of women across borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and with, for paternal links with the East Africa network. WRN aims at amplifying the voices of marginalized women in conflict situations, as they address the interlinked issues of peace and justice, governance and security.

I am Rita Manchanda, a WRN board member. I'm hosting this episode on the theme of protecting fundamental freedoms and women's rights and security at a time of state collapse in Afghanistan and its takeover by extremist, Taliban forces and the evident danger to have gone. Women's human rights. For the immediate neighbors that is the danger of destabilization and terrorist contagion already in the region.

The COVID pandemic has been used to justify an epidemic of authoritarian, exceptionalism and repressive legal and political regulations. The Afghanistan catastrophe is likely to reinforce that security, obsession, and bad policy. To discuss the difficult challenge of the responsibility to suppress terrorism and the need to balance human rights and security.

We are privileged to have with us Professor Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin the UN mandate holder on protecting human rights. And fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. She's a professor of law at Queens University Belfast and co-director of the LSC, gender justice and security hub. Welcome Professor. 

Fionnuala: Thank you. I'm very, very glad to join you, particularly at this momentous time for women's rights in the region.

Rita: First to Afghanistan and I quote your blunt tweet in the context of the Security Council meeting on Afghanistan. Let us not forget exactly whom we're dealing with in Afghanistan and the obligations of states to suppress and prevent terrorism, following from that. What kind of response is possible of the international community and how do you, you see your role in particular, especially vis-a-vis the most vulnerable in Afghanistan today? Girls and women. 

Fionnuala: So I think we're at a crossroads. And as you may know, or your readers/listeners will know just yesterday, there was a meeting of the UN Security Council, the second emergency meeting in less than a number of days. I think my position and what I've articulated to the security council is the obligation to hold firm to what they have consistently said first is that the suppression of international terrorism and those who've been listed and designated as international terrorist is an obligation and absolute obligation for the security council and should not be convenient to be forgotten in the hand-wringing that we're seeing in Afghanistan. If those things have been true for 20 years, they are never as true as they are today. And that means using the full scope of the Security Councils capacities under chapter six and chapter seven, to enforce those obligations.

The second of course is not to be held hostage to the vicissitudes of one particular government's approach to the country of Afghanistan. And in that regard, it seems to me particularly significant that the council hold as a body and that it does not concede domestic imperatives of one country to leave simply drive the agenda for every other country at the council and beyond.

And the third is simply to, to remember that we have obligations under the UN charter to protect and promote human rights, including the equality of women written into hard-lined into the, into the charter. We've had 20 years plus of the Women, Peace and Security agenda. And if that agenda doesn't mean something now it's worthless.

And what women and women activists have to do is cease to show up to meetings on women, peace and security. If the Security Council will not act on that agenda in the moment where it matters, we withdraw from talking to you about women, peace and security. If you are not prepared to act on Women, Peace and Security.

So for myself and for other mandate holders, we issued a joint statement yesterday. So very powerful over 20 UN special repertoires and working groups speaking in one voice and telling the international community that they have human rights obligations that are absolute non-dairy huggable, and that they cannot, we will not cease to talk about them in this moment when states want to pretend that those inconvenient things are not relative.

Rita: Well, I certainly hope that they are listening to you and that they will listen to you. You know, on the whole issue of women, peace and security. I know that you have been very critical about the militarization of the women, peace and security agenda. And many of us have felt that women's rights have been instrumentalized in the countering the violent extremism strategies, particularly in Afghanistan, knowing how now it's playing out and particularly the vulnerability of the women. And as a result of many of these kinds of strategies and they're abandonment. And now, well, how do you feel about in fact this whole militarization of the women, peace and security agenda?

Fionnuala: Well, I, I think of course, like we're at this moment of telling right now where it's very, very clear what use and misuse has been made of women's rights in the context of this agenda, particularly in Afghanistan, I recall. foreign policy statements of then us President Bush in naming women's rights as one of the rationales for the U S engagement on the sovereign territory of Afghanistan.

And what we've seen for the last 20 years has been the commodification of that. The parading women's human rights activists in Washington, and at the security council, that convenient moments for States. But on the ground, what we've seen is actually the lack of attention to gender equality. If we had had attention to women, peace and security, the conversations in Doha would not have happened the way they happened, because if a great power can sit down and negotiate an exit agreement with the Taliban without a word to women's rights in that agreement, women, peace and security is simply not worth the paper that it's written on. So I think there's this enormous. Many of us have been saying that we've been seeing this commodification, seeing the misuse, seeing the projection or the use of women's voices, but not their actual rights, their actual dignity, the structuring of societies in ways that prioritizes reinforces and ensures the protection of women rights.

And we've been saying, and we've been articulating what we've been seeing for the past 20 years at night. I think there's an enormous moment of reckoning. I think women on the ground, as someone who grew up in Belfast who saw similar kinds of commodification, I think women on the ground in conflict zones, knowing exactly what's being done to them.

And we need to tell our Western feminist friends that now their time for talking is over because we have been telling them for decades, what we experience and what is abs. And so now I think the moment of reckoning in many ways requires us to reframe to rethink, but also to hold our moral pressure, to hold whatever resources we have to say, what do we do now?

For the women of Afghanistan, what do we empower the women of Afghanistan to do for themselves in this moment? Are we simply going to lead them to it? And I think that's the really, isn't just a moment of reckoning for governments. It seems to me, it's an enormous moment of reckoning for the networks of women, activists across the world who have rallied around promoted and sort of seeing themselves as defined by the women, peace and security. We should all be feeling very, very shaky about that this morning and asking very fundamental questions and being prepared to act in big and small ways to defend ourselves because let's be clear. Nobody else is defending us. 

Rita: Well, turning to the region as a whole, as you're aware here in south Asia descent is not only criminalized, but conflated with anti-national activity. Peaceful protest is conflated with violent politics and charged under national security laws. Subnational struggles. Self-determination struggles on military reprints. As terrorism in the global tracker supported by you as the Special Rapporteur. You've singled out India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka for measures to suppress freedom of expression in troubled south Asia, and now more trouble than ever. What are the issues that you have actually prioritized and engaged with without governments? 

Fionnuala: No. Thank you. So one really obvious if you think about we're coming up to the anniversary of 9/11, and what we have seen in the last 20 years is the coal modification and the use of counter-terrorism and security discourses to justify the most egregious human rights violations at the national level.

And that permissive space created after 9/11 enabled by the United Nations enabled by the UN Security Council is the perfect gentleman's agreement. It allows every state to define on its own terms, who is a terrorist. And so what that means is the terrorist today is the woman's human rights actor. The terrorist today is the humanitarian. The terrorist today is the journalist. The terrorist today is the eco warrior. The terrorist today is the civil society person arguing for equality and dignity in their society. 

The core here is the permissive global environment that has been created including in your region. So what do we do? Well, the first is I think we have to clearly say, and this is in my role as Special Rapporteur, one of the fundamentals of what I have been doing.

It's tracking the misuse of counter-terrorism measures against civil society, including in India, in Pakistan, in Bangladesh. We look at the mandates website, for example, we've taken every single piece of their counter terrorism legislation, taken it apart and told them that it is unacceptable in terms of its rigor and it conformity with international law. It simply doesn't conform with any principle of legality legal certainty or fairness under international law. So one thing we do is we simply expose that we show not only is the law is fundamentally flawed and unacceptable inconsistent with the state's international obligations, but its application is flawed. And again, the tracker is one example of that work. Another example of that work is that in 2018, I submitted a report to the human rights council, which essentially tracks for 20 years the misuse of counter-terrorism measures against civil society actors. And what I found in that period globally is that 66% of all the communications of the mandate holder involves the use of counter terrorism against a civil society actor.

And so I say two things. One is that is lousy counter terrorism. Those of you who argue that we need counter terrorism, let's take that argument, but this is not counter terrorism. This is hardwired structured abuse that produces enemy violence and create cycles of disengagement and harm within a society. So don't tell me that is good Counter-terrorism we don't even have to get to humans. To say that the misuse of security measures in this way, harms society and harms our global communities. And so you need to hold those states to account. And the second thing is, of course, these are not human rights complaint.

Rita: Do our states, have any of our governments at all responded. 

Fionnuala: So I think it's really, really interesting. We have an ongoing dialogue with, for example, we've had an ongoing dialogue with the government of India around its counter terrorism legislation, and India is now a member of the Security Council. What I have found is great defenses.

From many governments, they don't like to be exposed in this way. And one of the things I think that we're being quite successful at, and I don't mean me, cause I think the Special Rapporteur  is just part of a big chain of international and mostly local actors starting to work together to name and shame these misused.

And I think these states are feeling very caught. They're feeling exposed because they used to have the cover of counter terrorism to do more or less what they wanted to do. What I see, particularly in New York and the Security Council and in the global counter-terrorism, compact is greater skepticism.

And I think one of the things that the mandates really been trying to do is to expose the gap between New York and Geneva. So states are, they do human rights over there and they do security over here. And one of the things we're doing, I think has a global network, both the human rights, state entities, UN entities, like my own and civil society actors like your network. And so many other organizations is we're closing that gap. We're making them feel embarrassed and we're showing the world that they're not doing counter terrorism, they're doing many other nefarious things that they are not doing Counter-terrorism, so I think that's one way we hear from them. I think the challenge is, you know, though, read is we have very few tools at the end of the day, Special Rapporteurs voice or the voices of civil society struggle to be heard in the comfily of States, and, self-congratulation on the use of counter terrorism or security measures. But I, I feel, you know, our tools or the old tools, we may be using new mediums through them, but our tools are exposure facts and ensuring the voices of those who are most damaged and harmed by these measures, but creating space and voice for them, not just nationally, but regionally and globally.

And those governments certainly don't like it when organizations show up in Geneva, in New York. And so one of the things I think we have to do is continue to create these access points, to make it on tenable for these governments, to use these discourses of security and counter terrorism, to justify what they do.

Rita: No, it's extremely inspiring listening to you, but I also am confronted with the reality of de-radicalization camps being set up in Sri Lanka. We've seen de-radicalization camps and there the damage that they have done in terms of reinforcing conflict. In India, we've seen them in Sri Lanka and, and their ineffectiveness and what harm they've done as far as the LTTE was concerned.

And now once again, you're seeing de-radicalization camps set up in Sri Lanka, the suspect community, this time being, of course the Muslims. Do you engage on this? I know you've been very critical on de-radicalization models like this. You know, you're talking about exposure; you're talking about them listening, responding, at least in terms of, shame defensiveness, they go right ahead and do this.

Fionnuala: No, we are in; I think of it as a Sisyphean battle, you know, we're pushing these massive big rocks of boulders up mountains all the time. Trying to really both expose document and litigate and prevent. And this isn't a fair fight. This is a David and Goliath. We're not in a fair fight ever on these things.

And I think those of us who are in the long-term business, Rita as you and I are both. Human rights work. These wins, you win something. And then 10 years later, you turn around and you're really fighting that fight. You thought you won 10 years ago. Maybe, maybe this is our Sisyphean kind of journey that we are all in. 

On Sri Lanka, the mandate has been very engaged with a number of other Special Rapporteurs led by my colleague, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, who's the SR on freedom of association. Specifically, you know, I visited, my predecessor, visited Sri Lanka in 2017 and we issued a very comprehensive and I would say damning report on the misuse of the prevention of terrorism act in Sri Lanka.

Just last week for your listeners. So this podcast may come out a little later, but we have issued a review of those regulations in Sri Lanka that have established these de-radicalization centers. I am heartened. I will say that there has been a legal challenge to those, to the use of those regulations.

And the courts in Sri Lanka have stopped. They've said they cannot be implemented, pending a full hearing. And so I want to hope that we have some independent judges out there who do the following. First of all, who understand that the concept of de-radicalization has no fixed legal meaning, it's entirely in the eye of the beholder.

Many of us would be considered radicals for the ideas we hold around, equality and justice. So the idea that judges will accept these kinds of terms as the basis for legal acts, I think should go against, I don't mean human rights, judges. I mean, judges who just defend the rule of law, the idea of legal certainty as a bedrock principle of any sophisticated legal system, these kinds of regulations are fundamentally incompatible with that most basic notion of the rule of law.

The second is that these measures are discriminatory. They clearly target minority groups. They target the freedom of religion and belief because whoever the kinds of acts that are believed to be quote radical are often those associated with the right to believe, which is a non_ fundamental, right.

The assault on the idea of religious belief across the universe in the name of countering radicalization is extraordinary. And I think the third thing we show with these, and this is where much of the mandates work has been is we don't help governments do these things anymore. You have a significant amount of counter terrorism, technical assistance, and capacity building going into countries like Sri Lanka paid for and supported by the United Nations.

And so if we can't influence these governments, let's talk to the United Nations and say to the office of counter terrorism and tell the Secretary General that these kinds of technical supports and capacity buildings are used to sustain systematic human rights violations and that the minimum. They are in breach of UN due diligence policy.

So I think we, we have to do two layers of work. We have to layer with the government, but for many of these governments, the way they do this work is supported, enabled and paid for by other governments and by the international system. So let's just follow the money. If we can't get governments themselves to uphold the rule of law, let's go to the supply side and say, I believe that that in some ways is the area where we may have more success in the short run, that if you can't influence national policy change in the counter terrorism and security arena, you can influence the private actors, the bilateral systems and the UN itself, which is providing and supporting the means to enable in these kinds of equations violations.

Rita: Let me just, shift a little bit and come back to of course, a topic that has so dominated all conversations, which is COVID-19 and in particular, the securitization of the infrastructure in the management of the COVID-19 and its effect. On marginalized and discriminated groups, and particularly on women, the entry of security laws into the private domain of women in the name of, of course, the entry of public health preventive measures against the COVID pandemic.

Now, this was an observation that you had made a little earlier, right at the beginning of the COVID pandemic a year and a half later. Well, how do you assess the gender impact, particularly on women of this expansion of the securitized infrastructure? 

Fionnuala: Yeah, so very early on, because, you know, I mean, within the first week or so of the pandemic sort of global identification, it was clear to me that we were seeing a parallel epidemic, emergency powers and exceptional powers being rolled out around the world.

And maybe again, kind of growing up in Belfast to growing up in a society that was defined by exceptionality for, you know, all of my growing up in my adult life that we may be those of us in these, from these societies, we have a much higher, like, we have a very key sensitivity. We smell that in the air before anyone else sees it and we know it's coming.

So I think we've been proven right. And part of the reason to establish this tracker with ICNL and ECNL was really to try to get a handle because. One of the difficulties right now for special procedures or UN human rights entities or regional entities is we, we're not getting into countries anymore.

We're finding it very, very hard to document the kinds of misuses that we're seeing. But the tracker, I think helps at least give us some sense. And I say that because it's only some sense because so much of what's happening is not visible. Securitization is no longer in the COVID context is no longer just happening at centralized government.

If you only look at the kind of national legislation that's being passed in many countries, it tells you very little, so much of the securitization is happening locally. It's happening through the deployment of local cities, regional municipality exceptionalities and the use of security measures coming down into those local spaces in ways that I think are extraordinary and quite unique.

The second trend I think we're seeing, as you say, is that the negative impact of that securitization is felt most acutely by those who are most vulnerable. And bearing in mind that many of the communities that we know epidemiologically who have been most negatively impacted by COVID, those are the same communities who has starkly have had really difficult and challenging relationships with the same security state that's then managing the pandemic. So it's actually a double hit for those communities.

I think in ways that we have yet to fully appreciate. And in many countries that's both raced, ethicized it's very, it's a very compact and challenging overlay. And of course, for women it's catastrophic; we know already the gender burden that the pandemic has created for women.

But we also know that women who are the front-liners and so many of their families, the ones who are responsible for food, for water, for help for ensuring education will be the ones who will be most likely to be tracked by the security state, precisely because they're engaging in those gender roles that are so essential to their family's functioning.

And what worries me is the data collection, the knowledge, so security and counter terrorism have become data fight. That's how they function. And we have no assurances about the use and misuse of that data. That's being gathered in the name of health. So I, and my other Special Rapporteur colleagues that are SR health or SR racism-Tendayi Achiume, who's been forthright. 

This is not just a problem with governments. This is a problem with the private sector who are providing the technology and the enablements. And here, I think we are not only required to hold our governments accountable, to like shedding and undoing the infrastructures of exceptionality, but we actually need to hold the private sector, which has built, has seen the commercial opportunity, but the COVID-19 pandemic allows for the surveillance state, for the capitalist state, for the security state and is filling that gap. And I think that is where so much of our effort. We focus our efforts on governments, but I think we, we have to focus our efforts on holding these private actors accountable for the data and securitization that they are facilitating on our private intimate lives, which of course will have an outsize effect on them.

Do you feel that, particularly in view of what is happening in Afghanistan and the slew of security measures, anti-terrorism measures that are likely to be brought in by nervous states, particularly like India? Do you feel that in fact we're likely to see rather than a roll back of authoritarian exceptionalism, justified in the name of COVID, that we're likely to see actually more repressive measures, more surveillance or more authoritarian, regulatory laws? 

Fionnuala: So, I mean, all of the signaling is there distinct to the Security Council yesterday. I heard very clearly the government of China talking about the threat of weaker extremism, and we all know. 

As my colleagues at the human rights council and I have named the use of counter-terrorism and exception extremism measures against the weaker minority. So here we have another justification being, you know, handily deployed by states. We heard the government of India yesterday. Security Council talks about the dangers of cross border terrorism.

And we see the United States and its shabby and shoddy retreat, not talking about the human rights of the people of Afghanistan, but talking about the potential containment of the terrorist threat from Afghanistan in other ways. So of course, you know, security actors are extraordinarily adroit at using situational emergencies to justify the hard wiring of their own preferences, their own structures and their own power.

This is the Sisyphean fight. And we have been in for a very, very long time. So question is what do we do? Well, we name the authoritarianism as we see it. I think we seek new allies. So you know, one of the things that has struck me as Special Rapporteur. Often your allies are not big nations. They're not, but your allies can be small and powerful nations that are small nations whose, who are prepared to use their voice.

Right now on the Security Council, I would say in counterbalance to some of the voices of militarism that we hear. We have Norway. We have Ireland. My own country is currently a member of the Security Council. We have Mexico, a historic defender of human rights in many, many contexts globally. And we have an Estonia. So I, again, I think we can, you know glass half, empty glass, glass full. It's always really easy to see the glass half empty because we're, we're staring at it every day.

But I also think that we, those of us who are in the long site and the long fight on authoritarian. It isn't a fight post 9/11. This is a fight that goes back centuries. We know this fight, this fight. Isn't new to us? We've thought this fight over many, many, many centuries, and we're in this fight again.

And so there, I think role and our responsibilities are to support each other. To support networks and we have the capacity to small, to support small groups now in ways that we didn't have, when I was doing human rights work in Belfast in the 1980s, we thought we were pretty alone. I think that despite all the limits we face today, we see these networks of support, including your own network.

To me, those are extremely important. Because they, first of all, elevate the local, they give power and voice in and can protect in ways that you can't be protected when you're a solo little NGO sitting in a place where, where you think nobody hears you when you are vulnerable and alone. And I also think we try to find our allies where we can; we become more adroit at figuring out who’s our friend, our old friends are really not our friends anymore as has been absolutely illustrated by the catastrophe of this ill-conceived and badly executed walkout from Afghanistan by the United States.

These states are not our friends. We shouldn't mistake or strategic use of them in the long fight we're in with actually believing that they are allies on the fundamental values that matter. 

Rita: Thank you so much, Professor Fionnuala for sharing with us, these very, very candid thoughts, which some inspiring and some actually extremely depressing. But as you said, it's a Sisyphean fight and we're all together in this struggle. Thank you again. 

Fionnuala: Thank you. I am really delighted to join you.

Rita: And, Thank you very much for listening to this episode of Women, Peace and Rights podcast. We look forward to your comments and feedback. Please visit our website womenregionanetwork.org, and connect with us through Twitter @WRNnews. Thank you!