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People right in fearing Taliban will erase human rights gains in Afghanistan: Top UN official

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United Nations/Geneva: As the Taliban continues its offensive in Afghanistan, the United Nation’s top official on human rights on Tuesday called for an end to the militant group’s armed operations, saying if the Taliban seizes power human rights gains of the past two decades would be erased.

“Parties to the conflict must stop fighting to prevent more bloodshed. The Taliban must cease their military operations in cities. Unless all parties return to the negotiating table and reach a peaceful settlement, the already atrocious situation for so many Afghans will become much worse,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement.

The high commissioner also expressed particular concern about early indications that the Taliban are imposing severe restrictions on human rights in the areas under their control, particularly targeting women.

“People rightly fear that a seizure of power by the Taliban will erase the human rights gains of the past two decades,” she said.

“The people of Afghanistan are speaking of their deep fears of a return to the worst of the human rights violations of the past,” Bachelet said.

“Women, minorities, human rights defenders, journalists as well as others who are particularly vulnerable need particular protection. There are very real risks of renewed atrocities against ethnic and religious minorities,” she said.

Bachelet said the UN Human Rights office has received reports that women and girls in various districts under Taliban control are prohibited from leaving their homes without a ‘mahram’, a male chaperone.

There are already reports of women having been flogged and beaten in public because they breached the prescribed rules.

“These restrictions have a serious impact on the rights of women, including the right to health — and clearly — in the midst of a war, the need to access urgent medical care for themselves and their families is a matter of life and death. Hampering a woman’s ability to leave home without a male escort also inevitably leads to a cascade of other violations of the woman’s and her family’s economic and social rights,” Bachelet said.

She stressed that her office will continue to monitor the human rights situation, in spite of security and other challenges, as she urged the international community, including through the Human Rights Council and the Security Council, to take urgent action to prevent further atrocities and to “ensure that civilians in Afghanistan do not once again have to bear the brunt, and aftermath, of a prolonged and deadly conflict.”

“We know that urban warfare results in scores of civilians being killed. We have seen it before, too many times,” she said, adding that in Afghanistan, since July 9 in four cities alone Lashkar Gah, Kandahar, Herat and Kunduz, at least 183 civilians have been killed and 1,181 injured, including children.

“These are just the civilian casualties we have managed to document the real figures will be much higher,” Bachelet said, warning that even before the latest Taliban military offensives on urban centres, the UN had documented a steep increase in civilian casualties.

The situation in the southern city of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, “starkly demonstrates the harrowing impact” that hostilities in urban areas have on civilians.

In only the two weeks since July 28, when fighting started in the city, the UN received reports of at least 139 civilians killed and 481 injured.

The available food supply in the city is fast diminishing and shortages of medical supplies were also reported. Electricity and water were cut off in most parts of the city.

Bachelet said that the sweeping takeover of an estimated 192 district administrative centres by the Taliban, the attacks on provincial capitals including Qala-e-Naw, Kandahar, Lashkar Gah, Herat, Faizabad, Ghazni, Maimana, Gardez, Pul-e- Khumri, and Mazar-e-Sharif, and the takeover of at least six provincial capitals – Zaranj in Nimroz province, Sheberghan in Jawzjan province, Kunduz City in Kunduz province, Taloqan in Takhar province, Sar-e-Pul in Sar-e-Pul province and Aybak in Samangan province have struck fear and dread into the population .

She also warned that the proliferation of pro-government militias being mobilised against the Taliban may also put civilians in additional danger.

Bachelet urged all states to use their influence bilaterally and multilaterally to bring the hostilities to an end.

“States have a duty to use any leverage they have to de-escalate the situation and reinvigorate peace processes. The fighting must be brought to an end,” she said, noting the peace-related meetings taking place this week in Doha.

Since the start of the Taliban offensive in May, at least 241,000 people have been displaced, and the protracted fighting in the cities has resulted in damage to essential infrastructure like roads and bridges, and other civilian objects.

The UN is also receiving other deeply disturbing reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law such as “killings by the Taliban of hors de combat members” of Afghan security forces, in some cases after they had even received letters guaranteeing their safety upon surrendering.

Bachelet said directing attacks against civilians is a serious violation of international humanitarian law and amounts to a war crime.

Perpetrators of serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law must be held accountable, she said.

Serious curbs on the freedom of expression and the ability of journalists to do their crucial work by both parties are also of deep concern during this time of uncertainty and chaos, the high commissioner said.

The US and Nato have already pulled back the majority of their forces from Afghanistan and are looking to complete the drawdown by August 31, ending nearly two decades of foreign military presence in the country.

Afghanistan has been witnessing a series of terror attacks since the US began withdrawing its troops on May 1. The Taliban have captured more than half of Afghanistan’s 400-odd districts.

Their attacks on provincial capitals have violated the 2020 peace deal between the Taliban and the United States.

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