Human rights in Afghanistan: letter to the UK government

A letter from the International Development Minister Neil Gray, to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs Secretary James Cleverley.

To: Rt Hon James Cleverley, Secretary of State for Foreign Commonwealth and Development Affairs

From: Neil Gray MSP, Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development and Minister with special responsibility for Refugees from Ukraine

Dear James

I wanted to write to you about the situation in Afghanistan, with particular attention to the human rights situation in the country. I raised many of these issues in my meeting with Andrew Mitchell on 15 March, but the seriousness of the situation in Afghanistan is such that I wanted to follow up with a letter to you.

As Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN Deputy Special Representative and Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan, recognised on 28 February, Afghanistan remains the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with 28 million people now dependent on aid to survive.

In relation to the humanitarian crisis, the Scottish Government continues to ensure that Scotland plays its part as a compassionate global citizen, stepping up when natural disasters impact other countries and ensuring Scotland plays our part in any requests for assistance. In relation to Afghanistan, last financial year we made £600,000 available to the people of Afghanistan through our Humanitarian Emergency Fund, including donating £240,000 to the Disasters Emergency Committee Appeal in response to their December 2021 appeal.

The Scottish Government funds the Scottish Human Rights Defender Fellowship Programme which offers Human Rights Defenders working in difficult conditions temporary respite and an opportunity to undertake research, develop skills and build networks during a 3-6 month visit to Scotland. I very much value the support and assistance which your department has shown for the Fellowship programme and the assistance given to the Fellows by FDCO officials, who meet with them as part of the programme.

The Fellowship programme also includes formal and informal engagement between the Fellows and the Scottish Government. As part of that activity I recently had the pleasure of meeting Mohammad Hussain Nussrat, a leading human rights, peace, and reconciliation expert with nearly 20 years’ experience in the field of human rights, children’s rights and civilian protection in armed conflict.

When I met Nussrat he spoke passionately about the persecution and violence faced by Hazaras and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan, including the Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, Christian communities. As you will be aware, the Hazara community in particular has experienced a long history of religious and racial discrimination and is again being systematically targeted by extremists. The situation of Hazaras in Afghanistan has significantly worsened since the Taliban takeover, including as a result of attacks (which the Taliban is unable or unwilling to prevent) by members of the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISPK) terrorist organisation.

I very much support his assessment of the gravity of the situation faced by Hazaras in Afghanistan and the need for concerted action by the international community. I therefore want to pass on his request that the UK Government uses all of the diplomatic tools at its disposal to put pressure on the Taliban to end the ongoing persecution and repression of Hazaras and other groups.

I also want to draw particular attention to the situation of Afghan women and girls who have, as you know, been deprived of their most fundamental human rights. Nussrat raised particular concerns with me in relation to human rights violations such as arbitrary detention, kidnapping, rape, and disappearances. Women and girls have been denied access to education and to employment opportunities. This has had two consequences. In the case of women with no other source of income or support from wider family or social networks, destitution is the inevitable result. In the context of education, the damage being done arises not simply as a consequence of the exclusion of women from schools, universities and other institutions. The Taliban is working to embed extremist ideology within the curriculum. The very real fear therefore is that, even if women and girls were able to return to education, they will do so in an environment in which explicit efforts are being made to radicalise children and young people.

I know that you share my concerns in relation to the situation of women and girls, minority communities, and of course those members of Afghan society who worked with the UK and our allies in Afghanistan to promote a better future for the Afghan people over the last 20 years. There is nonetheless a feeling that all of these groups, and the latter most of all, have been forgotten by the international community. A significant number of human rights defenders, lawyers, judges, journalists, community activists and government officials remain in hiding in Afghanistan. Others have managed to flee to neighbouring countries but their situation remains perilous. They require our on-going support and assistance.

Against that background there is the further fear that the West will now seek to pursue a policy of “constructive engagement” with the Taliban, in a way that amounts in practice to the appeasement of interests which present a very real and direct danger, at very least to members of their own society, and almost certainly, in the long term, to the UK and other democratic states. Whilst it is necessary to be realistic about what can be achieved, I would encourage you in particular to ensure that the UK makes every possible effort to assist human rights defenders and others who are at greatest risk and that diplomatic pressure is also maintained on the Taliban to respect the fundamental rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.

For our part, the Scottish Government remains very firmly committed to welcoming and supporting people fleeing Afghanistan and also to working with you and other Whitehall departments in order to provide individuals and their families with the safety and security they need in order to rebuild their lives in the UK. We are, however, concerned about current delays in the asylum system. It is a significant concern that Home Office statistics published on 23 February show that at the end of December there were over 160,000 people awaiting an initial decision on their asylum application, including nearly 110,000 who had been waiting for longer than six months.

The UK Government must invest in the UK asylum system to increase the quality and speed of asylum decisions.  That is the only way to uphold the UK’s international responsibilities to recognise and protect people forced to flee persecution.  It will also reduce the risk of people who need to rebuild their lives in a place of safety being left in prolonged limbo, during which they are restricted from working to support themselves and our economy. I understand that asylum applicants from Afghanistan are to be included in the recently announced streamlined asylum processing model which aims to help reduce the backlog in asylum cases awaiting a decision, provided their application was made prior to 28 June 2022. Whilst this is positive news, in that it recognises the significant protection needs of people from Afghanistan amongst other nationalities, it is imperative that this streamlined service operates fairly and swiftly.  Further investment in the UK asylum system will also be needed to reduce the backlog and must be done with a view to maintaining suitable levels of decision making. There is also a continuing need to prioritise bringing over relatives of those already settled here under Afghan resettlement and relocation schemes.

As well ensuring that all asylum seekers benefit from fair and swift decisions, I believe there is much more that we can, and should, be doing to support Human Rights Defenders and civil society activists so that they can continue their work from a place of safety.

Amongst the positive measures I would like to see enhanced and extended are those which ensure the UK takes practical steps to protect Human Rights Defenders and at risk groups, including women and activists from minority ethnic communities, by facilitating their relocation from Afghanistan, and also by offering funded research programmes in areas such as women rights or children’s rights, or by offering funding to establish human rights organisations or platforms.

Lastly, I am aware that work is currently being undertaken to review the Human Rights Defender Guidance (PDF) to provide more practical guidance on implementation to UK embassies, and to provide Human Rights Defenders with further information on the support that the UK can provide. We are very supportive of this review and would encourage you to consult directly with Human Rights Defenders, including alumni of the Scottish Human Rights Defender Fellowship, and with Scottish civil society. We would be very happy to assist in facilitating that engagement.

The situation in Afghanistan is truly dire. I urge the UK to do more to work with international partners to address the humanitarian and human rights situation, as well as to do more to ensure that those requiring asylum have their cases speedily and fairly assessed.

I look forward to your response.

Neil Gray

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