Michigan Law professor addresses UN Security Council on gender apartheid in Afghanistan

By Sharon Morioka
Michigan Law

During a September 26 address to the United Nations Security Council, Michigan Law Professor Karima Bennoune, ’94, urged the organization to go beyond condemnation of the Taliban’s violation of women’s rights in Afghanistan and adopt resolutions labeling it as gender apartheid.

The resolutions, she said, should require states to take effective steps to end these violations of international law. “This would convey to groups in other parts of the world that share the Taliban’s worldview that the international community will not acquiesce to wholesale violations of women’s rights.”

Bennoune spoke at the UN at the invitation of Albania, the country that currently serves as president of the Security Council. The Lewis M. Simes Professor of Law at U-M, she specializes in public international law and international human rights law. She has worked with Afghan women human rights defenders (WHRDs) for nearly three decades.

She stressed that Afghan WHRDs have been calling for recognition that gender apartheid is being practiced in their country, even undertaking a recent hunger strike with that demand. Since August 2021, the Taliban have stripped Afghan women of most of their human rights through at least 65 decrees. Bennoune reported an increase in suicides among Afghan women as a consequence of losing their right to education, to work, to freedom of movement, to take part in public life, and to access remedies.

The ambassador of Albania, Ferret Hoxha, endorsed Bennoune’s position during the meeting. “We cannot contemplate unparalleled despicable and unacceptable gender discrimination policies and need to call them by their real name—gender apartheid,” said Hoxha. “We cannot only repeat our statements and condemnation here. We must do more.”

Drawing on her recent scholarship, Bennoune said a powerful aspect of the gender apartheid approach is that it not only implicates the perpetrators of apartheid, but it means, as was the case with racial apartheid in South Africa, that no member state can be complicit in or normalize the Taliban’s illegal actions. Instead, member states must take effective action to end the situation. It makes clear that there can be no recognition of the Taliban and no place for them at the UN as long as their system of gender apartheid persists.

She noted that many UN officials and experts are now using the term “gender apartheid,” including the secretary general, the executive director of UN Women, and the high commissioner for human rights. She added that the UN special rapporteur on Afghanistan and the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls defined gender apartheid as “an institutionalized system of discrimination, segregation, humiliation, and exclusion of women and girls.”

In addition to recognizing the treatment of Afghan women as gender apartheid, Bennoune urged the Security Council and member states to include gender apartheid in the Crimes Against Humanity treaty currently under consideration; implement all women’s right aspects of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan; and, in any convening by the international community on Afghanistan, prioritize protection of women’s rights and meaningful participation of Afghan women.

“The stalwart Afghan women continuing to protest on the streets will not give up and are risking their lives,” she said. “The Security Council must show as much courage and commitment as they do.”

Bennoune’s involvement with the United Nations extends beyond her appeal to the Security Council in support of the rights of Afghan women. She also recently served on the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's peer review advisory panel on living cultural heritage and climate change, which will advise on a new UNESCO project to better understand the relationship between the protection of intangible or living cultural heritage and response to climate change.