When the Taliban Came to Geneva

The presence of a Taliban delegation in Geneva last week caused quite a stir. In what was billed as a humanitarian visit, they met with various non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the International Committee of the Red Cross, the head of the World Health Organization, Doctors Without Borders, and representatives from the Swiss government.

The positive side was that during a weeklong stay, representatives of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) signed a document vowing to “facilitate principled humanitarian action in Afghanistan and to ensure the protection of humanitarian workers and aid,” according to the hosting NGO. The delegation also committed to “promote the full respect and protection of health care facilities, transports and staff, including female workers,” the NGO said.

But questions were raised about the visit. Should they have been invited by the Swiss NGO? Should officials have met with them? Although a similar delegation (with women) had been received in Oslo in late January, sitting down at the table with such well documented human rights violators is a strong leap, even in neutral Switzerland, which bills itself as the human rights/humanitarian capital of the world.

In a statement, the Taliban delegation called upon the international community “to engage with us in a transparent and accountable manner and in line with IEA policies and values, as well as to adopt a needs-based approach to humanitarian assistance.” (The use of IEA can be interpreted as a form of formal recognition.)

Engage with them? There is a general acceptance that the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is catastrophic. According to a World Food Program report of February 10, “22.8 million people – half of the population – are projected to be acutely food insecure in 2022, including 8.7 million at risk of famine-like conditions. 4.7 million children, pregnant and lactating women at risk of acute malnutrition in 2022. All 34 provinces are facing crisis or emergency levels of acute food insecurity.” The humanitarian crisis was confirmed by the head of the World Health Organization. “The health situation in Afghanistan is still dire and the acute humanitarian crisis is continuing to put lives at risk,” acknowledged Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus when he met the delegation.

(The United Kingdom has announced that it will co-host a United Nations virtual summit next month to raise money to improve the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. The pledging summit hopes to raise $4.4 billion for the UN’s efforts, the largest amount ever requested for a single country.)

To engage with the Taliban because of a humanitarian crisis is one thing, but it did not stop protests against their human rights actions. Members of the Afghan diaspora held up pictures of imprisoned women outside the hotel where the delegation was staying, calling upon the Taliban to respect women’s rights. The UN human rights office called for the release of four women activists and their relatives in Afghanistan who were detained or abducted.

Officials from the previous Afghan government objected to the meetings. A statement from the still official Embassy and Permanent Mission of Afghanistan to the United Nations in Geneva noted that “it is questionable at best to invite a high-level Taliban delegation to the tables while they routinely and systematically violate the human rights of Afghanistan’s citizens.”

There were even protests against the visit outside Switzerland.  Afghan residents in Munich, Germany, gathered at the entrance of the Swiss consulate to protest the Taliban delegation’s visit to Geneva.

The central question raised by the visit is how to “engage” with the Taliban. They are de facto in charge in Afghanistan, but are they de jure as well? To refer to the head of their delegation as the Health Minister already gives a certain legitimacy. If they were recognized as the legitimate government, this would give them a definite authority. So far, they have not been recognized by any state as the legitimate government. If they were, it would mean they could be held legally accountable for their actions, although a legal expert says that they are responsible even though they have not been recognized since they are the de facto government.

Given that the Taliban are not the official government of Afghanistan, how should they be treated? While humanitarian discussions in Geneva would seem positive, the protesters raised the Taliban’s non-respect for human rights, especially of women. Are the Taliban obliged to respect international law? Can they be punished for serious human rights violations? A Swiss ambassador told the delegation that Switzerland expected them to respect human rights and international humanitarian law in Afghanistan.

But the meeting could be interpreted as a form of recognition. Ambassador Raphael Naegeli was emphatic about this. “This meeting is neither a legitimation nor a recognition,” of the Taliban but “an occasion to pass a message,” the ambassador said. While the Taliban made several promises about respecting human rights and the rights of women and girls, “We will judge them by their acts and not by their words,” the ambassador insisted.

The question of recognition and legitimacy had also come up when a Taliban delegation visited Oslo in January. Norway’s Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt also insisted that the talks would “not represent a legitimization or recognition of the Taliban”, but because of the humanitarian emergency “we must talk to the de facto authorities in the country”. Similar protests took place in Oslo at the time.

How to help the starving people in Afghanistan? How to help those imprisoned and tortured? What to do about the girls and women who will have no access to an education? Ignoring the Taliban will not help the human rights or humanitarian situations. While sitting with them at the table does give them some recognition, their promises are a positive step.

The question of how to engage the Taliban remains. The Swiss ambassador’s and Norway’s foreign minister’s point that meeting with the Taliban to discuss humanitarian issues does not represent “legitimization or recognition” is a good one. And insisting upon the importance of acts instead of words is crucial. A meeting in Kabul would have reduced the controversies. It would also have helped if the Taliban had shown some progress in their actions as the governing party in the country.

All those who dialogue with the Taliban have a responsibility to make sure they respect their commitments. After all, no one forced them to sign anything. The delegation voluntarily agreed to certain forms of behavior while in Geneva. It is important to have follow-up monitoring to ensure they respect their promises. It is also important to note that no mention was made of restoring women’s rights during the entire visit.

States that violate international norms can be held accountable. They can be punished before international tribunals, sanctioned, or minimally named and shamed. The Taliban is not recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. If it doesn’t respect international norms or its voluntary commitments, how can it be held accountable? If it wants international recognition, it will have to play by the rules of the game. Governing Afghanistan includes obligations and responsibilities.




Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.