The UN Must Counteract Moves to Increase the Taliban’s International Legitimacy
About the author: Maria Oliveira (J.D. candidate, 2024) is a Contributor to Travaux. She received her Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Connecticut in 2021 and is interested in studying international and comparative law.
"Secretariat Building at United Nations Headquarters" by United Nations Photo, available here.
Since the fall of Kabul, the Taliban has been seeking legitimacy as the government of Afghanistan from the international community. In its campaign for international acceptance, the Taliban has tried to demonstrate that it is a reformed and more moderate organization and that its present regime will not be as harsh as it was in the 1990s. Dubious as these claims are, questions about the Taliban’s legitimacy need to be answered, especially as one of the Taliban’s agenda items is being allowed to represent Afghanistan at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly (GA).
In November, the GA’s Credentials Committee will review the competing claims of the fallen Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The question before the Committee will not be about which government will be officially recognized as the government of Afghanistan, as only individual states can choose to recognize governments. Rather, the Committee will determine which government is qualified to represent Afghanistan at the GA, which will have significant implications for the Taliban’s ability to achieve the goal of international legitimacy. Because the Taliban has failed to implement any meaningful reforms, and in light of recent diplomatic exchanges with the Taliban that may increase its international legitimacy, it is crucial that the UN signal its rejection of the Taliban by not approving its credentials and by allowing the previous government’s representative to retain its seat provisionally.
In its bid for international legitimacy, the Taliban has pointed to a number of supposed changes in its policies that make its regime more moderate. Taliban spokesmen have repeatedly claimed that they will protect women’s rights to go to school and to work. They have also said that women will be appointed to government positions. Furthermore, the Taliban claims to be “inclusive” in that it will represent Afghanistan’s several minority ethnic groups.
Yet it is blatantly obvious that such rhetoric has not been put into practice. The Taliban still has not opened middle and high schools for girls. If and when all girls are allowed to return to school, the Taliban’s strict gender segregation policy will perpetuate and worsen what is already one of the worst gender-based education disparities in the world, as only 16% of the country’s schools are girls-only, one-third of teachers are female, and 10-15% of female teachers are properly qualified. The Taliban has told working women to stay home and has replaced female employees for the Kabul municipal government with men. Female judges, lawyers, and activists fear for their lives. Women cannot leave their homes without a male chaperone. The Taliban has not appointed any women to its new cabinet. All of these actions demonstrate that the Taliban does not intend to represent women’s voices, and thus its reassurances regarding women’s rights are opportunistic signaling only designed to improve its international image.
The same issue applies to the Taliban’s approach to ethnic minorities. Despite promising to form an “inclusive” government, its cabinet is dominated by old guard ethnic Pashtuns, with some minorities placed in less important positions. Yet the situation on the ground for Afghan minorities is bleak. The Taliban has targeted the Hazara minority group as it previously did in the 1990s. Amnesty International reported that in July the Taliban tortured and murdered several Hazara men. In August, the Taliban also executed thirteen Hazara individuals. Just last month, the Taliban forced hundreds of Hazara families out of their homes, stealing their land, crops, and stores. As long as this type of behavior endures, the appointment of token minorities in its “inclusive” government is simply another performative move to get the international community’s recognition.
The Efficacy of the Taliban’s latest PR Scheme
With respect to its mission of gaining international legitimacy, the Taliban has its work cut out for it as presently no country recognizes its regime. Still, its claims have made an impact, as demonstrated by the nature of China’s, Pakistan’s, and Russia’s diplomatic overtures to the Taliban.
China says that the international community should approach the Taliban “in a rational and pragmatic manner.” In exchange for helping to “rebuild” Afghanistan, it would like the Taliban to reign in terrorism on its border. Pakistan, which was one of three countries to recognize the Taliban in the 1990s, wants to work on trade and border movement. It also has advocated for international engagement of the Taliban and for the Taliban to have a larger presence in regional affairs. For example, Pakistan argued that the Taliban should represent Afghanistan at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which led the SAARC chair to cancel this year’s SAARC meeting. Russia, describing the Taliban as “very adequate people,” says it is putting the Taliban on “probation,” and would like to see if it can help reign in drug trafficking and extremism.
Despite these friendly diplomatic invitations, these countries still approach the Taliban with hesitancy, and couch their overtures with messages about the need for the Taliban to respect human rights. China says that the Taliban should “demonstrate openness and tolerance,” and protect the interests of ethnic minorities, women, and children. Russia has stressed the importance of the Taliban’s government being representative of minorities.
China, Pakistan, and Russia each recognize that a partnership with the Taliban could serve their interests in regional influence and security, but the Taliban’s lawless history and brutal reputation would make it imprudent to accept the Taliban outright. The Taliban’s claims to have reformed, therefore, make it easier for China, Pakistan, and Russia to engage the Taliban while saving face. As long as the Taliban’s rhetoric is “inclusive,” it will appear as though it is on the verge of moderation. China, Pakistan, and Russia purport that their engagements with the Taliban are a strategy to influence the Taliban to moderate and respect human rights—regardless of the Taliban’s brutality on the ground.
Though China, Pakistan, and Russia do not recognize the Taliban, their engagements will start to cultivate a sense of international legitimacy. It is thus imperative that the UN not be complicit in cultivating the Taliban’s legitimacy. Rather, the UN should use the credentials issue as a measure to counteract the weight of some states' diplomatic engagements with the Taliban.
The Issue Before the UN
Per GA Resolution 396, there is no objective test to determine which authority is entitled to represent a particular state. Rather, the Credentials Committee must make its decision “in the light of the Purposes and Principles of the Charter and the circumstances of each case.” Thus, the Committee must make its decision in light of the UN’s commitment to human rights and democratic principles and the Taliban’s failure to support those commitments. The present state of the Taliban’s regime is in direct contrast to the UN’s commitments; thus it is extremely unlikely that the Committee will accept the Taliban’s credentials this session.
To exclude the Taliban from the GA, there are three avenues available to the Credentials Committee that are supported by precedent:
Accept the validity of the credentials of the fallen Afghan government.
Defer making a decision on the credentials of either claimant, and leave Afghanistan’s seat empty.
Defer making a decision on the credentials of either claimant, but allow the representative of the fallen government to remain provisionally.
Though it is near certain the Committee will not accept the Taliban’s credentials, whether it will accept the credentials of the fallen government is an open question. Since the Taliban takeover, the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy has significantly declined. Both President Ghani and Vice President Saleh have fled to Tajikistan, and Ghani announced on Facebook that the Taliban had won. The diplomatic overtures of China, Pakistan, and Russia to the Taliban further erode any legitimacy the Islamic Republic may have. All of these factors, and the fact that both China and Russia are on the Credentials Committee, suggest that the Committee is unlikely to accept the validity of the Islamic Republic’s credentials and will instead opt to defer making a decision on the claimants’ credentials. The rationale behind not outright rejecting the Taliban would likely be to attempt to persuade the Taliban to change its ways.
The UN Must Use Credentials Issue to Oppose the Taliban
If the UN does not outright reject the Taliban’s credentials in an effort to get the Taliban to change, the UN may be waiting a long time before that hope is realized. Considering both the Taliban’s track record and its current actions, deferring a decision on its credentials is quite kind to them, and perhaps overly so. Although the Taliban has changed the way it talks, there is little reason to believe that it truly is willing to represent the people of Afghanistan. Even while trying to appear moderate, a Taliban spokesman stated that Afghanistan will have “no democratic system at all because it does not have any base in our country.” Thus, if the Committee chooses deferral, it still ought to allow the Ghani government’s representative to remain in Afghanistan’s seat provisionally. As opposed to leaving the seat empty, allowing a representative of the fallen government to remain in Afghanistan’s seat would make a stronger statement against the Taliban’s policies and put more pressure on it to reform.