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UN meeting seeks ways to press Taliban on women's rights

Afghan women protest in Kabul ahead of the UN meeting to oppose any moves to recognise the Taliban government
— Doha (AFP)

Representatives of nearly two dozen countries and international institutions met Monday in Qatar for talks on Afghanistan focusing on women's rights under the Taliban administration, the United Nations said.

The Taliban authorities are absent from the closed-door two-day meeting, and UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said recognition of their rule "is not up for discussion".

Envoys from the United States, Russia, China and 20 other countries and organisations including major European aid donors and neighbours such as Pakistan joined UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for the talks in Doha, his spokesman Dujarric said.

The aim was "to reach points of commonality on key issues such as human rights, especially for women and girls, inclusive governance, countering terrorism and drug trafficking," Dujarric told a briefing at the UN headquarters.

Guterres wants "a common understanding with the international community on how to engage with the Taliban on these issues," he added.

Since ousting a foreign-backed government in August 2021, the Taliban authorities have imposed an austere sharia law that the UN has labelled "gender-based apartheid".

Women are barred from almost all secondary education and universities, and prevented from working in most government jobs. Last month, Taliban authorities extended the ban to working with UN agencies.

Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi says 'internal issues' should not factor into decisions about diplomatic engagement with Afghanistan's rulers

The Taliban administration says the ban is an "internal issue" that should not influence foreign dealings.

But in response the United Nations has ordered a review of its critical relief operation in Afghanistan, where many in the 38-million-strong population rely on food aid.

The UN has said it faces an "appalling choice" over whether to maintain its relief efforts. Guterres was to give an update on the review, due to be completed on Friday.

"Reversing all measures that restrict women's rights to work is key to reaching the millions of people in Afghanistan that require humanitarian assistance," Guterres said on social media before leaving for Doha.

Afghan rights groups have expressed fears that recognition of the Taliban government could be proposed, but the United Nations and United States have insisted this was not on the agenda.

- Pressure -

Rights groups' fears were fuelled by remarks made last month by UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, who said the Doha meeting could find "baby steps" that lead to a "principled recognition" of the Taliban government.

The UN said the comments were misinterpreted.

No country has established formal ties with the Taliban and UN membership can only be decided by the UN General Assembly.

Key moments for women's rights under Taliban-ruled Afghanistan

The UN Security Council last week unanimously condemned the measures curbing the rights on Afghan women.

But diplomats and observers say the Doha meeting highlights the quandary faced by the international community in handling Afghanistan, which the UN considers its biggest humanitarian crisis.

One diplomat dealing with Afghanistan said no "breakthrough" should be expected from Doha, but the situation could change if different countries agreed to take on different roles to put pressure on Kabul.

"Something new has to be tried and that is what Guterres is looking for here," the diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.

While not invited to the talks, the head of the Taliban representative office in Doha, Sohail Shaheen, said he had met with members of the British and Chinese delegations.

He said the UN meeting and "the importance of engagement" were among topics raised.

The Taliban government's deputy spokesman, Bilal Karimi, said Monday the administration "wants positive engagement with the world".

But "internal issues" -- such as curbs on women's rights -- should not factor into decisions about diplomatic engagement and formal recognition, he told AFP in Kabul.

"These should not be used as political tools," he said. "Countries should have the moral courage to independently come forward for positive engagement."