How Can We Help Artists and Cultural Workers Escape Taliban-Ruled Afghanistan?

Interview With U.N. Special Rapporteur and Law Professor

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Afghanistan map
Map of Afghanistan. (Getty Images)

Quick Summary

  • Interview conducted just hours after last military personnel left Afghanistan

With the end of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan and the quick takeover of that nation by the Taliban, advocates fear a terrible backslide in human rights and civil society there.

Headshot of Karima Bennoune
Bennoune

Karima Bennoune, a professor at the UC Davis School of Law, has been working with others to help get artists, musicians and other at-risk cultural workers out of Afghanistan. She’s worked in the field of human rights, including in Afghanistan, for more than 20 years. She also serves as U.N. special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights. Her recent book, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories From the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism, was based on hundreds of interviews with people from 30 countries. Bennoune is currently a visiting professor at the University of Michigan Law School.  

In the most recent episode of The Backdrop, a UC Davis podcast hosted by Soterios Johnson, Bennoune discussed her work in the international effort to help evacuate vulnerable cultural workers from Afghanistan, religious fundamentalism as political movements and how human rights advocates can move forward in a country ruled by the Taliban.

The podcast — recorded on Aug. 31 and just hours after the last U.S. military personnel left Afghanistan — opened with a discussion of the rapid collapse of the Afghan government, even before the U.S. and NATO pullout was complete.

“I think we have to look at the successes and failures here and judge them in a fair and objective way,” said Bennoune. “But we also have to recognize, for example, that between 50 and 70,000, depending on which statistics you use, Afghan soldiers and security forces died fighting the Taliban in the last 20 years. And so those horrible losses on top of about 2,500 U.S. military losses and coalition military losses really show that every aspect of Afghan society from the security establishment and the armed forces to civil society — were working hard to resist extremism and I think doing their best. And I think they began to understand that perhaps there was a willingness of some governments to hand over to their opponents. And I think one also cannot discount the traumatism of 40 years of war. “I know you can't speak for the whole organization, but what do you expect the UN will be doing going forward to help protect women and girls and human rights in general?” asked Johnson.

“We have issued a number of statements calling on the Human Rights Council and calling on states in the UN to act effectively to create monitoring mechanisms to monitor the human rights situation on the ground, as well as accountability procedures to investigate some of the atrocities that happen throughout the summer, including targeted bombings, targeting minority groups, targeting girls' schools and so on.” Bennoune added that she hopes the Security Council resolution that was passed allows at-risk Afghans who need to leave the country to do so safely. 

“I want to stress to governments, to people listening to please remember that among the many categories of at-risk Afghans, including women, human rights defenders, including other human rights activists, including journalists — please also remember cultural workers and artists, because they are really in the front lines of those targeted by the Taliban, because their art and cultural practice is so much at odds with the very stark vision of Afghanistan that the Taliban has historically had. When you think that music is already banned, what does that mean for people practicing in that field? When you think that a singer has already been reportedly killed, what does that mean for all the other singers?”

About the Backdrop Podcast

The Backdrop podcast is a monthly interview program featuring conversations with UC Davis scholars and researchers working in the social sciences, humanities, arts and culture. It is available free, on demand at Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, TuneIn, Stitcher and Spotify.

Bennoune and Johnson closed the episode by discussing what needed to be done moving forward to protect human rights in Afghanistan. Bennoune said secure lines of communication, structures, coordination, and funding, are all critical components of the ability of human rights groups to move forward in Afghanistan. Bennoune also stressed the importance of keeping Americans informed even after mentions of Afghanistan in the news fade due to the lack of U.S. military presence.  

“I think we really need to call on our news organizations to continue to cover this story. It's a critically important story for the human rights of Afghans, but also for the security of Americans. And we need to not take our eye off the ball. Next, I think there are all sorts of alternative ways to reach out for information to the extent that they're able to continue, you can follow Tolo News — TOLO — on Twitter or find them on social media. That's an Afghan news outlet. You can follow a number of different artistic and cultural Afghan groups.

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