What Does the Taliban Takeover Mean for the Biden Administration’s Human Rights Agenda?

The Biden administration has made clear its intention to put human rights at the center of its foreign policy agenda. Already it has taken a strong stance on what the administration has declared a genocide in Xinjiang, China, taking innovative steps to block imports from the region and adding additional Chinese companies to the Department of Commerce’s list of companies prohibited from receiving certain U.S. exports. The Treasury Department has expanded the use of Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on human rights abusers, and earlier this month word leaked out that the administration plans to revamp its weapons transfer policy to weigh human rights considerations more strongly. The administration has also taken steps to practice what it preaches internally, including nominating a historic number of women and other underrepresented groups to the president’s cabinet, inviting the UN special rapporteurs on minority issues and contemporary forms of racism to undertake official visits to the United States, and appointing the State Department’s first chief diversity and inclusion officer.

The Biden administration did not enter office with a strong reserve of goodwill on human rights. A bevvy of domestic human rights issues that has left the United States vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy, coupled with statements by the previous administration that openly eschewed human rights as a foreign policy priority, means that many foreign governments and civil society representatives are skeptical of the United States’ commitment to promote human rights.

In this context, the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban threatens to deal an early, crippling blow to the promise of the Biden administration’s human rights agenda, in the eyes of both allies and adversaries. There are, however, steps the administration can take to demonstrate a meaningful commitment to upholding its human rights agenda, both in the context of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and more broadly.

On the Ground

In Afghanistan, withdrawing U.S. troops does not mean withdrawing from the United States’ human rights responsibilities. The world may respect the need for the United States to conclude its 20-year military presence in Afghanistan, but its global allies on democracy and human rights are paying close attention to how the withdrawal is executed.

First and foremost, meeting these responsibilities means fulfilling the promise to protect the United States’ Afghan partners and allies on the ground—including those who are grantees and sub-grantees of U.S. human rights, democracy, and humanitarian organizations and their families—by not leaving them behind. It’s already clear this group is at heightened risk: the Taliban are reportedly going door to door searching for women activists, and the U.S. military reportedly left behind biometric devices containing information on Afghans who interacted with the U.S. government that could aid the Taliban in their search. Evacuating them is both a moral obligation and in the United States’ long-term national security interest. Based on the current pace of evacuations, it is hard to imagine how the United States can move this entire group—which could number in the tens of thousands or more—by its August 31 deadline, making it vital that the international community maintains some means of evacuating high-risk individuals beyond that date and pushes the Taliban to open humanitarian corridors for others who seek to leave.

Claims that the Taliban will adopt a more conciliatory approach to human rights for those who remain are rebutted by accounts of Taliban actions in the provinces outside Kabul, where restrictions have already been implemented. The United States should be prepared to deploy its full human rights toolkit to continue to shine a consistent spotlight on abuses, prevent the Taliban from securing the financial and technical means to act with impunity, and hold abusers accountable through travel restrictions and sanctions. This includes leveraging Afghan central bank funds held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; International Financial Institution (IFI) funding and other international donor support, which comprise 80 percent of Afghanistan’s income; and recognition of the Taliban government. It also includes maintaining and expanding travel and visa bans and other sanctions unless there is credible, long-term evidence that basic rights will be respected.

The United States should also closely monitor the Taliban’s growing relationship with China, which has the potential to provide political legitimacy, alternative sources of revenue, and technology that can facilitate crackdowns on human rights. In particular, the United States should work to prevent attempts by the Taliban to secure digital technology from the Chinese government that facilitates human rights abuse. With the expansion of cellphone coverage and internet access since the Taliban last controlled Afghanistan, there is greater opportunity for civil society groups to continue to organize online, for protection and communication networks to form, and for women and girls to stay connected to the outside world and even continue their education or work. These activities will carry high risk, however, if the Taliban secure additional tools to track online activity or carry out the kind of sophisticated surveillance of civil society that the Chinese government deploys domestically and already exports to abusive governments. The United States should actively work to block such transfers, including by imposing additional sanctions on Chinese companies that attempt to initiate them and providing updated guidance to U.S. companies to avoid intentionally or inadvertently selling enabling technology that may be used to surveil the Afghan population, as China has attempted to do with respect to Xinjiang. In addition, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and others should urgently double down on assistance to civil society organizations and other vulnerable groups to increase their information security and protect their online identities.

Beyond Afghanistan

More broadly, for the United States to maintain credibility on human rights issues in light of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and concerns about the U.S. withdrawal, the Biden administration should move quickly to demonstrate its continued commitment to human rights. It can start by quickly filling human rights–related positions at the State Department and USAID, including naming ambassadors-at-large to monitor and combat trafficking in persons, for global women’s issues, and for global criminal justice (which covers war crimes and crimes against humanity). Congress can help by quickly confirming the administration’s nominee for the State Department assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and labor.

In the run-up to the December 2021 Summit for Democracy, the administration should lay out a comprehensive vision for a global human rights agenda as part of broader efforts to elevate the importance of democratic values in U.S. foreign policy and national security strategies. This agenda will help evolve U.S. high-level attention on human rights from what is often a reactionary posture in response to egregious abuses to a proactive stance that focuses on subtle but dangerous human rights backsliding, including in stable and fragile democracies—often the first warning signs of rising authoritarianism. This global human rights spotlight should include promoting both civil and political rights (media freedoms, civil society activism, and free and fair elections, among others) as well as economic and social rights—where the United States has historically been more reluctant to engage. A global human rights agenda cannot succeed without tackling the rising economic inequality that is contributing to the destabilization of democratic governments around the world.

The situation in Afghanistan puts increased pressure on the summit itself, where human rights should already take center stage. The summit should be more than a talk shop. It should be leveraged to build allegiance among countries determined to promote human rights and promote and preserve democracy. It should also deliver concrete commitments—measurable at the in-person summit a year later—for each participant to take specific steps within their power to do so. This should include looking inward at factors like inequality that leave societies vulnerable to would-be authoritarians, as well as development of cohesive strategies to defeat efforts to undermine human rights and democracy by external actors. New strategies to effectively tackle malign disinformation and hate speech online, development and deployment of secure voting systems around the world, and the creation of tools and resources for civil society groups and human rights defenders to operate securely (both online and offline) are three initial steps the United States could lead on.

Finally, the summit should acknowledge the work of human rights and pro-democracy activists in countries whose governments will not be invited—including Afghanistan—and use the summit as an opportunity to amplify their voices and reinforce their efforts politically and financially. Those activists should have a seat at the table in global discussions about the future of democracy.

Capture the Moment

The U.S. government’s posture on human rights in the next four months will largely define its credibility and effectiveness on this issue for the next four years. Although the tragic events in Afghanistan render the administration’s efforts more difficult, there is still a critical window of opportunity for the Biden administration to build a robust and effective global human rights agenda. 

Marti Flacks is a senior fellow and director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Marti Flacks

​Marti Flacks

Former Khosravi Chair in Principled Internationalism and Former Director, Human Rights Initiative