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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 36, New Delhi, August 21, 2021

Prevent Cultural Disaster in Afghanistan - Statement by UN Special Rapporteur on cultural rights | Aug 17, 2021

Friday 20 August 2021


Afghanistan: UN expert warns of “cultural disaster”, urges visas for the vulnerable

GENEVA (17 August 2021) – A UN human rights expert today warned of a "cultural disaster" in Afghanistan after Kabul fell to Taliban forces, and urged States to provide urgent assistance to human rights defenders, including those working on women’s and cultural rights, as well as artists, trying to flee the country.

"It is deplorable that the world has abandoned Afghanistan to a fundamentalist group like the Taliban whose catastrophic human rights record, including practice of gender apartheid, use of cruel punishments and systematic destruction of cultural heritage, when in power, is well documented," said Karima Bennoune, the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights.

"Protecting Afghan lives and rights must be the top priority. Efforts must also be made to ensure the safety of all forms of culture and cultural heritage which are essential for enjoyment of those rights, and to protect those who defend it on the frontlines.

"All governments and the international community must act with urgency today to prevent a massive human rights and cultural disaster in Afghanistan."

She said immediate priority must be given to opening Kabul’s airport to civilian flights, and to ensure safe passage for those at risk. The expert also urged States to provide them with visas.

Bennoune implored cultural and educational institutions everywhere to extend invitations to Afghan artists, cultural workers and students, especially women and members of minorities, to enable them to continue their work in safety. She reminded the 171 states parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the importance of international cooperation in securing cultural rights.

"Human rights, including non-discrimination, should be at the centre of all decision-making regarding Afghanistan at this critical juncture," Bennoune said.

"It is not enough for foreign governments to secure the safety of their own nationals. They have a legal and moral obligation to act to protect the rights of Afghans, including the rights to access to education and to work, without discrimination, as well as the right of everyone to take part in cultural life."

The Special Rapporteur said she was gravely concerned at reports of gross abuses by the Taliban, including attacks on minorities, kidnapping of a woman human rights defender, killing of an artist and exclusion of women from employment and education. Any efforts to justify such abuses in the name of Afghan culture should be strongly opposed and denounced, she said.

Bennoune recalled that the Taliban’s own cultural officials in 2001 had attacked not only the Bamiyan Buddhas but also the country’s national museum, destroying thousands of the most important pieces, as well as banning many cultural practices, including music.

"Afghan cultural rights defenders have worked tirelessly and at great risk since then to reconstruct and protect this heritage, as well as to create new culture. Afghan cultures are rich, dynamic and syncretic and entirely at odds with the harsh worldview of the Taliban," she said.

"Governments which think that they can live with ’Pax Taliban’ will find that this is grave error that destroys Afghan lives, rights and cultures, and eviscerates important advances that had been made in culture and education in the last two decades with international support and through tireless local efforts."

Bennoune said such a policy will harm Afghans most but will also setback the struggle against fundamentalism and extremism, and their harmful effects on cultures, everywhere in the world, threatening the rights and security of all.


Karima Bennoune was appointed UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights in October 2015. Ms. Bennoune grew up in Algeria and in the United States. She is Professor of Law and Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall Research Scholar at the University of California-Davis School of Law, where she teaches human rights and international law.

This statement Is endorsed by: Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism; Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; Melissa Upreti (Chair), Dorothy Estrada-Tanck (Vice Chair), Elizabeth Broderick, Ivana Radačić, and Meskerem Geset Techane, Working Group on discrimination against women and girls; Tomoya Obokata, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences; and Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please contact Mr. Stee Asbjornsen (sasbjornsen[at] 22 917 9827).

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact: Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 22 917 7578 / jlaurence[at]


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