OSLO: A Taliban delegation led by Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi on Sunday began talks focused on human rights with Afghan civil society members ahead of their highly anticipated meetings with western officials in Oslo.

The delegation dedicated the first day of their three-day visit to talks with women’s rights activists and human rights defenders from Afghanistan and from the Afghan diaspora.

The meetings are taking place behind closed doors at Soria Moria Hotel in the snow-capped mountains above the Norwegian capital, as Norway, which had played a mediating role in Middle East and Colombia conflicts in the past, is facilitating these talks.

Before the talks, the Taliban’s deputy minister of culture and information tweeted a voice message from Mr Muttaqi, expressing the ‘hope for a good trip full of achievements’ and thanking Norway, a country he hoped would become ‘a gateway for a positive relationship with Europe’. The trip is the first time since the Taliban took over in August that their representatives have held official meetings in Europe. Earlier, they travelled to Qatar, Russia, Iran, China and Turkmenistan. During the talks, Muttaqi is certain to press the Taliban’s demand that the assets frozen by the US and other Western countries be released as Afghanistan faces a precarious humanitarian situation.

Afghanistan’s humanitarian and economic situation has deteriorated drastically in past five months as no country in the West has yet recognised the Taliban government. Around 80 per cent of the war-torn country’s budget had been financed by international aid until August last year when the foreign troops left Afghanistan while the US has frozen $9.5 billion Afghan assets since then.

The Taliban were ousted by a US-led coalition in 2001 but regained power following a hasty withdrawal by international forces. International aid came to a sudden halt after the Taliban takeover, worsening the plight of millions of people who were already suffering from hunger after several severe droughts.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressed that the talks would “not represent a legitimisation or recognition of the Taliban. But we must talk to the de facto authorities in the country. We cannot allow the political situation to lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster.”

Several dozen demonstrators meanwhile protested outside Norway’s foreign ministry, shouting “No to Taliban”, “Taliban terrorists” and “Afghan lives matter”, an AFP journalist at the scene reported.

On Monday, the Taliban will meet representatives of the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy and the European Union, while Tuesday will be dedicated to bilateral talks with Norwegian officials.

A US delegation, led by Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West, plans to discuss the formation of a representative political system; responses to the urgent humanitarian and economic crises; security and counterterrorism concerns; and human rights, especially education for girls and women, according to a statement released by the US State Department.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in an interview with AFP on Saturday said they hoped the talks would help “transform the atmosphere of war... into a peaceful situation”. Joining the delegation from Kabul is Anas Haqqani, a leader of the Haqqani network, with no formal government title. He remained behind bars for several years at the US Bagram detention centre outside Kabul before being released in a prisoner swap in 2019.

‘Collective punishment’

The international community is waiting to see how the Taliban intend to govern after being accused of trampling human rights during their first stint in power between 1996 and 2001.

While the Taliban claimed to have modernised, women are still largely excluded from public-sector employment and most secondary schools for girls remain closed.

Unemployment has skyrocketed and civil servants’ salaries have gone unpaid for months. Hunger now threatens 23 million Afghans, according to the UN.

“It would be a mistake to submit the people of Afghanistan to a collective punishment just because the de facto authorities are not behaving properly,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said Friday.

‘Gender apartheid’

A former Afghan minister for mines and petrol who now lives in Norway, Nargis Nehan, said she had declined an invitation to take part in the Oslo talks.

She told AFP she feared the talks would “normalise the Taliban and... strengthen them, while there is no way that they’ll change.” “What guarantee is there this time that they will keep their promises?” she asked.

Davood Moradian, the head of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies now based outside Afghanistan, criticised Norway’s “celebrity-style” peace initiative.

Hosting the Taliban’s foreign minister “casts doubt on Norway’s global image as a country that cares for women’s rights, when the Taliban has effectively instituted gender apartheid,” he said.

Norway, however, has played a mediating role in many conflicts including in the Middle East, Sri Lanka and Colombia.

Published in Dawn, January 24th, 2022

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