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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Bank Shot: Influencing Kabul through Jeddah

With the Taliban back in power, influencing them away from their regressive roots will be difficult. Human rights abusers China, Russia, and Pakistan now dominate foreign relations with Kabul, while the United States and rights-respecting nations are on the outside looking in. Washington and Brussels hope the lure of official recognition and the release of frozen funds will encourage the Taliban to meet the basics, such as respecting the rights of women and religious minorities and allowing girls’ education up through university. Unfortunately, the early results are not encouraging. 

Shaharzad Akbar, the head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission now in exile, reported “continuously happening” killings, sometimes occurring every day in certain areas. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs is no more, now replaced with the Ministry of Preaching and Guidance and the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (aka the religious police). Taliban announced that all female city government employees in Kabul should no longer come to work, and girls over 12 can no longer attend school. Hazara Shia face increasing persecution by the Taliban, while ISIS cells strike Hazara worshippers with impunity. 

Afghanistan’s darkening rights situation shouldn’t be a surprise. President Trump’s flawed withdrawal agreement with the Taliban ignored human rights, while America’s chaotic pullout under President Biden left minorities and advocates extremely vulnerable to persecution. All while U.S. and European influence shrank as China, Russia, and Pakistan filled the void.

In the face of these setbacks, one untested route for American and European diplomats to influence the Taliban could be through the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Headquartered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the OIC’s 57 member states include Afghanistan and critical players Pakistan and Qatar, as well as heavyweights Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Describing itself as representing the “collective voice of the Muslim world,” the OIC’s Islamic credentials, international heft, and diverse membership uniquely positioned it to press the Taliban on these fundamental issues. 

The OIC Charter commits members to “preserve and promote the lofty Islamic values of peace, compassion, tolerance, equality, justice and human dignity” and “promote human rights and fundamental freedoms, good governance, rule of law, democracy and accountability.” The OIC maintains a special monitoring body, the Independent Permanent Commission of Human Rights, whose stated purpose is to advance “human rights and fundamental freedoms in Member States.” In addition, the OIC has convened several conferences on promoting gender equality and rights of women by member states and OIC institutions, most recently in Cairo in July 2021. 

However, the OIC won’t be a panacea. Many OIC members score poorly on Freedom House’s democracy index and internet freedom index, and more than half of the countries on the State Department’s blacklist for religious persecution are OIC states. Moreover, despite the OIC Charter and human rights observatory, the OIC has rarely, if ever, publicly criticized a member state for the many glaring abuses. For instance, in the face of regressive Taliban policies, the Organization’s commentary has been limited to condemning terrorist bombings of mosques, and calling for the new Taliban government to prevent terrorists from operating in Afghanistan.

That’s not to say the OIC does not comment on human rights. OIC efforts are often focused on problems facing Muslim minorities in non-Muslim majority countries. For example, it has repeatedly condemned the potential genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Burma alongside Western nations, with OIC member Gambia successfully bringing suit before the International Court of Justice. The OIC has also spoken out on religious freedom limitations in Europe, like hijab bans in Switzerland.

At the same time, the OIC and its members have been silent about China’s genocidal campaign against Uighur Muslims. When I visited Jeddah in my former diplomatic role focusing on religious minorities for the State Department, my invitation for the OIC to join U.S. condemnation of Beijing’s abuses was met with polite silence. Instead, OIC members chose to look the other way or actively expressed support of Chinese policies. 

But by convincing the OIC to positively engage human rights in Afghanistan, the United States and Europe could indirectly influence the Taliban. Working through the OIC could be a bank shot during a full-court press to advance fundamental rights.

However, policymakers should first consider several questions.

First, would the OIC be a credible voice for basic human rights in Afghanistan? Yes. OIC members generally allow women to work and go to school and university and protect religious minorities’ worship rights. These basics are settled. The OIC will engage differently than Western nations, likely eschewing public condemnations of the Taliban. Their quiet diplomacy will make it difficult to gauge the thoroughness and frequency of their efforts. Yet, the OIC would be better positioned than the West to argue the practical application of theology regarding the governance of an ethnically and religiously diverse society and the rights of women. 

Secondly, would the Taliban listen to the OIC? Probably. The Taliban questions the Islamic credentials of many OIC members, viewing them as corrupt and themselves as representing pure Islamic governance. But considering the Taliban’s Islamic orientation, the OIC is uniquely situated to press the Taliban to meet basic human rights conditions. And the OIC has leverage: the OIC could use the possibility of Taliban recognition at their headquarters in Jeddah to encourage respect for women’s rights, girls’ education, and religious minorities.

Lastly, would OIC members allow the Organization to engage on human rights in Afghanistan? Unclear. British MP Rehman Chishti has raised this idea when meeting with OIC ambassadors in London. While the OIC secretariat in Jeddah has influence, it generally follows the lead of member countries. Some OIC members play the spoiler in the Human Rights Council. Pakistan led the OIC bloc to slow-roll a widely supported Human Rights Council action to create a monitoring mechanism over Afghanistan. While finally allowing the creation of a special rapporteur, it was the weakest option available.  

To move the OIC into a constructive role, the United States and Europe would need to coordinate their work with the OIC secretariat in Jeddah and navigate complicated relations with the Pakistanis, Qataris, Saudis, and others. Pakistan will be the biggest obstacle, reluctant to relinquish any influence over its client state that provides strategic depth against its eternal fear of India. Arguments to self-interest would need to be made and the provision of inducements. For example, Pakistan might accede to OIC human rights quid pro quos tied with seating a Taliban representative at the next OIC ministerial if their client would be accepted among the family of nations.

With so much hanging on the line for women and minorities in Afghanistan, a new approach is required. To launch this effort, the Biden administration reviving the State Department’s OIC envoy position would give the United States a point-person for a human rights-focused agenda vis-a-vis Afghanistan through the Organization and its members. The European Union filling its envoy position on freedom of religion or belief would likewise help.

The human rights situation in Afghanistan is dire. Outside efforts to bring change have failed. The OIC is uniquely situated to press for improvements on widely agreed human rights issues in ways Western nations simply cannot. Consequently, policymakers in Washington, Brussels, and elsewhere would be wise to encourage the OIC to bring its influence to bear.

Knox Thames is the former Special Advisor on Religious Minorities at the State Department during the Obama and Trump administrations. He is now a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement, made possible through a grant from the Templeton Religion Trust. The views expressed are his own.

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