A U.N. Travel Ban Could Bring the Taliban to Heel


The United Nations is close to seizing a rare opportunity to pressure the Taliban to behave like a proper government by refusing to extend exemptions on travel bans for the listed terrorists among the group’s leadership. Ireland has opposed the exemptions, sources with knowledge of the procedures said, and it only takes one country to object to ensure the Taliban terrorists lose their travel privileges.

At least two other countries have backed the Irish position, one source close to the U.N. Security Council said on the condition of anonymity. Although nothing is guaranteed and the influence of the United States, Russia, and China could prevail, if Ireland does not back down, the exemptions are due to lapse at 11.59 p.m. on Thursday, the source said.

“This will be a signal to the Taliban that you are risking international isolation if you continue to behave like this,” the source added, referring to the Taliban’s well-documented human rights transgressions and support for terrorist groups, including al Qaeda.

The United Nations is close to seizing a rare opportunity to pressure the Taliban to behave like a proper government by refusing to extend exemptions on travel bans for the listed terrorists among the group’s leadership. Ireland has opposed the exemptions, sources with knowledge of the procedures said, and it only takes one country to object to ensure the Taliban terrorists lose their travel privileges.

At least two other countries have backed the Irish position, one source close to the U.N. Security Council said on the condition of anonymity. Although nothing is guaranteed and the influence of the United States, Russia, and China could prevail, if Ireland does not back down, the exemptions are due to lapse at 11.59 p.m. on Thursday, the source said.

“This will be a signal to the Taliban that you are risking international isolation if you continue to behave like this,” the source added, referring to the Taliban’s well-documented human rights transgressions and support for terrorist groups, including al Qaeda.

The travel bans were imposed along with financial sanctions and weapons embargoes on Taliban members listed as terrorists by the U.N. Security Council even before their collusion in the al Qaeda terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Starting in 2019 though, top Taliban leaders got exemptions so they could travel abroad and take part in talks to end the war. The bans, and exemptions, apply to about 100 existing members of the Taliban who are sanctioned terrorists, around 30 of whom are at a minister or cabinet level.

Since the exemptions to the travel ban were granted to let the Taliban work toward peace, stability, and an end to cooperation with terrorists—which they’ve demonstrably failed to do during their year in power in Afghanistan—the ban should be reinstated, some experts said.

“The specific and legal message starts with the fact that there is a sanctions regime in place that all of the members of the Security Council actually support,” said Annie Pforzheimer, former acting U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Afghanistan. “And if the Taliban is out of compliance with that regime, and their exception to that regime was for purposes of peace and stability discussions, and they’re not having those, then the rules should be applied.”

Even after the Taliban’s takeover and the first evidence of the regime’s continued brutality, the travel ban exemptions were extended in June for all but two Taliban figures, allowing the terrorists to travel freely, often on private jets.

China and Russia have proposed that sanctioned Taliban members be allowed to keep traveling to Beijing and Moscow; others, including the United States, have suggested they should be able to go to Doha, Qatar, where the group has an office and where many countries relocated their Afghan diplomatic missions. No country recognizes the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

A resumption of the travel ban is one of the few levers left to hold accountable a regime that has compiled a dismal record on human and women’s rights as well as maintaining its ties to terrorist groups.

The latest internal human rights report by the U.N.’s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, obtained by Foreign Policymakes clear that the Taliban’s arbitrary violence, kidnappings, disappearances, detentions, torture, and killings continue. If anything, things are getting worse. The report notes 400 instances of extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, and disappearances of former government, military, and police in the year since the Taliban issued a “general amnesty.” The judicial system faces “challenges” to due process and fair trials. Prisoners lack food, hygiene, and medicine. Afghanistan has also sped backward on women’s rights, sacking many women from positions, and detaining those that protest; girls cannot receive a secondary education almost anywhere in the country.

The group, in contravention of its agreement with the former Trump administration, also maintained ties with al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, as documented by the U.N. Security Council and a U.S. drone strike that killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda, while he was a guest of the Taliban in a Kabul villa.

But travel bans aren’t the only lever. Another option could be the Magnitsky Act, passed in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, to enable travel and financial sanctions on officials who violate human rights. Some Taliban figures use false names, hold foreign passports, and have family living abroad, making them vulnerable to some of the sanctions in the Magnitsky provisions.

“Just because the West let Afghanistan fall to the Taliban doesn’t mean that the West should turn a blind eye to their barbaric practices,” Bill Browder, the financier behind the act, told Foreign Policy. “The key perpetrators should be subject to Magnitsky sanctions and all other types of sanctions available.”

There’s also financial pressure. Europe and the United States hold more than $9 billion of Afghan central bank reserves, with around $7 billion in the United States alone. Those assets were frozen after the Taliban took over.

The United States is still negotiating with the Taliban to release about half of the frozen funds, but it still has yet to secure Taliban cooperation in allowing a full audit of their use, if released. Although Washington reportedly nixed the idea of releasing any Afghan funds after the Zawahiri incident, a U.S. National Security Council spokesperson said talks are still ongoing.

The Taliban make some money. They collect millions of dollars in border duties, taxes on businesses, and so-called religious taxes owed each month, and they make millions of dollars from drugs and the extraction of mineral resources, which are sold to Pakistan and China. Their income is not being used for poverty relief or job creation at a time of massive economic and humanitarian suffering, but—like a portion of international aid—it is siphoned off for distribution to their own supporters, sources in Afghanistan’s charity sector said.

The Taliban have resisted all calls to honor human rights or, as promised, create an inclusive government. The concern is that extending exemptions for the travel ban will just entrench their impunity and help normalize their rule.

“Those are two concepts that are not in the U.S. interest,” Pforzheimer said. “If we want to be hard-nosed about it and even not think about human rights being part of our foreign policy, let’s just say that sanctions compliance should be part of our policy.”



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