A letter won't educate Afghan girls

26 March 2022

3:26 AM

26 March 2022

3:26 AM

Well, that’ll show ‘em. Liz Truss has released a joint statement with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken declaring themselves ‘united in our condemnation of the Taliban’s decision not to reopen secondary schools to Afghan girls’. Also united are the EU high representative and the foreign ministers of Canada, France, Italy, Japan and Norway. The authorities in Afghanistan issued an order earlier this week suspending the planned return to school of female pupils, citing the need for a decision on uniforms for girls that are compliant with ‘Sharia law and Afghan tradition’. Team Euro-America: World Police say the Taliban’s U-turn ‘contradicted its public assurances to the Afghan people and to the international community’. I don’t know what the world’s coming to. If you can’t trust the Taliban, who can you trust?

The statement concludes with a flourish: ‘Every Afghan citizen, boy or girl, man or woman, has an equal right to an education at all levels, in all provinces of the country.’ Really? Says who?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Article 26 states that ‘everyone has the right to education’, and Afghanistan is a signatory. The Convention against Discrimination in Education? Article 1 forbids ‘depriving any person or group of persons of access to education’ or limiting them to ‘education of an inferior standard’ on the basis of sex. Afghanistan is signed up to that one, too. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights? Article 13 says ‘secondary education… shall be made generally available and accessible to all’. Afghanistan is three for three.

Afghanistan has also undertaken to ‘eliminate discrimination against women in order to ensure to them equal rights with men in the field of education’ (Article 10, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) and to ‘recognise the right of the child to education’ (Article 28, Convention on the Rights of the Child).

All good stuff. Now, enforce it. Ah, see, there’s the problem.

The Truss-Blinken statement embodies two enduring delusions of western liberalism. The first is that there is an international order of laws and norms with which tyrants, authoritarians and those otherwise unwilling can peacefully be made to comply. There is not. There are institutions and legal instruments and policy frameworks but their force relies on the legitimacy they enjoy with national governments and national political cultures and the willingness of both to uphold them. They only appear to have global purchase from the perspective of the West, where rights-based liberalism broadly guarantees their observance but permits scolding to go no farther afield than the United States, Israel or similarly acceptable targets.

The Taliban may eventually allow girls to attend secondary school but if it does, it will be on the Taliban’s terms or because the new Afghan government calculates its interests would be better served by doing so. It will not be because of any appeal to rights. What Truss and Blinken speak of as universal rights are not universally enforceable because their philosophical premises are not universally shared. They are the preferences and self-imposed ordinances of a global liberal order whose liberalism is not universally embedded.

The second delusion, and it’s a connected one, is that western powers — we are speaking primarily about the United States — can retreat from the world and expect to be able to exert its will as widely and as effectively as before. Isolationists, non-interventionists and national conservatives understand this. Anti-war, anti-imperialist leftists understand this. Neoconservatives understand this. Only liberals seem to believe the United States can withdraw from its global leadership role and expect its influence over policies and norms across the world to remain the same. The direction of travel is not encouraging for this worldview and some will learn the hard way how much of the international order was just the exertion of US diplomatic and economic power backed up by military might.

The statement exists in its current form, with its Canadian, Japanese and European co-signatories, to provide cover for the United States. Without them, it would simply be Tony Blinken lamenting the fate of girls at the hands of the medieval theocrats to whom his president abandoned them. The time to think about the education and other rights of Afghan girls and women was before the United States surrendered to the Taliban. America dropped those girls as ruthlessly as it dropped the men clinging to its air force carrier above Kabul airport. Doing so may or may not have been in America’s national interest, but it has left the former leader of the free world signing open letters begging the Taliban to be good little liberals.

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