UN apologises for photo of personnel in front of Taliban flag: ‘Significant lapse in judgement’

The United Nations has apologised for “a significant lapse in judgement” after photographs of some of its staff emerged in front of a Taliban flag in Afghanistan during a high-level visit to address the ban on women aid workers in the strife-torn country.

Deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammed was joined by Sima Bahous, executive director of UN Women, and assistant secretary general for political affairs Khaled Khiari, as they met the de facto Taliban authorities and expressed alarm over women’s rights violations in the country.

On Friday, head of foreign relations for the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF), Ali Maisam Nazary, tweeted: “The @UN personnel in Kabul taking a photo w/ a terrorist group’s flag brings the United Nation’s impartiality & integrity into question. We kindly ask @antonioguterres to investigate this matter & for @UNAMAnews to prevent such insensitive actions that can tarnish its reputation.”

The tweet followed outrage by several people on social media, leading the UN to issue an apology.

“That photo should never have been taken. It clearly shows a significant lapse in judgment. It was a mistake and we apologise for it. And in terms of that, I believe the supervisor for these officers has spoken to them on this,” deputy spokesperson for secretary-general Antonio Guterres, Farhan Haq, told reporters on Friday.

Ms Mohammed, the highest-ranking woman in the UN, arrived in Kabul on Tuesday amidst the recent crackdown on women’s rights by Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers.

UN officials held a series of high-level consultations across the Gulf, Asia and Europe “to discuss the situation in Afghanistan in an effort to promote and protect women’s and girls’ rights, peaceful coexistence and sustainable development”.

Members of the delegation met with leaders of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Islamic Development Bank, groups of Afghan women in Ankara, Turkey, and Islamabad, and a group of ambassadors and special envoys to Afghanistan based in Doha, the capital of Qatar.

Ms Mohammed told the BBC that most senior Taliban officials she met on the trip “had been ready to engage over the rights of girls and women”.

“I think there are many voices we heard, which are progressive in the way that we would like to go,” Ms Mohammed told the news organisation. “But there are others that really are not.”

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A 24 December order from the Taliban barring aid groups from employing women is paralyzing deliveries that help keep millions of Afghans alive, and threatening humanitarian services countrywide. As another result of the ban, thousands of women who work for such organizations across the war-battered country are facing the loss of income they desperately need to feed their own families.

The Taliban previously banned girls from attending secondary schools and women from attending universities and issued restrictions on foreign travel and their movements within the country.

The Taliban took power again in August 2021 following the chaotic withdrawal of US and NATO forces after 20 years in Afghanistan. As it did when it first ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, the militant group has gradually reimposed Islamic law, or Sharia, driving women out of schools, jobs and aid work, and increasingly into their homes.

(With additional reporting from AP)