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Helena Kennedy: Europe faces Schindler’s List moment

Afghan female judges and lawyers left behind in Kabul and beyond now have targets on their backs. BARONESS HELENA KENNEDY makes an impassioned plea for intervention.

An burqa-clad Afghan woman walks through a market in Kabul. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images.

After the Taliban took over Afghanistan, women across the country feared they would be the first to lose any rights that they gained over the past 20 years. They were not wrong.

They were not allowed to leave home without a male escort. They were not allowed to go to work. They were not allowed to continue with their education. Their sex became the limitation on what they could do or be. This is true for all women and girls in Afghanistan under the Taliban reign.

However, some women face further challenges that are associated with the work that they are engaged with: fighting for the human rights of all. Judges, lawyers, prosecutors, politicians, journalists are among them. They are the women most at risk in Afghanistan – with a target on their backs.

And since the withdrawal of the US and other forces, these women have been left with no assistance.

This is why the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), which I have been a director of since 2019, has been acting as an operational hub helping women at risk in Afghanistan. Our involvement in the situation of women at risk started with helping women judges and lawyers to find a final destination.

We quickly realised that even if we found them those destinations, the big and urgent requirement was to get them out… and fast!

An opportunity opened up with an organisation doing such evacuations, Mercury One.

Mercury One has been evacuating religious minorities to Doha and Abu Dhabi. However, their deal did not include women at risk. We reached out to different countries asking to act as a “lily pad”, an interim sanctuary, and it was the president of Greece, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, who offered to take the first flight.

The first flight, with 28 female judges and their families, arrived in Greece on September 30. They were offered a temporary stay in Greece and assistance during their stay. Eighteen of the families have a final destination and the corresponding embassies have been working on their transit to that destination.

Part of a group of Afghan women lawyers and judges airlifted to Greece following the Taliban takeover, take a selfie with Greek president Katerina Sakellaropoulou. Photo: Panayotis Tzamaros/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ten of them still do not have a final destination and we are working on securing it.

Subsequently, the Greek government agreed to take yet another flight, this time with more than 370 individuals on board: 77 jurists and their families.

Airbnb offered them temporary accommodation by paying for two weeks in hotels, and my team worked day and night to organise all other support for the families: food, nappies, detergent, warmer clothes. Only a few of the families from the second flight have a final destination.

Among the women at risk we evacuated in these two airlifts are high-profile female judges, lawyers, prosecutors, journalists, and other human rights defenders, and their close family members, including a judge of the supreme court, the head of the court for the investigation of violent crimes against women in Balkh province, members of the parliament and members of the Women’s Voice Peace Policy Advisory Parliamentary Group.

All these women spent their lives fighting for the rule of law and the rights of everyone in Afghanistan. Now, they need our help.

I appeal to the conscience of all European countries to step forward and provide these women a home before Christmas.

We always wonder what we would have done facing the atrocities of the Nazis, would we have helped those persecuted people? Now we have the chance to put the theory to practice.

This is our very own Schindler’s List moment.

Helena Kennedy QC is director of the International Bar Association’s Institute of Human Rights and a member of the House of Lords.

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