Afghanistan’s Laws and Canada’s Dilemma

The CBC recently featured a story about Afghanistan’s new oppressive legislation. These new laws will allow the Shia minority to impose some very strict prohibitions on women in their communities. These laws clearly contravene international standards on human rights. In a nutshell, this legislation would make it illegal for women to refuse sex to their husbands, leave their homes without permission, or have custody of their children.


Canadian politicians are not surprisingly outraged at this turn of events. The war in Afghanistan was sold to Canadians, and the world at large, as a way to destroy the terrorists and liberate the oppressed women of Afghanistan. There was much talk of the backwardness of “the burkha” and the progressive changes that would allow young girls to once again attend school. It remains to be seen if our political leaders outrage will lead to any action or if instead they will simply prop up a new government, which is very similar to the oppressive regime that came before. 


I don’t want to play down the issue itself as I agree it is a truly sad state of affairs. I hope the world speaks out and is able to influence the Karzai government to take a different path. I think, however,  it is also worth noting that these laws are actually emerging from a democracy.  The Shia group is a critical “swing block” of voters that is operating within the system to make their opinions heard.  The Taliban Government, which was vilified so adamantly by the West might have been providing a government that many of the people (granted the women didn’t have much of a voice) wanted. If a democracy is now replicating the negative side of a former oppressive government then it seems it is impossible to change a culture by changing its system of government.


The reality is that, the war was fought solely because Osama turned from murdering the Soviets (an act supported and funded by the USA) to murdering Americans. The liberation of Afghani women was always a red herring to garner public support. This I fear will be seen in the lack of concrete actions taken by the Canadian and International governments in the coming weeks. I hope I’m wrong.


Given that these acts by the Afghan government are truly against human rights standards, what responsibility do foreign nations have then to make sure they are not passed? While admittedly harmful, is it even possible to change any of these deeply rooted cultural practices from the outside? Clearly changing a government system is not enough.










18 responses to “Afghanistan’s Laws and Canada’s Dilemma

  1. sterlinglynch

    Great post.

    You hit the head on the nail by calling attention to the fact that a liberal-democratic system of government — especially one more or less imposed on a people — can not turn people into liberal-democrats.

    History suggests it works the other way around. People internalize liberal democratic values and then demand their governments reflect those values.

  2. Well said!

    Let me ask you this: 1. Is their anything an outside source can do to help a people with the internalization of liberal values at all? Or at least speed up the process? We both agree this cannot occur through imposing values, governments, etc. on a people.

    As a tangent, the West’s liberal values, despite being internalized by the majority, are essentially imposed through our system of Justice/government on the rest of society with considerable success. Why? Is this strictly a numbers game? As soon as you hit the magic number a true liberal democracy is born?

  3. sterlinglynch

    Huge, massive questions, Wayne.

    My short glib answers (based on research I’ve published on this issue ):

    1) Lead by example, reward those who follow our example, punish those who do not. 2) More people leading by example, more persons rewarding and being rewarded, more persons punished or being punished.

    I should say I disagree with your claim that seems to imply our institutions somehow impose a specific set of values. They don’t, otherwise we could just export them to other countries and have them impose those values there. In fact, our institutions have evolved to deal with people who have a whole range of values and that’s why our institutions tend to function more effectively.

    There is however a critical mass of persons trying their best to interact with each other in a certain fashion and a critical mass of person’s enforcing certain outcomes which accord with those ways of interacting.

    Also, there is no such thing as a “true liberal democracy”. It is an ideal for which we must always strive but never reach — the horizon of an accidental utopia we may one day find.

  4. peace&carrots

    I think it’s very dangerous to think that “other” nations that don’t share the same values and beliefs as us need to change because the way we do things is better. I think that we need to clean up our shit at home before thinking we can “fix” the “problems” of other countries. And- just because something is made officially law, doesn’t mean that before that it wasn’t enforced through other means.

    I think that this issue is so complex and the minute you start feeling passionate about a certain viewpoint or idea of the way things should be, you probably aren’t seeing the whole picture or the other point of view clearly enough.

  5. Peace and carrots, I think cultural relativism aside we can all agree that there are certain fundamental rights that all human beings should have. Is it imperialistic to say that all women, everywhere, have the right to bodily integrity and the right to not be raped by their husbands?? This is not the slightest bit controversial to me, and I certainly hope it is not to you either.

  6. sterlinglynch

    Peace and carrots, I respect your effort to call attention to the complexities of cross-cultural criticism. Certainly, it is something of which we all must be mindful.

    Even so, there are lines for which there is no complexity or cultural subtlety. Rape is wrong. It is always wrong. Period. I don’t care which culture tries to say otherwise.

    Moreover the international community has as much an obligation to prevent state sanctioned systematic rape as it does state sanctioned systematic murder. Again, there is no fuzziness here. There are no circumstances under which either of these practice are justified. Period.

  7. Thank you Peace Carrots for your thoughts. I really appreciate your perspective. Welcome to the blog! and I hope to hear from you again. I think you are correct to point out that it is often much easier to point the finger at others rather than look at the injustices that are occurring in our own backyard. A certain community in Bountiful B.C. is coming to mind at the moment (but I’ll save that for another time). These issues are complex and we should be careful to lead by example if we are to pass judgements on others.

    We all agree that when basic human rights are being violated a very serious crime is being committed. The question remains: how can a concerned and culturally sensitive international community work to prevent these criminal actions from taking place?

    Sterling has put forward the following: 1) Lead by example, reward those who follow our example, punish those who do not. 2) More people leading by example, more persons rewarding and being rewarded, more persons punished or being punished.

    I think this is a good working premise. The question remains how? Loan forgiveness perhaps for those that are able to demonstrate human rights is a priority for their nation? Economic sanctions for those who do not? An international police force and a form of Court perhaps like the one in Hague?

    What would the carrot and stick look like for human rights?

    PBP: It’s great to hear from you too 🙂

    Thank you all for your comments. I am really enjoying the discussion.

  8. isaacbickerstaff

    I agree with your penultimate paragraph that the mission – rightly or wrongly – was conceived as a defensive reaction and should have been sold as such. The idea of invading Afghanistan as a mission of liberation leaves us in the paradox you describe: if you provide people “freedom” (nebulous as that concept may be), does that allow for the freedom to be “unfree” (according to Western, liberal definitions of freedom)?

    On the other hand, perhaps we should ignore human rights issues and take a realist position that “success” in Afghanistan is defined as the establishment of a stable government of some kind (basically the same argument that the anti-war position makes about Saddam Hussein).

    Of course, the feasibility of this is questionable and probably can’t even begin to be addressed without redrawing the map of Central Asia and thus requiring even more interventionism.

  9. Welcome to the Many Faces of Wayne of Isaac! and thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think you raise a compelling argument when you allude to the fact that even the nation of Afghanistan itself was imposed on the people by a foreign power (Britain if I am not mistaken). This is true of many of the nations within Central Asia where borders were drawn by more powerful nations and then imposed on those residing there.

    I do have to take issue with your assertion that “success” should be measured by stability even at the expense of human rights. While I do not believe that human rights abuses ever legitimize military intervention, I do feel that the world has a responsibility to act to prevent the violation of human rights. I am uncertain what the best way is to achieve this though. Clearly the exportation of Western systems of government or Western institutions is ineffective in preventing abuse.

  10. isaacbickerstaff

    To clarify: I’m not asserting myself that stability is the measure of success; rather, that stability is a more pragmatic measure of success and more in line with the initial aim of the mission (despite how it was sold to the public). Of course, the elephant in the room is that any achieved stability in Afghanistan would be somewhat meaningless without dealing with the NW Frontier Province of Pakistan which, despite the legal fictions of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, is really an extension of Afghanistan.
    With regards to the responsibility of the world to prevent human rights abuses – I agree with you in principle (most would), but this begs the question of how you define “world”. Generally I take this to mean the Western World, which raises it own series of problems. Moreover, while it’s obviously a laudable aim in ideality, the means of achieving it often can result in precisely the paradox you illustrate in your post.

  11. It’s a tough one.

    I would venture though that with the proper series of incentives/disincentives (probably economic) we could move this from the realm of laudable into the achievable. Not easily done of course. A whole lot of clever marketing will be required. If most can agree with the principle then it is up to us to come with the means to uphold it. Basic human rights should not be considered an ideal.
    Clearly people, as you say, can’t be forced to be “free” but perhaps they can be persuaded (or discouraged from negative behaviour). Maybe. Definitely a tough one.

  12. isaacbickerstaff

    “Basic human rights should not be considered an ideal.”
    How could they be considered anything but an ideal?

    And with regards to persuasion, aren’t you substituting one form of coercion for another (albeit one less bloody)? I don’t think that gets around the paradox of forced freedom; it’s just a softer force. In fact, isn’t this precisely the sort of alleged imperialism that US gets criticized for? (Invading countries with Coca-Cola).

    Hmm. I’m not sure what my position really is: I think I’m just playing devil’s advocate here.

  13. I feel it is a totally attainable goal (practical even), which will lead to a more stable and productive society. As opposed to an ideal which is usually a higher almost unreachable goal. Perhaps I should check a dictionary before posting this. Too late! 🙂
    Persuasion and coercion are also very different things if we’re going to be splitting hairs over definitions of terms. There are many benevolent ways to persuade someone there are no benevolent ways to coerce them.

    I haven’t figured it all out yet, but basically I’m arguing for a carrot and stick approach: Lead by example, reward good behaviour, punish bad behaviour (through economics?), and try not to start a war is pretty much all I’ve got so far 🙂

    I’m really enjoying the discussion. Thanks for playing devil’s advocate. Maybe that will help us tease out a solution.

    Wayne C.

  14. according to the dictionary on my Mac:
    ideal: existing only in imagination; desirable, or perfect, but unlikely to become a reality. “in an ideal world we might have made a different decision”.

    By this definition I would say that the delivery of basic human rights should not be an ideal.

    Another definition is a perfect moral standard. The implication of perfection with the nuanced unattainability I have a problem with. A moral standard/principle I am fine with. (let me sleep on this).

  15. There are a bunch of different definitions of political “stability” but, with respect to what most people mean by the term, I am happy to say that stability cannot be achieved without a whole bunch of fundamental rights and freedoms being respected and enforced. In fact, history shows, the longest lasting and most stable governments are those that respect and protect not only the basic liberties but a whole bunch of other rights and liberties as well. So this whole trope that stability can and should trump human rights is wrong. Really, it is claim that was only invented to justify propping up authoritarian leaders who are also willing to serve U.S. foreign interests when the people of those countries are much less likely to serve those interests.

  16. I think one important point in this debate is that we shouldn’t assume that the people of Afghanistan don’t want women’s right or human rights or that it is antithetical to their culture. In fact they had made significant progress in that regard before the Taliban took over. Two Afghan women had a great OpEd in the New York Times pointing out the myths and misconceptions about human rights being “outside” values:

    The critical issue here is that these reforms need to happen from within, they can’t be imposed by the United States. Claiming that the US presence there is largely motivated by human rights is rhetoric that has been used to justify an occupation that not only is not helping, but is exacerbating the situation. I have more this issue over at our blog:

  17. Welcome to the Many Faces of Wayne Rebecca. Your point about Many Afghans being against this proposed legislation is well made. I agree we should not see respect for human rights as “outside” the Afghan culture as there are many groups with varying opinions within Afghanistan. It is certainly not a monolithic culture.
    Thank you again for your contribution to the discussion. I hope to hear from you again.

  18. Rebecca, great observation. Both the links you provide are well worth reading. Your blog post, especially, gives a perspective not covered in the main stream Canadian media. Thanks.

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