Helena Kennedy: “The first plane load from Afghanistan was 130 people. But the calls kept coming”

The human rights barrister has helped evacuate 500 people—women lawyers and their families—out of Afghanistan. But, she says, the UK is not doing enough
December 9, 2021

In the manic days of evacuation that followed the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August, thousands of people were left stranded. Among them were women who, in the two decades since the Taliban were ousted, had qualified as judges in Afghanistan’s new legal system. They were in fear for their lives as the militants seized power and democratic institutions crumbled. 

They have turned for help to Helena Kennedy, the Scottish barrister and director of human rights for the International Bar Association. Kennedy, who sits in the House of Lords as Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws, has spent the past three months in a frantic bid to evacuate those women judges and prosecutors left behind.

“When the military departure was taking place, I started receiving these calls from women judges, from people who knew women judges, and who were saying: ‘please, what can be done about this? We need to be able to help.’”

“Individual women [were] telling me they were hiding in their basements [or] they had had to move to a relative’s house and they couldn’t go out, and were in a really distressed state,” she tells me. “The clamour was becoming so loud and so fearful, it became clear that we had to act.”

That meant raising money, arranging transport to a provincial airport, chartering flights and conducting frantic diplomacy with the leaders of countries around the world who might offer refuge. For Kennedy, the experience has been crushing, uplifting and bizarre all at once: at one point, in order to ensure safe passage, she found herself chipping in for a sheep for a Taliban wedding. More often the task was ensuring everyone had the correct documentation and persuading airport officials to accept it. 

“We ended up being the operational hub for getting significant numbers out,” she says. “The first plane load… was 130 people. But the calls kept coming.”

Kennedy has watched the situation in Afghanistan deteriorate with horror. The IBA “was basically the organisation that set up a Bar Association in Afghanistan after the ousting of the Taliban,” she tells me. Its Human Rights Institute was involved in “training programmes, drafting… the bylaws by which the legal profession would operate, and encouraged very much the inclusion of women in the post-Taliban legal system.”

But even before the Taliban takeover, “the idea that women were sitting in justice on men was absolutely a fraught issue in Afghanistan.” In January, two female Supreme Court justices were murdered. 

Those most in danger now are “women who prosecuted some of these men now out of prison”: hardened militants released by the Taliban and seeking vengeance on those who sentenced them. When you hear of a disappearance, “you just wonder whether they’ve been taken out and had their throat slit and been dumped somewhere.”

The total number of people helped by Kennedy’s scheme—women lawyers and their family members—now stands at 500. But the UK is not doing enough, she says. It has taken handfuls of female judges here and there, but provoked outrage when it rejected visa applications from a group of 35 judges, most of whom were women. And after the initial heave, the long-term Afghan resettlement scheme is yet to get off the ground. 

“I have been contacted by so many good British people who have said to me… ‘I live in a big house, and my children have all left home… and I would be very happy to have a family coming here to live with me.’ It just seems to be such a slow and wretched process.”

There are moments of joy amid the despair. “My spirits go up and down. The happiness of the Friday before last, with the four of us: [my colleagues] Charles, Emily, Ewelina and myself, we went out to the airport, and met our women and their families coming off a plane. There were four of them and their children and their husbands.

“It was one of the great moments in anybody’s life, you know, when you see them arriving,” she adds. “And they wept and they laughed and they hugged. It was just wonderful. It was just the most wonderful thing.”