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25 June 2020

Briefing Security Council, Afghanistan Mission Head Expresses Optimism Government, Taliban will Enter Talks, Concern over Impact of COVID-19 on Mandate

As leaders in Afghanistan prepare for long-anticipated talks with the Taliban, COVID-19 has cast a huge shadow over daily life and limited the ability of the United Nations Assistance Mission to fulfil its mandate, the Secretary-General’s top official in the country told the Security Council in a 25 June videoconference meeting*.

Deborah Lyons, Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), said the pandemic has posed unique challenges for its operational posture.  UNAMA has adopted a range of measures to safeguard the health and well-being of its staff while sustaining the delivery of critical programmes throughout the country.

Nonetheless, the United Nations is leading a coordinated response to the pandemic, she assured, establishing laboratories around the country and providing personal protective equipment.  The Afghanistan Humanitarian Response Plan has been updated to reflect the current $1.1 billion that partners will now require to provide immediate assistance.

Against that backdrop, she said Afghans today have the opportunity to turn the corner to a brighter, more stable future after four decades of war.  “Many stand ready to support them,” she assured.  Underscoring that Afghanistan has made immense progress in recent years, she said she is deeply impressed by the strength and courage of the country’s youth.  Today’s two other briefers are part of a new generation committed to creating a peaceful and self-reliant country.

She also pointed to the creation of a free and vibrant media in a country considered among the most dangerous for journalists and “significant” improvements in living conditions, with a 60 per cent drop in maternal mortality over a 15-year period and a 50 per cent reduction in child mortality.  And yet, too many people face daily struggles to survive.  The United States-Taliban agreement and reduction in violence have provided only a brief respite from the violence.  The 19 May attack against a maternity ward in Kabul was “particularly outrageous” and established a “new low”.  The perpetrators must be found and held accountable.

She also drew attention to the threat posed by Islamic State Khorasan Province, whose recent suicide attack against a funeral ceremony in Nangarhar province killed 29 civilians.  In 2019 alone, 874 children lost their lives as a result of the conflict.  The number of minors out of school has not dropped, but instead, risen in the last eight years.  “If there ever was a call to prayer for peace, surely it would echo the voices of these children,” she said.

In addition, she said efforts to fight corruption have slowed, with institutional reforms — including to establish the independent anti-corruption commission — neglected amid apparent impunity of well-connected political figures.  Progress to end such practices is crucial as the 2020 Pledging Conference on Afghanistan approaches.  “These challenges require determined and united leadership,” she asserted.

Welcoming the political agreement reached by Afghanistan President Asraf Ghani and High Council for National Reconciliation leader Abdullah Abdullah, she said she expects to hear announcement of a representative cabinet and formation of inclusive peace structures in the coming days.  She expressed cautious optimism that the Government and the Taliban teams will begin negotiations in July in Doha.  As they embark on what will likely be a “long and complex” series of talks, she encouraged them to show flexibility and foresight, and compassion for their people.  She highlighted the commitment by both sides on the issue of prisoner releases, characterizing as “noteworthy” the fact that both have agreed these talks can start within a week of such actions.

For its part, the United Nations stands ready to support these direct talks, she said.  As success rests on a broad consensus, both sides have reached out to various constituencies, seeking their views on achieving peace.  Underscoring the importance of meaningful participation by women, youth, minorities and war victims, she said regional countries are likewise voicing strong resolve and she expressed confidence that a constructive atmosphere for the talks will be forged.

Ghada Fathi Waly, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said the COVID-19 pandemic — which arrived amid conflict, hunger, drought and flood in Afghanistan — is a burden too terrible to bear.  The 2020 UNODC World Drug Report, launched today, reveals that the country remains the world’s biggest opium producer, with record levels of production.

She said that despite a 38 per cent decrease in cultivation — to 163,000 hectares in 2019 — production, at 6,400 tons, remained roughly at the same level.  Evidence suggests that opium poppy cultivation and drug trafficking continue unabated, despite COVID-19 and related travel restrictions.  Labour shortfalls at the start of the harvest in western and southern provinces were quickly addressed with women in poppy-growing households engaged to lance the crop.

Farmers compelled by poverty to grow opium poppy have seen their incomes decline further, as the farm-gate value of production plunged, for the second consecutive year, by 33 per cent, she said.  This decrease follows a similar drop in opium prices, which are at the lowest level since systematic monitoring began.  “The illicit opiate economy is expected to continue fuelling instability and insurgency, and funding terrorist groups,” she warned.

At the same time, methamphetamine use is now being reported from nearly all provinces, she said.  Large-scale manufacturing is emerging:  In 2008, only four grams of methamphetamine were seized in Afghanistan.  In 2019, total seizures reached 1.25 tons.  She acknowledged efforts by Afghan law enforcement authorities to contain the trafficking threat, notably through the use of Mobile Detection Teams and Precursor Control Units, created with UNODC support, and operations by Airport Interdiction Units, which led to the seizure of seven kilograms of heroin.

However, the question remains around how to scale up successes to create a real impact, she said.  In the last two years, UNODC has helped to create over 18,000 new jobs — including 7,600 for women.  Nearly 2,000 hectares of agricultural land have been brought under licit cultivation.  But these efforts to create sustainable licit incomes face serious constraints, as many opium growing areas remain outside Government influence.

First and foremost, she said counter-narcotics policies should be situated in broader development and security strategies, with related actions sustainably resourced, and reinforced by regional cooperation and tailored to meet emerging threats.  For its part, UNODC stands ready to expand alternative development initiatives as the security situation and resources allow, and to step up the integrated support it offers to Afghanistan in preventing drug trafficking.

Greater international support for evidence-based prevention and drug treatment services will also be needed.  “I offer UNODC’s full support through our integrated country, regional and interregional approach,” she said, urging authorities to ensure that counter-narcotic operations will continue throughout the peace process.

Shaharzad Akbar, Chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, said COVID-19 has had a multidimensional impact on human rights in her country.  The Commission has adapted measures to enable continued monitoring and follow-up on violations of women’s rights, advocating for children’s access to vaccinations and education, monitoring detainees’ right to health and safety, advocating for transparency, information access, the right to protest, and restraint by police.  Importantly, it is participating in provincial COVID-19 response committees across the country to inform local authorities about human rights aspects of response measures.

As Afghanistan tackles the pandemic, the conflict leaves in its wake an alarming number of civilian casualties, she continued.  Afghans suffer death or serious harm through suicide attacks, air strikes and night raids.  They experience it while praying in mosques and gurdwaras, while at work — in farms, factories or at the office — while travelling to visit relatives or studying in primary and secondary schools.  Mothers are targeted while giving birth, underscoring the extraordinary degree to which civilians continue to be harmed.  “We must all work to bring about a comprehensive ceasefire as quickly as possible,” she stressed.  The Commission has launched a “Put Down the Guns” campaign.

As an impartial entity, she said the Commission is mandated to protect all Afghans and wants a clear role in the peace process to provide expert input into the discussions about human rights for both negotiating sides.  It also wants to monitor respect for human rights in various stages of the process.  Its advocacy work focuses on making the peace process inclusive, with durable outcomes.  It is calling for transparency and victim-centred justice, the meaningful inclusion of women and minorities and specific measures endorsed by both sides to acknowledge the voice and rights of victims.

In particular, the Commission has raised the issue of victim’s rights in relation to prisoner exchange, she said.  It has reached out to the Taliban and put forward four mechanisms to enable the broader public participation in the peace process, each aiming to bring the issue of victims’ justice to the fore of negotiators’ consideration.

Like many Afghans, she experienced war and migration as a child, and is now raising her son in a war-torn country.  Progress has been uneven, but it provides an opportunity for expanded access to human rights.  Any compromise on basic rights will not succeed.  “We will need the United Nations and global human rights community to help stop the violence,” she implored, preserve human rights and ensure the voices and demands of victims will not be overlooked.

In the ensuing dialogue, delegates welcomed the 17 May power-sharing accord reached by Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah, ending the months-long political impasse and paving the way for intra-Afghan peace talks.

The representative of Afghanistan said that while recent months have been challenging, her country is emerging with a strong spirit of unity, upheld by the recent political agreement between Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah towards national cohesion.  The President has outlined a vision centred on aligning efforts to achieve long-term peace with those to end the war.  Indeed, Afghanistan again is becoming the centre of regional connectivity, building robust tools of Government that can respond to changing economic conditions and a strong economic and fiscal basis to ensure self-reliance.

Underscoring that the peace process remains a top priority, she said the Government has established the High Council for Peace and National Reconciliation, which will lead discussions under Abdullah Abdullah.  It will work with the President, the two houses of the National Assembly, civil society and the national elite.  The Government has formed an inclusive negotiating team that involves women, civil society, political parties and religious groups.  Ensuring that women have a seat at the table was a paramount consideration, as the Government has regularly emphasized the need to protect the constitutional rights of Afghan women.

In addition, she said the Government has taken confidence-building measures to create an environment conducive.  It has worked to responsibly release 5,000 Taliban, with some 3,000 released already.  “We call on the Taliban to reciprocate,” by releasing Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, she said, also advocating for a significant reduction in violence to create a positive environment for the start of negotiations.  More broadly, the Government attaches great importance to efforts by regional and international partners, she said.  A democracy where every Afghan sees themselves as being equally represented in a stable Afghanistan — “this is the end state [towards which] the Government is striving,” she said.

She acknowledged that her country has been deeply affected by the coronavirus, which has exacerbated vulnerabilities emanating from conflict, poverty and natural hazards.  The number of people in need has increased from 9.4 million to an estimated 14 million, translating to an additional $1.1 billion required.  She called on the Taliban to heed the appeal for a global ceasefire, recalling Mr. Ghani’s call for a humanitarian ceasefire.  The Government is enhancing cooperation with its neighbours and regional countries, especially cross-border movements of commercial and humanitarian goods to ensure the supply of medicine.

“Achieving self-reliance is the key objective,” she said, by adopting reforms and fighting corruption among other measures.  The upcoming pledging conference will be critical for sustaining shared achievements and supporting self-reliance based on mutual accountability.  On that front, the Government is working to devise development priorities to present to donor partners, she said, adding that increased violence by the Taliban, Al-Qaida and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) has led to Afghanistan registering record numbers of civilian casualties in 2019.

Germany’s delegate expressed condolences for recent attacks in Afghanistan, including one on a maternity ward in May, which go against the spirit of the 29 February agreement between the United States and the Taliban.  Violence must be reduced — and eventually ended — for intra-Afghan negotiations to begin.  Reiterating the need for all parties to respect their obligations under international law, including taking measures to prevent civilian casualties, he said perpetrators must understand that they will be held accountable for their brutal, cynical acts.  Sustainable peace can only be achieved through a negotiated and inclusive political settlement, owned and led by the people of Afghanistan — including its women — and will require flexibility on all sides.  He pledged Germany’s support to the upcoming intra-Afghan negotiations, as co-penholder on the issue, calling for more support from the international community and especially the Council.  He added that the official number of 30,000 recorded COVID-19 cases in Afghanistan “can only be the tip of the iceberg”, stressing that ending violence is critical to mounting a strong response.

Indonesia’s representative stressed the need to safeguard Afghanistan’s peace process and nurture reconciliation, while expressing hope that the Government will promptly form a cabinet and streamline a strengthened response to COVID-19.  “The political agreement augurs well for a united stand in intra-Afghan peace negotiations,” he said, urging the parties to avoid any provocations that might hamper talks.  He joined other speakers in expressing deep concern over the devastating toll of violence on civilians, including barbaric attacks on children, demanding that they end immediately.  The Government must intensify its protection of civilians and hold perpetrators to account.  Noting the need to combat the trade in narcotics to cut off terrorist financing, he went on to stress that women’s meaningful participation in the peace process is indispensable for reconciliation and enduring peace.

The Russian Federation’s representative said a crucial factor for starting inter-Afghan negotiations is prisoner release and he called for the rapid release of those remaining.  All efforts should focus on promoting national reconciliation.  “We have no illusions that direct intra-Afghan talks might be complicated and protracted,” he said, especially given the different understandings of a future political architecture by both sides.  Moscow stands ready to facilitate negotiations.  Enabling parties to find an “acceptable-by-all agreement” and establishing durable peace are at the heart of its efforts within the “Troika plus Pakistan” initiative.  Noting that his country also participated in an 18 May virtual conference with China, Iran and Pakistan, and in a 15 June trilateral virtual meeting with the United States and Afghanistan, he said cooperation by regional players and neighbours is crucial to ensuring peace, stability and development in Afghanistan.  The Moscow Format can play a crucial role in this regard.

Condemning recent terrorist attacks in Kabul and Nangarhar for which ISIL Khorasan claimed responsibility, he said the presence of ISIL/Da’esh in Afghanistan represents a real threat, in particular to neighbours, Central Asian countries and the southern regions of the Russian Federation.  “Underestimating this problem is unacceptable,” he said, urging all sides to take decisive action against Al-Qaida, ISIL/Da’esh and other international terrorist groups.  Drug production and trafficking are sources of significant financial support for terrorism.  The Russian Federation is ready to fulfil its obligations by assisting joint efforts against this threat, including through participation in UNODC, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Estonia’s representative, calling the political agreement between Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah an “important step” on the path towards reconciliation, encouraged the Government to “continue the course of accountable governance” and ensure the meaningful participation of a diverse negotiating team at the intra-Afghan negotiations.  It is regrettable that the Taliban has questioned the inclusiveness of this team.  Urging all Afghan actors and armed groups to commit to an inclusive Afghan-owned, Afghan-led peace process, while ensuring that human rights are not eroded in such efforts, he said the achievements of the past 19 years — for which Afghans and countries including Estonia have made enormous sacrifices — must be retained.  He expressed deep concern over the persistence of attacks by anti-Government elements and deplored in the strongest terms attacks against children, calling on parties to immediately establish a humanitarian ceasefire.  He likewise strongly condemned attacks on health-care personnel and facilities by the Taliban and Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, while more broadly urging all sides to act swiftly to build confidence, start the intra-Afghan negotiations and work towards a long-term reduction in violence.

The representative of the Dominican Republic said Afghanistan has no alternative but a political solution and called for inclusive representation of all sides in the negotiations.  It is essential that women participate directly and meaningfully in the peace talks at all decision-making levels.  Expressing particular concern about the number of casualties attributed to the Taliban in the south, he condemned all attacks against health-care facilities and services, underscoring the utmost importance of establishing a ceasefire to protect civilians and respecting international law.  All parties must ensure the delivery of humanitarian support, more so now during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said the power-sharing accord reached by Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah will help to deepen public support for future intra-Afghan negotiations.  Unity and cooperation through inclusive national dialogue and leadership are needed.  Pointing to reports of sexual violence against children and attacks against schools, she called for greater protection of civilians, particularly women, children and displaced persons, and respect for international human rights law.  Greater support for the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework is needed.  The situation is compounded by the fact that Afghanistan is among the most climate vulnerable countries in the world.  The environmental impacts of war, and resultant damage to critical infrastructure, has also made it among the least equipped to handle these challenges.  The consequences of flooding, drought and lack of irrigation for crops foster instability and she called on major emitters — and all Member States — to significantly reduce their emissions in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change.  They must also fulfil their responsibilities regarding climate finance for adaptation and loss, and damage caused by climate change.  “We can only call on Afghans to address what is within their power and control,” she insisted.  “The impact of human induced climate change on this country is palpable and caused by external forces far beyond its borders.”

The representative of the United States said the Government and the Taliban have taken important steps towards intra-Afghan negotiations.  “These talks promise the best chance of a political road map to sustainable peace,” she assured, stressing that once they begin, parties will have reached the long-stated goal of an inclusive, Afghan-led, and Afghan-owned political process.  She welcomed the agreements between Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah, as the formation of an inclusive Government is essential.  She recognized the Taliban’s decision to observe a ceasefire during Eid, and the Government’s reciprocal announcement of its ceasefire.  It is also significant that the Taliban agreed to join intra-Afghan negotiations within one week of the Government releasing 5,000 prisoners.  However, violence that erupted since the ceasefire, if left unchecked, could disrupt the start of negotiations.  She condemned all attacks, and notably, threats to health-care workers and the brazen use of explosives in civilian areas.  The United States has contributed $20.6 million in COVID-19-related assistance for critical surveillance, treatment and prevention programming.  Reiterating the importance of incorporating women’s rights and participation into all aspects of the peace process, she called on both sides to reduce violence, continue to release prisoners and work pragmatically to agree on the modalities of negotiations.

The representative of South Africa joined other speakers in welcoming the creation of Afghanistan’s Government and expressing hope that it will inject a renewed impetus for the start of intra-Afghan peace talks.  A ceasefire remains a critical enabler of those talks, he said, underlining the importance of ensuring that the peace process is inclusive, Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.  Echoing support for the Secretary-General’s appeal for a global ceasefire amid the pandemic, he welcomed measures taken by the Government and UNAMA to limit the spread of the coronavirus and called for more international support.  He voiced deep concern about the situation of Afghan children, including acts of sexual violence committed against them and the targeting of schools and hospitals and the denial of humanitarian access.  All parties to the conflict must comply with their international legal obligations, he said, reiterating South Africa’s condemnation of all acts of terrorism and calling for their perpetrators to be held to account.

Viet Nam’s representative welcomed the spirit of compromise demonstrated by Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah in reaching their 17 May agreement, while raising concerns about Afghanistan’s fragile security situation, transnational crime and the spread and impact of COVID-19.  Most urgent is the need to advance the implementation of resolution 2513 (2020), particularly the intra-Afghan talks, as soon as possible.  In parallel, it is vital to improve the security situation, he said, citing an escalation of violence that took place just after the Taliban announced its 23 May ceasefire.  Amid the continued threat of COVID-19, he urged all parties to heed the Secretary-General’s call to end fighting, stop targeting civilians and allow unhindered humanitarian access.  He also spotlighted Afghanistan’s economic challenges, calling on international actors to help the country eradicate poverty, foster post-conflict reconstruction and overcome the impacts of COVID-10 and climate change.

Belgium’s delegate said the political agreement must pave the way for a fully-fledged Government and intra-Afghan negotiations.  Advocating for confidence-building measures, she said a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire should ideally accompany the start of the negotiation — or at least be an outcome.  Urging the parties to immediately address the staggering toll on civilians, she noted that resolution 2513 (2020) lists the start of intra-Afghan negotiations and violence reduction by the Taliban as conditions for any review of listings under the sanctions regime.  The Government must thoroughly investigate the recent attack on a maternity hospital in Kabul and hold perpetrators accountable, she added, noting that attacks on health workers and facilities — which constitute war crimes — continue even amid the COVID-19 crisis.  She reaffirmed Belgium’s commitment to Afghanistan, while noting that future support will be determined by the level of commitment by the Afghan authorities to good governance and human rights.

The representative of France, Council President for June, spoke in her national capacity to highlight “encouraging signs” that inter-Afghan negotiations again seem possible, with the 17 May agreement allowing parties to surmount the political deadlock.  Restoring trust between the various partners is essential.  She reiterated France’s strong condemnation of the attacks on the Dasht-e-Barchi maternity hospital, those against Afghan National Defence and Security Forces on 17 June and on a funeral in Nangarhar province, stressing that the protection of civilians — and first and foremost of children — must be a top priority.  Reducing violence is imperative, as peace depends on each party fulfilling their commitments, including those to reduce violence and combat terrorism.  “The Afghan authorities have pledged to do so,” she said.  “The Taliban must now do their part.”  Women’s full participation in the peace process is an indispensable condition for long-term success.  Drug production, on the rise and diversifying, is taking a devasting toll on Afghan society and providing a major source of financing for terrorism.  She urged the international community and Afghan authorities to show unfailing determination to end these scourges.

Also participating were representatives of China, Niger, Tunisia and the United Kingdom.

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* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.

For information media. Not an official record.