With the formal launch of peace negotiations imminent, the United Nations top official in Afghanistan warned the Security Council during a 3 September videoconference meeting* that near-record violence in the country is creating an atmosphere of mistrust that risks derailing long-sought talks between the Government and the Taliban.
The stakes for the country’s most vulnerable people “could not be higher”, said Deborah Lyons, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), describing the upcoming intra-Afghan talks as a historic moment, as she briefed the 15-member organ.
The conflict, which has raged for four decades, continues to kill hundreds of people each week and has displaced millions over the years — most of whom have no prospects of return. With negotiations hosted by Qatar set to launch, she exhorted parties to place a humanitarian ceasefire atop the agenda and pressed all countries to amplify this call as the talks begin.
Expressing appreciation to Qatar, the United States and Pakistan for their intense diplomacy to bring the parties to this point, she said the pre-talks phase has already raised difficult issues related to prisoner releases, which have taken five months to resolve. “Eventually, the negotiations will have to tackle a range of profound questions about the kind of country Afghans want.” Solutions cannot be found on the battlefield or imposed from the outside.
At the same time, she said all parties must do their part to ensure the ground is prepared for peace to flourish. The United Nations has initiated a dialogue with the two sides on the inclusion of victims’ voices in the peace talks and mechanisms for incorporating victim-centred justice. “This is a difficult topic, but an essential one,” she said, stressing that only when victims’ grievances are acknowledged and addressed will true reconciliation be possible.
She said women’s rights are also emerging as one of the most difficult issues as parties enter negotiations — and one around which any compromises will pose a difficult dilemma for Member States. “This issue will be more central in the Afghan peace process than we have ever seen in any other peace negotiation in recent memory,” she assured.
Against that backdrop, she has initiated meetings with a countrywide network of women who are providing insight into avenues for greater engagement. “It is women’s representation at the peace table that offers the best opportunity to ensure their own rights are upheld and their vision for a peaceful Afghanistan is reflected in all aspects of the talks,” she emphasized. As of now, her Office is not aware of any women’s representation for the Taliban but she is hopeful negotiators will find a way to include women on the team.
The vibrant media will also be crucial in fostering an inclusive peace, she said, noting that next week she will meet with a consortium of national media to discuss how to best engage civil society in a dialogue during the negotiations. More broadly, she said that by deepening regional relationships in the areas of trade and transit, infrastructure connectivity, counter-narcotics, people movements and knowledge transfer, Afghanistan can realize its enormous untapped potential and take full advantage of its strategic location at the heart of Asia. She welcomed the “overwhelming” response to UNAMA’s Ambassadors Working Group meetings by China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
On the national stage, she welcomed the Government’s formation of its Cabinet last week, as well as appointments to the High Council of National Reconciliation. Her Office continues to call for a comprehensive anti-corruption strategy and an independent anti-corruption commission.
The pledging conference in November and intra-Afghan talks will together set the course for the country’s future, she continued. UNAMA is engaging regularly with the Taliban to ensure they are well-informed of Afghanistan’s obligations as a member of the global community, notably through discussions on development and governance issues and an ongoing human rights dialogue. With 38,000 COVID-19 cases reported and more than 1,400 deaths attributed to the coronavirus, “I consider this work to be of utmost importance,” she said.
Saad Mohseni, Chief Executive, MOBY Group, said the Afghanistan he returned to in 2002 was a “radically different” country than the one he was forced to leave in the 1970s. The Taliban and its predecessors had done everything to root out Afghanistan’s charm, possibility and progress. It was no longer the proverbial “Paris of Central Asia” and he lamented that it had taken only 20 years of isolation to annihilate a century of modern statehood — and 1,500 years of history.
To be sure, much has improved since 2002, he said. Twenty years of State-building and international support has helped Afghanistan halve child mortality and boost literacy to almost 50 per cent of the population. The country is better connected than ever, having moved from zero media in 2002 to more than 100 television outlets and hundreds of radio stations, newspapers and online platforms today. Despite limited access to electricity, 95 per cent of people regularly watch television and 33 million people are mobile subscribers, up from zero in 2002. One third of the population now has access to the Internet.
Indeed, he said Afghanistan has the freest media, from India to North Africa, to Eastern Europe, and while “it is certainly not safe”, this nonetheless has ensured that journalists are free to report with integrity. His news organization, Tolo, has alone lost 11 staff, while the wider media family has lost 132 journalists — attacks that were among the 1,600 violent incidents reported. The Taliban has claimed responsibility for nearly all of them. “The Government may not like what we have to say, but at least we do not fear these types of reprisals,” he said.
He described Afghanistan’s transformation as “extraordinary”. With a majority of people connected and plugged in, half the population residing in cities and an economy that has grown many-fold, Afghanistan “is on the up” and he pushed for a continued international presence. Corruption is an issue at every level and the country is still at war. But Afghanistan — which, at age 18 is the youngest nation outside of sub-Saharan Africa — is hopeful. Reintegrating the Taliban into society will require international efforts.
“There needs to be a strong and consistent line on key issues,” he insisted, stressing that the international position is currently not coherent, which has only encouraged the Taliban to make further demands and resulted in loss of life. Pointing out that the Taliban agreed to distance itself from other terrorist groups as a condition of the Doha Agreement with the United States, he questioned whether it has lived up to this pledge and how any such actions would be monitored. At this critical juncture, the Taliban and the Government are mindful of global opinion. “The international community must be clear and unanimous.”
He said this is especially true regarding the Constitution, which the Taliban want rewritten. This document was drafted in the wake of the Taliban’s human rights abuses and designed to safeguard against future violations. It contains explicit protections for women and minorities. “Protection of these existing values must be non-negotiable,” he insisted.
Citing a survey of 8,000 people by the Institute of War and Peace Studies, he said it found that 35 per cent of respondents fear that a drawdown of international troops will bring more conflict, and that 42 per cent favour their continued presence. Close to 70 per cent have faith in the Government and 65 per cent favour disarming the Taliban, he said. Ninety-five per cent favour the indictment and prosecution of war criminals and rights abusers.
The international community has enormous leverage in the aid it provides, which going forward, should be done on a strictly conditional basis. “We do not want go back,” he said. “We cannot have another 20 years of isolation and misery.”
In the ensuing dialogue, delegates denounced that near-record violence in Afghanistan has cast a shadow over the expected launch of long-awaited peace talks between the Government and the Taliban, with several calling for a ceasefire and adherence to the 2020 Doha agreement forged with the United States. The parties must approach the talks in a spirit of commitment, as the process will not be easy, several agreed.
Germany’s representative pointed out that the persistently high level of attacks by Taliban against Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, like the current escalation around Kunduz, is diametrically opposed to the creation of an environment conducive for peace negotiations. The Council should welcome the start of intra-Afghan negotiations that might occur in the coming days. The international community must encourage both sides to take constructive and confidence-building steps towards successful negotiations and peace. Commending the role of UNAMA, he said that Germany and Indonesia have started engaging with all Council members to renew the Mission’s mandate. The COVID-19 crisis will continue to affect Afghanistan for years to come. Beyond safety and security, Afghanistan needs continued and reliable international assistance. The 2020 Afghanistan Conference in Geneva, co-hosted by Finland and Afghanistan, will be a milestone for the future support.
Indonesia’s representative stressed the need to advance the intra-Afghan negotiation, noting that the world is now waiting for the talks to start. This would be a historical moment to finally open the door for the parties to discuss what the future of a stable and prosperous Afghanistan will look like. However, violence and civilian casualties remain high. All sides must make civilians’ protection their top priority. The road for reconstruction and post-conflict recovery would require economic growth. The role of regional cooperation and international support will be crucial, including UNAMA. As the co-penholder on Afghanistan with Germany, his delegation will continue to garner effective support for the country, including through timely renewal of a quality UNAMA mandate.
The United Kingdom’s delegate said Afghans and the international community are not only working to end the conflict. “We are working to ensure that Afghans of all ethnicities, tribes, sexes, backgrounds can live in a country at peace,” he assured. As such, it is essential that intra-Afghan talks are fully inclusive and ensure transitional justice for victims of conflict. Groups who suffered greatly under Taliban rule must have confidence that their rights will be protected. As co-chair of the Group of Friends of Women of Afghanistan, the United Kingdom has made women’s participation in the peace process a priority. He commended the Government for removing obstacles that now allow intra-Afghan talks to begin. The Taliban must demonstrate that they are a credible partner by ending the violence. “They cannot expect to be accepted back into Afghan society when they continue to attack,” he said. They must break completely with all terrorist groups, including Al-Qaida, and engage in the negotiations. As one of the largest donors in Afghanistan, the United Kingdom provides assistance through the United Nations Humanitarian Response Plan to combat COVID-19.
The representative of France said the peace process will only succeed if democratic gains made over the last 20 years are preserved, stressing: “We cannot accept a return to the past.” Human rights, freedom of the press, women’s participation in political life and attention to the needs of conflict victims are all required. Urging the Taliban to respect the 29 February agreement, notably by severing their ties with international terrorist organizations, he said reducing violence must be a priority. Attacks on civilians and health infrastructure are “absolutely unacceptable” and every effort must be made to implement resolution 2532 (2020). On the economic front, he said the European Union’s support at the upcoming donors’ conference will be conditional on the respect for democratic governance and human rights. Commitments made to combat drugs and terrorism must also be upheld, especially as Afghanistan will continue to be bound by the freely ratified international conventions, particularly those relating to human rights.
Belgium’s representative said Afghans have made progress in realizing women’s rights, as guaranteed by the Constitution, and he commended the Government for its efforts. “All eyes are currently focused on the intra-Afghan peace talks,” he said, reiterating the need for women — of diverse backgrounds — to participate in them. He pressed all sides to immediately end the violence, condemning attacks against women-led non-governmental organizations, educators, health workers and journalists. Urging all parties to implement the recommendations by the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict, he said any future support expected from Belgium or its European Union partners will be conditional upon Afghanistan’s commitment to protect the rights of women and girls. He also expected women’s rights to remain at the centre of UNAMA’s mandate.
The Russian Federation’s representative said Moscow has always stood — and will stand ready — to facilitate negotiations. “We are here to enable Afghan parties to find an acceptable-to-all agreement” he said, which is the goal of its efforts within “Troika plus Pakistan” and its own interaction with all Afghan sides. The swift start of intra-Afghan negotiations remains the highest priority. He expressed hope that all remaining hurdles to their launch will be removed in the coming days and that no further delays will take place. Expressing serious concern over the presence of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) — especially its sleeper cells in the north-east and diversifying methods and channels for recruiting civilians — he also pointed to the threat of drug cultivation, production, trade and trafficking, which finance terrorist activity. He expressed concern over delays by the United Nations Development Programme in submitting the annual Afghanistan Opium Survey, noting that the Russian Federation continues to train narcotics squads from Afghanistan, Pakistan and countries in Central Asia.
The Dominican Republic’s representative expressed hope that the formation of an inclusive Government can stabilize Afghanistan, citing the appointment of High Council for National Reconciliation members as a positive step. He called for an inclusive Afghan-led process, with the full and equal participation of women and youth. He deplored in the strongest terms attacks against civilians, calling on parties to immediately end such violence and uphold a humanitarian ceasefire. Parties also must fulfil their humanitarian law obligations. The Government meanwhile should swiftly pass the child protection law, while children detained for their actual or alleged association with armed groups should be released.
The representative of South Africa urged Afghan leaders to fully adhere to the 2020 political agreement and enhance cooperation, including in the appointment of Cabinet Ministers and the filling of other Government positions. Expressing support for the necessary inclusion of women in the Afghan peace negotiations, he pushed the parties to ensure greater opportunities for all Afghan women and girls. More broadly, he called for an end to the violence, especially the grave violations against children, and for perpetrators to be brought to justice through timely, systematic, impartial and independent investigations. UNAMA’s continued engagement with national, regional and international stakeholders is vital to bringing about long-term peace and security.
The representative of the United States said that among those killed in recent attacks in and around Kabul was Abdul Baqi Amin, a scholar and activist firmly committed to peace. Condemning this and all acts of terrorism, she urged all actors to deny spoilers the opportunity to shake the faith of those demanding peace now. Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani’s decree paving the way for the Government’s release of Taliban members allows for intra-Afghan negotiations to soon begin. But delays in implementing the May 2020 political agreement between Mr. Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah threaten governance reforms and she called for the creation of an inclusive Government. Women’s participation is vital to achieving economic progress and their rights must be both protected and advanced. “The United States has spoken clearly on what will happen if these rights are not maintained,” she said, stressing that no current or future Government should count on international donor support. “It is utterly cruel and incomprehensible that we have to be excited about something that should be a given”. She went on to strongly condemn the attempted assassination of negotiator Fawzia Koofi, pressing the Council to ensure that UNAMA’s mandate is focused on the core issues that will support the Government in achieving peace.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines insisted that more is expected of the United Nations in leading global efforts to help peacefully resolve the conflict in Afghanistan and coordinate humanitarian assistance. She encouraged donors to renew their support and to cooperate with the Organization. Emphasizing the importance of regional consensus, she pressed regional partners to engage constructively in support of an Afghan-led and owned peace process, strengthen relations and facilitate direct talks with the Taliban. She strongly condemned all violence directed at civilians, Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, the United Nations and other humanitarian personnel, and reaffirmed serious concerns over the number of civilian casualties reported by UNAMA in its mid-year update on the issue. The rights of all Afghans must be respected, in line with international law and the country’s Constitution, she assured.
The representative of Niger, Council president for September, spoke in his national capacity, stressing that peace in Afghanistan can only come about through a negotiated political solution. Welcoming the latest measures taken by the Afghanistan Government, including the release of 4,600 prisoners, he expressed hope that all remaining obstacles will be resolved towards intra-Afghan dialogue. A reduction in violence would be another step towards the consolidation of peace and reconciliation. Further, the constitutional rights of Afghan women in the peace process must be protected and strengthened, and the gains over the past two decades — including human and minority rights as enshrined in the Constitution — must be preserved. He encouraged Afghanistan’s friends and donor countries to continue their much-needed support.
Also participating in the meeting were representatives of China, Estonia, Tunisia, Viet Nam and Afghanistan.
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division