Six months into Afghanistan’s latest round of peace talks, progress remains slow and demands strong support from the global community, the senior United Nations official in the country told the Security Council today, while also sounding alarm about soaring rates of violence that continue to hamper humanitarian efforts and erode public confidence more broadly.
“We always knew that this would be a complicated peace,” said Deborah Lyons, who is Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), as she briefed the 15-member Council during a videoconference meeting. Describing today’s meeting as a chance to take stock six months after the launch of the Afghanistan Peace Negotiations, the signing of an agreement between the United States and the Taliban and a joint declaration between Kabul and Washington, D.C., she said attacks against civilians have only escalated. The extreme violence is leading both Afghans and their international partners to voice understandable frustration. “The killings, the displacement, the suffering of the Afghan people must end now,” she stressed.
Noting that the first two months of 2021 saw a worrying spate of brutal attacks deliberately targeting civilians, she said the deaths of more than 80 Afghans — including media staff, civil society, members of the judiciary, religious scholars and Government officials — have been recorded to date. “This does not convey the full, crippling impact of the violence on Afghanistan’s civic life,” she said, adding that for every Afghan killed, many more leave their professions or plan to flee the country. Noting that Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant—Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP) claimed responsibility for 25 violent attacks in the last quarter, a steep increase, she also spotlighted a deepening humanitarian crisis and the threat of drought. Food insecurity is at record levels, with more than 40 per cent of the population at emergency and crisis levels.
Against that backdrop, she called on Member States to contribute generously to the humanitarian response plan, which is only 6 per cent funded, while warning that money alone is not enough. Humanitarian workers continue to be targeted by threats and violence, and the impartial delivery of aid is obstructed. Emphasizing that such acts are illegal and unjustifiable, she recalled that she recently raised those issues with Taliban leaders and her office has been working with the Afghan Government to ensure its legislative framework protects the space of non-governmental organizations carrying out humanitarian work. Meanwhile, Afghanistan seems to have weathered the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and vaccinations have begun thanks to donations from the Government of India and the support of the global COVAX facility.
All those developments are taking place against the backdrop of slowing progress in the peace talks in Doha, she continued, describing it as notable that both sides continue to show their commitment to remaining at the negotiating table. Progress is being made on key agenda items, but more must be done to demonstrate to Afghans that the talks are truly progressing in their best interest. Welcoming the appointment of Jean Arnault of France as the Secretary-General’s new Personal Envoy on Afghanistan and Regional Issues, she said Member States have also played a vital role in coming up with new initiatives to reinvigorate the peace process. Pointing to a proposed meeting in Turkey as another such opportunity, she stressed that such initiatives must be focused, coherent and, above all, they must reinforce rather than undermine the Doha negotiations.
She emphasized that decades of conflict have created real grievances on all sides, as well as a deep lack of trust among the parties. There are also genuine and profound differences between the Islamic Republic Government and the Taliban over their desired end State. Addressing those issues will continue to require patience and commitment on both sides, she said, adding that any lasting peace settlement must consider the views and concerns of all Afghans and not just those of an elite few. Today’s Afghanistan is not the one of 20 years ago. Its younger generation has grown up with women in positions of power, media playing a vital civic role and quality education within their reach. “These Afghans are now a majority,” she stressed, adding that they deserve to have their voices heard, both now and in the future.
Noting that by the time of her next briefing to the Council in June the proposed deadline for the withdrawal of international troops under the United States-Taliban agreement will have passed, she stated: “I hope that by then, we will be able to discuss real progress, brought about by continued negotiations in Doha, tangible outcomes from the meeting in Turkey, and, if not a ceasefire, at least a substantial de-escalation in violence,” she said. While those developments could mark a real turning point, the road ahead is still not clear and “we are moving into a period of great uncertainty”. Continued vigilance and support by all actors are needed, she stressed.
Shaharzad Akbar, Chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, also briefed the Council, stressing that the war in Afghanistan remains one of the world’s deadliest conflicts for civilians. Their ongoing targeting, which may constitute a war crime, remains an almost daily occurrence. Meanwhile, the onslaught of attacks has further diminished the country’s civic space, leading to self-censorship for journalists, human rights defenders and religious scholars, and thus impacting the quality of public engagement and debate on issues critical to Afghanistan’s present and future. While re-energized regional and international engagement could renew hopes for peace, she cautioned that rushing that process could also tip the country back into full-scale war.
Meanwhile, she said, the country’s peace talks remain dominated by a group of elite men, some of whom have themselves been responsible for perpetuating violence. Any settlement that excludes the wider public will almost certainly be short-lived and is unlikely to lead to lasting peace. “Building peace takes more than a deal among elites,” she said, calling for a more inclusive national endeavour that ensures the participation of women, minorities, youth, civil society and the vibrant Afghan media, as well as victims. A minimum of 30 per cent of the participants in the peace talks should be women, and more steps are needed to achieve full gender balance in the future.
“At the recent conference in Moscow, I, like many Afghan women, was shocked and angered to see only one Afghan woman, Dr. Habiba Sarabi, in a room full of men discussing the future of my country,” she said. Afghan women have fought for their human rights for many decades, and have made considerable progress in education, employment and political participation. They are experts everywhere, from the fields of politics to public administration, security, business, science and information technology. Excluding or marginalizing them from the main discussions about the future of Afghanistan is not only unjust and unacceptable, but unwise and unhelpful to a lasting peace.
The peace talks should also address human rights and victims’ rights, she said, calling for a robust reparations programme, a national community-based reconciliation initiative, truth-seeking process, memorialization and victim recognition. Amnesty for certain crimes is permissible at the end of conflicts, but it cannot be applied to war crimes, crimes against humanity or grave human rights violations, as impunity for such egregious actions is unlawful and undermines sustainable peace.
Emphasizing that Afghans are exhausted by war and yearn for peace, she underlined the urgent need to bring the population relief from relentless violence. The peace process must reflect the concerns and aspirations of all people, with citizens’ fundamental rights recognized and upheld — not violated or “bargained off”. Peace in Afghanistan will contribute to peace in the region and the world, she stressed, welcoming the heightened role of the United Nations and the Security Council in that process.
As Council members took the floor, many pledged their unwavering support for the people of Afghanistan as they continue on their long and difficult quest for peace. Some emphasized the need to ensure that the ongoing talks in Doha and elsewhere remain both Afghan-led and Afghan-owned, while stressing that no solution to the country’s problems can be imposed from the outside. Several delegates also pointed to the potential imminent withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan as a move that must be very carefully considered, as it may have serious security implications or risk reversing hard-won gains already achieved.
The representative of Afghanistan said that, like many developing nations, her country has been hard-hit by the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, it has witnessed a record number of security incidents targeting civilians striving for a better future. “These attacks are meant to dissuade the participation of women and youth in the peace process, create widespread panic and crush our aspirations for peace,” she stressed, recalling that earlier in March three young reporters — Mursal Wahidi, Sadia Sadat and Shahnaz Raofi — were murdered in Jalalabad. Last week, four women and a three-year-old child were killed riding a bus in Kabul. “We must all […] honour their lives by relentlessly pursuing a peace that protects our gains, our young democracy and our universal rights,” she said.
Noting that Afghanistan is simultaneously facing record levels of humanitarian need and pushing forward a COVID-19 vaccination campaign, she also cited the pressing need to address food insecurity, help returning refugees and tackle the re-emergence of polio. All those challenges underscore the urgency for a comprehensive ceasefire and efforts to achieve a durable and sustainable peace — one in which every Afghan, regardless of their gender, ethnicity or age, see themselves included and protected. Despite challenges, she said early agreements in Doha reveal the power of dialogue, while offering hope for a path forward under an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned format. She expressed cautious optimism about those strides while remaining adamant that a stronger and more genuine commitment to peace must be shown and translated into action by the Taliban, particularly considering the continued targeted attacks, its continued relationship with terrorist groups and its lack of adherence to a humanitarian ceasefire. She also voiced concern about reports of the Taliban’s preparations for a spring offensive.
Against that backdrop, she underlined the Government’s commitment to ending the conflict and achieving a sustainable peace. She also highlighted the importance of regional consensus and support, welcoming such efforts as the recent meeting of the extended Troika in Moscow and plans to hold another meeting in Turkey. She also welcomed Jean Arnault’s appointment as the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy, pledging to work closely with him. Any decisions about future peace and a political settlement should be based on the free will of the Afghan people, as expressed in free, fair and just elections, guaranteed by regional and international partners. “No peace can last in Afghanistan without securing, protecting, and promoting the gains that we have achieved over the past 20 years,” she added.
The representative of Estonia declared: “With the violence and attacks on civilians, the need for humanitarian assistance and the COVID-19 pandemic, the conditions now in Afghanistan are looking worse than they have in a decade.” It is particularly troubling to hear that the security situation in the country has deteriorated to its worst level since UNAMA’s inception, and the recent wave of deliberate attacks targeting civilians is indefensible. Emphasizing that such assassinations may be war crimes, and that they must be investigated and perpetrators held to account, he said the increasing violence is also impeding the work of humanitarian actors at a time when nearly half the population of Afghanistan requires assistance. Echoing other speakers’ calls for an immediate, permanent and comprehensive ceasefire, he went on to note that the soaring violence has contributed to diminished public confidence in the peace process. In that context, he welcomed the recent agreement to accelerate intra-Afghan talks and emphasized that the process must protect and reinforce the rights of all Afghanistan’s people, including women, youth and persons belonging to minority communities.
The representative of Norway said her country’s four overarching priorities in the Council — peace diplomacy, the equal participation of women, the protection of civilians, and climate change and security — are all highly relevant to Afghanistan, and she intends to bring these issues to the forefront. The dire humanitarian needs are driven by conflict, insecurity and natural hazards — all exacerbated by climate change. Climate change amplifies conflict risks. Sustainable solutions will require the coming together of humanitarian, development, peace and climate efforts. Welcoming initiatives towards securing international support for the Afghan peace process, including the recent meeting in Moscow and the upcoming meeting in Turkey, she said these initiatives must complement and build on the Doha talks. Norway values the proposal for a stronger United Nations role, but the Afghan parties must own the process. The full, equal and meaningful participation of women is also essential, not only at the negotiating table, but in every room where decisions about the future of Afghanistan are being made.
The representative of Niger commended the tireless efforts of UNAMA to promote peace, governance and development in Afghanistan. Coordination between all United Nations entities and other humanitarian actors is critical for optimal operational effectiveness during the pandemic. Intra-Afghan negotiations are undoubtedly a step crucial for the future of Afghanistan. Attacks and other acts of intimidation against civilians should not be used as a means of pressure to obtain concessions from the other party in the negotiations. Niger welcomes the commitment of several neighbouring countries and friends of Afghanistan to work towards finding a lasting peaceful solution to the conflict. Niger also welcomes the appointment by the Secretary-General of his new Personal Envoy for Afghanistan. Any good negotiated solution must include the protection of constitutional rights of Afghan women and youth. He also stressed the need to address the question of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants, as well as security sector reform.
The representative of Viet Nam said that, while some progress has been made, long-term peace in Afghanistan still cannot be taken for granted. Expressing concern about the alarming increase in the level of violence and civilian casualties in the country, he strongly condemned attacks by the Taliban and other terrorist groups, which targeted civilians, including women, children, students, health-care workers and civil servants. Calling for a timely, permanent ceasefire, he emphasized: “The intra-Afghan peace negotiations need a stable and conducive environment in order to succeed.” Support by the United Nations and UNAMA, regional countries and other international partners remains crucial. Women will continue to require special attention both in terms of protection and socioeconomic development and enhanced decision-making. He urged all parties to fully respect international humanitarian law and allow unhindered humanitarian services, while also calling for stronger efforts to combat the threats of terrorism, drug trafficking and crime.
The representative of Tunisia expressed regret that the negotiations taking place in Doha have not yet brought about the expected results. Reiterating his country’s support for the peace process, he stressed that there can be no military solution to the crisis and called for an immediate end to hostilities. All parties must abide by their responsibilities under international law and protect civilians, he stressed, calling for those who target civilians — acts which may constitute war crimes — to be promptly investigated and held to account. He called on the Taliban in particular to end its attacks, honour its counter-terrorism commitments and engage with the Government. He agreed with other speakers that violence must end in order for Afghans to regain confidence in the peace process, and that women must be fully and meaningfully included in all aspects of those negotiations.
The representative of France said the numerous diplomatic initiatives under way make it possible to maintain a welcoming dynamic and a prospect for peace. These initiatives help relaunch intra-Afghan peace talks within the framework of the Doha process. The full, active and effective participation of women in all formats of the peace process is essential for its long-term success. The European Union and its member States are the quasi-majority contributors of troops on the ground. Therefore, the Union has an important place in these discussions. The bloc has also committed to €1.2 billion over four years at the donors’ conference in November 2020. Access for medical and humanitarian personnel to all people in need, as well as their protection, must be guaranteed. Peace will not be sustainable as long as drug trafficking continues to gain ground. Terrorist organizations benefit from and use the resources of drug trafficking to destabilize Afghanistan as well as the region, she said, welcoming the role of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in the fight against this scourge.
The representative of Kenya expressed grave concern that terrorism persists in Afghanistan as a means for political ends, urging all parties to cease hostilities while welcoming regional and international efforts to support the peace process. The Government of Afghanistan should do more to stem the culture of impunity and ensure that the perpetrators are prosecuted. It is imperative for the parties to abide by international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians and facilitating humanitarian access. Regrettably, the widespread food insecurity grew by 146 per cent from 2019 to 2020. Sustainable peace in Afghanistan will require comprehensive and inclusive Afghan-led and -owned peace process with a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire. Women remain underrepresented in key bodies, including both negotiating teams, as well as the High Council for National Reconciliation, he pointed out, calling for their greater participation.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines noted that despite the United States-Taliban agreement of 29 February 2020 and the initiation of Afghan peace talks in September 2020, many challenges remain. In this regard, she welcomed the joint statement by the extended “Troika” on peaceful settlement in Afghanistan following the Moscow international conference, encouraging the warring parties to accelerate peace talks. The Government must better promote and protect the rights of women and children and address the needs of victims of sexual and gender-based violence in the conflict. Her country supports the second version of the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework for 2021-2025, as well as the work of UNAMA and its close cooperation with key stakeholders, including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. She also welcomed the appointment of the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy on Afghanistan and Regional Issues and his new role in strengthening relations with regional countries and supporting the peace process.
The representative of India said that an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire in Afghanistan is “the need of the hour”, expressing New Delhi’s support in achieving sustainable peace, security and stability in the neighbouring country. The gains of the last two decades must be preserved in any constitutional framework that Afghanistan designs for itself. The rights of women, minorities and the vulnerable must be protected, and respect for human rights and democracy must be ensured. Full participation of women and ethnic and religious minorities in the peace process is essential to preserve a democratic and pluralistic polity. Terrorist safe havens and sanctuaries must be dismantled immediately, with terrorist supply chains broken. India has committed over $3 billion towards development, reconstruction and capacity-building in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, and today, its developmental footprint there is spread across all 34 provinces. India has a high stake in that country, he said, welcoming the initiative to convene a meeting on Afghanistan by the United Nations later in March.
The representative of the Russian Federation said Moscow has consistently supported the ongoing peace process led by the Afghans themselves, including through the expanded “Troika” — his country, the United States, China and Pakistan. On 18 March, its regular meeting was attended by delegates of the Government and the Taliban. The representatives of Qatar and Turkey were also invited. Since its creation in 2019, the Troika mechanism has played a tangible role. Last week, it once again proved its importance and relevance, as well as its ability to give additional momentum to the peace process. He expects that developments at the meeting in Moscow will be used by the Afghans when they discuss substantive issues on the agenda. The representatives of the Government and the Taliban sat at the same table for the first time in 2018 under this Troika umbrella. There is a need to consolidate all international and regional efforts. New initiatives must be carefully contemplated. The latest report of the Secretary-General on the activities and efforts of the United Nations in Afghanistan does not sufficiently cover terrorist threats and the issue of drug trafficking. Attempts to conceal or underestimate these is unacceptable. He went on to stress the need to use the proven structures, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and its renewed Contact Group on Afghanistan, as well as the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Imposing external solutions is unacceptable. Regional and international partners must create the necessary conditions to negotiate and provide sustainable political and economic assistance.
The representative of Mexico, agreeing that Afghanistan stands at a critical juncture, appealed to the parties to redouble their efforts towards peace and avoid reversing gains already achieved. He expressed concern that women remain underrepresented at all levels of decision-making. It is notable that out of 46 members of the newly created Afghan Commission on Women’s Affairs, only nine are females. Women must be fully and meaningfully included and their voices must be heard. Efforts to preserve fundamental rights and freedoms — especially those of women, youth and minority groups — must be prioritized in the peace process. “The normalization of violence is a clear sign of social breakdown,” he stressed, condemning in the strongest terms all targeted attacks against civilians and appealing for the immediate end to the use of mines and improvised explosive devices. Recognizing the need to combat terrorism, he said all such initiatives must employ a holistic and gender-based approach in full respect for international law, and preventive efforts must tackle the root causes of the phenomenon.
The representative of China, stressing that the only way to end Afghanistan’s conflict is through a negotiated political settlement, said that as talks enter a more substantive stage the process “will not be an easy one”. However, he welcomed that the parties remain committed to staying at the negotiating table. Emphasizing that the peace process must be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned, he said the country’s future should be at the hands of the people and no solution can be imposed from the outside. He called for international support, recalling that the meeting of the extended Troika in Moscow helped to build consensus and align all the parties behind the peace talks. However, conferences should yield tangible results and should not be convened “for the sake of convening”. The international community should also help build the capacity of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces to counter organized crime and protect civilians. Serious consideration should be given to the orderly withdrawal of foreign troops, which “cannot come and go as they wish”. Citing China’s longstanding support of economic and sustainable development in Afghanistan, he spotlighted its Belt and Road initiative in particular as well as support provided throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
The representative of Ireland agreed with other speakers that today’s debate comes at a pivotal moment for Afghanistan and its people. Reiterating her calls for an end to violence and for a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire, she spotlighted the Council’s unified stance against attacks on civilians, noting that Ireland is increasing its assistance to Afghanistan to better support those in danger. It is crucial that Afghans remain engaged at the core of the peace process, including the ongoing Doha negotiations, she said, urging the parties to work in good faith in the interests of the people. Hard-won gains over the last two decades must be preserved. Noting that the international community has a role to play, she pointed out that the European Union remains a long-standing and significant donor. Ireland proudly co-chairs the United Nations Group of Friends of Peace Processes, alongside Afghanistan. Voicing concern over the low levels of female representation at last week’s meetings in Moscow, she shared the opinion expressed there by the sole female delegate, Habiba Sarabi, that “51 per cent of people should not be ignored”.
The representative of the United Kingdom said that the ongoing peace efforts must be accompanied by a reduction in violence. The Taliban is responsible for a large portion of violence, she noted, welcoming the 12 March Security Council press statement calling on the group to end targeted killings of civilians. It should be clear to the Taliban that if they want a political role in Afghanistan’s future and relief from sanctions, they must make progress in the ongoing talks and break from terrorism. Expressing support for the renewed urgency the United States diplomatic efforts have injected, as well as the appointment of the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy, she stressed that the Afghan parties and the international community should seize this opportunity. The peace talks and peace should be inclusive and preserve the rights of youth, women and minorities. The level of support from the international community will be affected by how the Afghan parties uphold inclusiveness, she emphasized.
The representative of the United States, Council President for March, speaking in her national capacity, recalled that Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Congress that Washington, D.C., is enlisting the help of international partners, including the United Nations, in support of Afghanistan’s peace. The meeting last week of the extended “Troika” highlighted the growing consensus on the need to accelerate the negotiation process, she said, expressing hope that the upcoming meeting in Turkey will also complement the Doha process. Ongoing attacks are simply unacceptable. Violence prevents progress towards sustainable peace. For peace agreements to be durable and just, the universal human rights of all, including women and minorities, must be respected. It is also critical to do more to support women and girls in Afghanistan. Violence was meant to silence. “I will not be silent,” she said, adding that Afghan women will not be either. Their strong voices must be included in discussions on their future. She also stressed the need to address the humanitarian crisis, especially acute food insecurity over 16.9 million people are facing. “These are real people, and they may die without our help,” she said, noting that the United States this past year provided $276 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and for Afghan refugees in the region.