New York

03 July 2013

Deputy Secretary-General's press conference on return from his visit to Afghanistan

DSG: It is very good to be with you again in these new quarters.  As Eduardo just said, I’m just back from a five-day visit which is unusually long for a visit for me, but I felt that it was very important to not only visit Kabul but also other parts of the country.  And I was in Kandahar in the south all of Sunday.  I arrived last night [in New York].

But I wanted first to give you a little sense of the situation in the field, and this goes beyond Afghanistan.

When I woke up yesterday morning in Afghanistan, I learnt that the reason I had been awoken in the night, around 4.30 am, was a suicide attack on premises close to the UN compound, maybe two kilometres away from the compound.  There had been a shoot-out and, in the end, 11 people were killed, and this was right in the neighbourhood of the UN compound.  And I learnt that the whole staff of the UN spent the time, from 4.30 am onwards, in the bunker.  And I had a meeting with them at 8.30 am, and they looked fresh and fully ready for their job.  And I just felt I wanted to pay tribute to our field people.  I have been leading some of the discussions on Mali, on DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], on Syria, on the situation around Lebanon and Jordan, and these are the conditions under which our colleagues are working.  And it was quite a long discussion on whether I should go to this UN compound at all, because of security concerns.  And I felt that I do it for one time, but they go there every day.  

So that I felt now, that especially since this couple of weeks we lost people in Somalia, our colleagues in ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] - their office in Jalalabad attacked and, of course, [the] IOM lost people - International Organization for Migration.  And I feel sometimes, here in New York we forget the field perspective, the conditions under which we work.  And, of course, this is only a reflection of the violence that affects the civilians and the people in these countries which is, of course, much, much larger.  But I felt I wanted to pay tribute to our colleagues and sometimes we become numb, a little bit, about this type of violence.  We see 11 people dead – a little notice in page 16, compared to 25 in another place earlier.  We sort of get used to this type of brutalization that goes on in the world.  I felt I wanted to say that since this was my impression yesterday morning.  I thought about it on the plane.

I had a visit where I met President [Hamid] Karzai, four of his Ministers – Foreign Minister, Defence Minister, [Minister of] the Interior and the Minister of Agriculture.  I met his advisors.  I met the Speakers of Parliament, both houses – the Wolesi Jirga and the Mesherano Jirga.  We talked mainly about the election laws that are to be adopted and signed by the President, I hope. 

I met also with the Governor in Kandahar and Members of the High Peace Council, the ones that we hope in the end will be talking to the Taliban in Doha.  And I met with the Independent Electoral Commission and women’s groups and human rights representatives.  So it was a very intense and extremely interesting visit.

I conveyed, of course, the United Nations’ continued commitment to help the people of Afghanistan proceed with this important transition.  I heard one theme that came back in practically all my meetings [which] was the importance of protecting the achievements of the past decade.  You have progress in health, education, human rights and women, as compared to the previous period and several other countries in the region.

And it is, of course, extremely important for the people of Afghanistan, but also for the United Nations and the many nations that have contributed to this transition, that the country does not fall back into the nightmares of war and the extreme poverty and violations of human rights that we saw earlier.  And therefore I conveyed that the intention of the United Nations is to continue this partnership with Afghanistan provided, of course, that this is the wish of the Government and the Afghan people.  And we will provide our support where and when needed, following modalities that respect Afghan leadership and sovereignty. 

ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, is due to pull out, not completely, but largely at the end of next year following a very important Presidential election to be held on 5 April.  And that election is a make or break event.  It will be of historic significance, tht the election is free and fair and, of course, that you will have wide participation in that election.  When I visited Kandahar,  I was concerned that not many women there had registered so far and many were not planning to vote.  I hope there will be measures and information coming out to the people, so that this will be a representative election.

In terms of security, it is a difficult period.  There is clearly improvement on security.  The Afghan armed forces are now up at over 350,000 personnel, but still there are pockets of insecurity and many civilians have lost their lives this year.  Thousands of civilians have been killed since the beginning of the year and more than 2,000 injured.  And there has been an increase in civilian casualties compared to the same period in 2012.

The talks in Doha are, as you know, interrupted.  I would hope that it is a bump in the road, rather than a major road repair, if I may say so.  I would think it would be in both sides’ interests to talk, since the nightmare of a continued or reawakened conflict should be clear to both sides. We would hope that these talks, which must be Afghan-led, will proceed.  And, if the United Nations in any way can play a meaningful role in this regard, we are, of course, prepared to do so.

The last thing I would like to mention is the need for development  assistance and humanitarian assistance,  As you may know, there was a donor conference in Tokyo last year on Afghans’ needs and there was also a separate meeting in Chicago focussed on security matters.  They raised, respectively, $16 billion in Tokyo and $4.1 billion in Chicago.  We have an additional $470 million humanitarian appeal, where only 40% is funded.  So there is a need now for the international community to stick to their obligations, to live up to their obligations.  But, of course, as I understand from the senior officials meeting on the Tokyo meeting - the follow-up meeting that took place today in Afghanistan - there are expectations from both sides, legitimate expectations.  From the Government of Afghanistan, of course, to live up to pledges is such a clear and understandable expectation.  But also I remember, I know, from both before my visit, and I have been, by the way, leading a task force on Afghanistan for a year now, there are also great expectations on the side of the international community that, in fact, Afghanistan lives up to its own obligations, primarily to have the election take place as planned for April next year and to pass the electoral laws.   And there I was gratified and very encouraged by the fact that both Speakers in the Houses told me that they were going to quickly solve this issue.  Both of them have passed the legislation with some differences and they now have a conciliation committee to be set up in the next few days.  This session of parliament expires around the middle of the month and we hope very much, in spite of Ramadan starting 9 July, that they will finish the work.  President Karzai assured me that he would sign the legislation once it is passed in this joint committee which is set up, hopefully, in the next few days.

So these expectations were also expressed today, I understand from my colleagues in Afghanistan, and there were also expressions of continued progress on the area of human rights and not least on the area of women.  And I think the donor community is watching very carefully developments in those two issues – human rights and women’s situation.  I think this could end my introduction on this subject of Afghanistan.

Q: Mr. Deputy Secretary-General, welcome on behalf of the UN Correspondents’ Association, welcome back and thank you for the briefing.

My question is about the refugees, Afghan refugees. The UN announced this week that there were 1.6 million refugees and that the Pakistan Government is cooperating in protecting them, and that over five million have returned since 2002. Given the heightened conflicts that you yourself saw when you were there, and the drone strikes, do you think that this kind of repatriation will continue apace?  Thank you.

DSG: I would say that the security situation is improved in several parts of the country. There are parts where it has not been improved, particularly out in the countryside and in the south. But all in all I would say that the security situation has improved, which should lead to the conclusion that there will be return of refugees.

We hope very much that that will be the case, and UNHCR is very active in this. They have their own appeals. I don’t know the figures, but the two countries that are hosting most of the refugees are Pakistan, as you mentioned, but also Iran, which has huge numbers of refugees.

We hope very much also that the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan will improve. It is an absolutely strategic relationship with great significance for the security of both countries, I would say. I would hope very much that the contacts between the two countries will continue. There have been invitations in both directions, and I hope that there will be a dialogue, which would of course also have an effect on the flow of refugees across the border. We hope, of course, that with the elections coming in April, that there would also be an interest of people outside to be able to take part in the democratic process in the country. So, we hope for improved security and of course improved interest in the institutions.

Q: Did you get an earful on the drone strikes in both Afghanistan and Pakistan?

DSG: Well, I was not in Pakistan this time. I know it is a problem in both countries. The issue is a serious issue for most political quarters in Afghanistan. President Karzai expressed his concern about what this had done to public opinion vis-à-vis the United States, so it is a problem. But fortunately the numbers of drone attacks have diminished considerably.

Q: Thank you. I just wanted to ask you, in follow up to Pamela’s question, and also given the situation in Afghanistan in the past and now, the statements given even today, they question Pakistan’s sincerity. It doesn’t seem that there is going to be any peaceful coexistence between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but the thing is, there are fears that are being expressed by the human rights and other bodies, that the Taliban will make a comeback and that they will again restore the same status that was there before 2001, and that it will again undermine America’s interests or the world’s interests. Do you think that those things are there and that they could again come to fruition?

DSG: Well, I can only say that political logic tells me that Pakistan and Afghanistan should have coinciding interests in reducing the role of the Taliban in both countries and reducing the level of violence, which we have seen so drastically and so tragically both in Pakistan and in Afghanistan.

I would hope that these talks will continue. There is hope that there could be a new start with the new Government of Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan. There have been invitations in both directions. They have not agreed on the sequence of visits. But there is a dialogue on several levels, and I would very much hope that one would have an open and very, very honest discussion about future interests here.

But you know better than most that it is an historically very complicated relationship, and you have also difficulties with both sides having indications that the border is not fully respected, and that is also related to the movements of the Taliban. So it is a very complicated issue. But I would say that the future of Afghanistan will, to a great degree, to the most dominant degree, be determined by Afghans themselves. But undoubtedly it is important that also the regional actors play a positive and constructive role, and that there is a relationship between the democratically elected Government of Afghanistan and not least the Government of Pakistan.

Q:  There were human rights in Afghanistan which was undermined as soon as the Taliban came into power, and it seemed that this Government under Mr. Karzai has not been able to do much about it, either. Do you think that at some point in time they are going to come to a realization that the rights of women and the girl child should also be protected because it doesn’t seem to be happening at this time?

DSG: You know there have been ten, no, twelve years now of progress, not only in terms of legislation - we should really give the Afghan political life, both the Government and the political parties, credit for having established, for instance, an extremely good Constitution, a Constitution which is absolutely clear on human rights and on women’s rights. Here you have a generation that has grown up with this new atmosphere, as compared to the previous one, which you know better than most how disturbing that was, during that period.

I hope also that there is a new world where you have social media, you have modern communications.  This is particularly evident in the cities. I was in Kabul and in Kandahar and noticed this new factor.  But of course it is a different life out in the villages.  You see that in many, many countries, this difference between cities and the local communities. There, the traditions are very conservative, where women don’t play the role that they do in many other countries. For instance, I noticed the women’s participation in registration for the votes in the Kandahar province were very low. So it is a cultural issue also. We should, of course, from the western world, not hope that we will think that we can make them achieve this overnight. It is a process which has to be growing in Afghanistan, but which I think is there. I think these rights and these new conditions are there to stay. I hope so very much. There is a significant responsibility, not only for the Afghan political life and Afghan leaders and Afghan people, but also for the outside world to remind of this very important new achievement.

Q: I want to thank you for doing this briefing so soon after you got back, and also I hope that we will have some questions on more general UN items, after, it should be... There is DRC, Haiti and other things going on.

DSG: Sure, sure.

Q: On Afghanistan itself, I wanted to ask you, in your conversations with President Karzai, did this issue of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission come up? There has been a lot of controversy about people that he named, one of whom was a former Taliban minister, one of whom was a former warlord, or was described as that. What do you make, some people are saying that he is trying to undermine that body because it has been critical of his Government on the human right commission. Do you think it is a backsliding?

And also I have tried to figure this out in your absence: you had said the last time that you gave us a briefing that in your function on Sri Lanka, that you had begun an internal review and that it would be finished by mid-June, so I had asked here and didn’t really get anywhere, so where does it stand on that? Thank you.

DSG: I discussed the issue of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, both with the President and with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and of course with the Chair of the Commission itself, a very impressive personality.

The discussion is going on inside the Afghan political life about the composition of the group, and as you know, there has been a statement also by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay; and what I said to my Afghan interlocutors was that, in fact, you are spelling out in your own Constitution, the criteria for membership in that Commission. They are very far-reaching. It is up to you to live up to this very good Constitution. It is very much an internal Afghan matter, but it certainly an issue of great concern also to people inside Afghan political life, and the matter was brought up to me by several human rights groups that I met. We will see.  I am also told that the matter came up also at the senior officials’ meeting that was taking place today in Afghanistan, from the development partners.

On the follow up of the Sri Lanka report, I was given the responsibility to set up a working group, and they delivered their report to me on 17 June. It is now up to me and my colleagues in the Executive Office of the Secretary-General to go through these recommendations and draw the appropriate conclusions from that report. It was a serious report, that there were systemic failures of the UN system, and others also, not least Member States and the Security Council. But we took it upon ourselves to analyse these systemic failures, and the working group came up with some very important conclusions. It is premature for me to, at this stage, tell you about the contents. I will report to the Secretary-General as soon as we have analysed all these recommendations of the Working Group, but I can go so far as to say that we need to be better prepared for action when we see, at an early stage, human rights violations.

It is up to the Secretary-General to decide, but we will work with maximum transparency, of course. But the preparedness to see human rights early warning signals is crucial, but also the different measures we can take to better protect civilians, and then, above all, the need to have the possibility to react quickly in situations. But we will come back later on this issue. I would hope that we will be able to finish this work in the near future.

Q: I am going to change a little bit the subject, and I want to see what is your take, and the UN’s , on the situation in Egypt, especially now that the 48 hours deadline from the military is getting to an end. What do you hope to see, and what do you think might happen?

DSG: Well, we continue to closely follow the situation in Egypt, of course. The situation on the ground is fluid, and we very much now hope that the Egyptians will find the way to resolve differences through peaceful and democratic means.  Non-violence and peaceful dialogue is a basic premise of the work of the United Nations, but also key to restoring stability, and we hope very much that the leaders at all levels will have responsibility now to work constructively and inclusively for the good of the country.

We appeal for tolerance and peaceful co-existence. The world is watching Egypt at this crucial moment. It will have significant impact in Egypt but also in the region, what happens there. A stable and secure Egypt is crucial for regional stability and security. And, as you may know, the Secretary-General has made statements on Egypt in the last few days.  He calls on everyone to avoid an escalation, and on everybody to exercise maximum restraint in the best interest of the county.

Q: May I ask a question about Afghanistan? What feeling did you get from Karzai about the Americans leaving? Because at times he has tried to kick them out, then he goes quiet, then he accuses them of working with the Taliban. What is his attitude, right now, about that? Is he confident that he will be able to do without them, or is he pleased that they are going? How will the UN mission change when international troops go? I see that a lot of offices have been closed; I am reading the SG’s report. It looks like you are downsizing…

DSG:  This is a question which is best answered by President Karzai and his colleagues. But I generally got the impression that he certainly recognizes the role that the international community has played to make it possible for Afghanistan to go in the direction that we all recognize is very positive.

On the other hand he is very strongly making the point that Afghanistan has now moved to a phase where they want to be considered more – and I hope you see the quotation marks - like a “normal” country, and that we would act in the full respect of the sovereignty of the nation.  There are discussions going on, which are not yet finished, on the continued presence of military personnel.  As you know, it will not be a drastic departure, but many countries are considering now the numbers who would remain, for training purposes and other purposes.

That is being negotiated with the United States.  But there has been also another bump on the road, as you know, on the talks on the agreement, on the security agreement. They are on hold after the Doha office experience, as you may recall.

But I am hopeful, from my conversations, that these talks will also continue. It is in the interests of both sides to have a bilateral security agreement.

On the UN presence, they certainly welcome that the United Nations, as I did, expressed its commitment to stay there, in whatever scenario you have in Afghanistan. They would hope that the UN would reflect the new realities of the countries, and that we would define our role together with the Afghan democratically-elected Government. That is what we are doing. These consultations that take place by Jan Kubis, who plays a very important role for my visit by the way - our Special Representative, Jan Kubis - he has done a great job and is doing a great job, and he was with me in every meeting. 

These consultations go on, both in the area, and also here in New York, where I frequently meet Amb. [Zahir] Tanin of Afghanistan. So the presence is built on agreement with the host nation.

And then we will see also what the Security Council will decide.  They are going to discuss both the ISAF extension, in October, and then another mandate or a continuation of the present mandate in March next year. So, we will hope that we will play a role, concretely, I would say. We are definitely needed, I understand from a meeting with the donor community, or the development partners as I prefer to call them. In aid and donor coordination, it was requested by everybody that we are playing an active role in aid coordination.

Then, there is the need that we possibly could play in the political area, particularly the elections. And if we are needed for the reconciliation process later on, we are ready to do so, if requested by the parties, of course.

I have a background, as you know, in developmental and also humanitarian affairs.  I hope that we will play a role in both health, education, human rights, women’s rights, and help to develop a programme together with our Afghan colleagues. And of course humanitarian assistance, and what the President was just saying, the refugee returns.  These are areas where I think that we can be helpful.  But it will build on an agreement with the host nation, and of course on the willingness of the international community to support this, which was discussed today in Kabul.

Q:  Mr. Deputy Secretary-General, I had not really intended to ask a question, but the following occurred to me, which I think is of some importance. We have a saying in America that all politics is local. It seems to me in a developing country like Afghanistan that all politics is economic. What is the UN doing, what have you perhaps heard while you were there, what are others doing in order to help this country develop a serious viable economy that is dependent on something other than poppies?

DSG: You are right. Success of the policies of the Government and the role of the international community should be judged by what happens on the ground, that the conditions of life for the people are improved.

And of course here political and economic factors interplay. There is an interaction between the two. If there is clarity on the road ahead – elections and the continued respect of the Constitution in different aspects – then that instills confidence in the outside world in terms of investment and trade. That has to be recognized. On the other hand, I am not the one to paint a idyllic, rosy picture.  It is going to be very difficult if this departure, this withdrawal, takes place with such magnitude, which it is, after all. You will have effects on employment. There is already a problem of youth unemployment. By the way, it seems to be a global huge issue. But in Afghanistan, with this transition, which could be very drastic, it could also have negative economic effects.

That is why these commitments from Tokyo and Chicago are so crucial. But they are also related to the political developments.

But I very much hope that they will turn away from the enormous insecurity which exists. You know, it is almost fortress-like in different parts of Kabul, and you don’t travel lightly out in the country. That is of course affecting economic life also. So, I would very much hope that there will be an improvement in the security situation, which will have, clearly, definite economic effects.

Q:  My question is regarding the narcotic business in Afghanistan. The Russians have expressed serious concern that the pull-out from Afghanistan will result in widespread narcotic business in the region, as well as organized crime spreading. Do you really recommend that the pullout from Afghanistan should be as fast as it is, or would you subscribe to that opinion that it should be slowed down?

DSG: I think it is important to move from a military and security environment to an economic development. But that is not happening overnight. There has to be a smooth transition. I think there are great risks that if the transition is too drastic, for instance when it comes to international cooperation and bilateral programmes in the drugs area, that this could have very negative effects.

You know, of course, the figures: 75-80 percent of the world’s opium is coming from Afghanistan, and more than half is coming the southern part of Afghanistan, particularly the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.

It is very important that these programmes will continue. Before I went to Afghanistan, I spent two days in Vienna, and I was speaking at the launch of the World Drugs Report, and I remember talking to colleagues at the UNODC [the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime] and how concerned they were that we would leave too drastically and not continue those programmes. I would, from our side, say that this will be a priority area for the UN.  I should have mentioned it earlier when I listed the priorities.

But I would also hope that the bilateral, or the different governments, who certainly in their own countries have these huge, horrible drug problems, should realise the importance of continued programmes in this area.

Q: My follow-up was basically that there are now reports going out of the country that there is a full-fledged military coup under way in Egypt. And that, do you think you are in touch with the Egyptian Government or the military as to what is happening over there?

DSG: We, like you, follow the situation hour by hour, and very much hope that the great Egyptian people will find their way to resolve their differences through peaceful, and I would say, democratic means.

The perspective that you paint is a very worrisome one, and would have serious effects, not only for the country but for the region, and for principles for which we all stand. So, let us just hope now that restraint is being exercised and that the insight of wisdom is prevalent. But it is a very fluid and dangerous situation.