Killings, suffering of Afghanistan’s people ‘must end now’, UN Special Representative tells UNSC, demanding greater action by global community
New York: With the deadline for the withdrawal of international troops under the United States-Taliban agreement approaching, the six months into Afghanistan’s latest round of peace talks between the government and the Taliban in Doha remaining slow, and the first two months of 2021 registering a spate of brutal attacks deliberately targeting civilians, a senior United Nations official in the country has told the United Nations Security Council members that “we are moving into a period of great uncertainty”.
Sounding alarm about soaring rates of violence that continue to hamper humanitarian efforts and erode public confidence more broadly, Deborah Lyons, who is Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), told the UNSC last night (IST)on March 23, 2021 during a videoconferencing meeting, “We always knew that this would be a complicated peace.”
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Describing the UNSC 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 escalation in attacks against civilians was 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. She pointed out that in the first two months of 2021 more than 80 Afghans — including media staff, civil society, members of the judiciary, religious scholars and Government officials — had lost their lives. She briefed the UNSC members that Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant—Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP) had claimed responsibility for 25 violent attacks in the last quarter.
Lyons also spotlighted a deepening humanitarian crisis and the threat of drought in the country. “Food insecurity is at record levels, with more than 40 per cent of the population at emergency and crisis levels,” she said, and pointed out that humanitarian workers in the country continued to be targeted by threats and violence, and the impartial delivery of aid was obstructed. She emphasized that such acts were illegal and unjustifiable, and recalled that she recently raised those issues with Taliban leaders and her office had been working with the Afghan Government to ensure its legislative framework protects the space of non-governmental organizations carrying out humanitarian work.
Meanwhile, she noted that Afghanistan seemed 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. She further called on Member States to contribute generously to the humanitarian response plan, which was only 6 per cent funded, while warning that money alone was not enough.
Lyons at the same time commended both the Afghan government and the Taliban for continuing to show their commitment to remaining at the negotiating table in Doha – “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.” 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 had created real grievances on all sides, as well as a deep lack of trust among the parties, while referring to the “genuine and profound” differences between the Islamic Republic Government and the Taliban over their desired end State. She said addressing those issues will continue to require patience and commitment on both sides and any lasting peace settlement must consider the views and concerns of all Afghans and not just those of an elite few. The Representative of Afghanistan in the Security Council endorsed Lyons’ suggestion and said the attacks in the country were “meant to dissuade the participation of women and youth in the peace process, create widespread panic and crush our aspirations for peace”. She recalled 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.
Lyons assented: “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 and 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, Lyons meanwhile, 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.”
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,” he said, adding that the onslaught of attacks had 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.
Emphasizing that Afghans were exhausted by war and yearned for peace, she underlined the urgent need to bring the population relief from relentless violence. 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.
While Russia told the UNSC that Moscow has consistently supported the ongoing peace process led by the Afghans themselves, including through the expanded “Troika” ( Russia, the United States, China and Pakistan”, China recalled that the meeting of the extended Troika in Moscow helped to build consensus and align all the parties behind the peace talks. The USA, while calling ongoing attacks as “simply unacceptable”, pointed out that the meeting last week of the extended “Troika” had highlighted the growing consensus on the need to accelerate the negotiation process and expressed hope that the upcoming meeting in Turkey will also complement the Doha process.
(It may be mentioned that the representatives of the Government and the Taliban sat at the same table for the first time in 2018 under this Troika umbrella).
The representative of India called for immediate dismantling of terrorist safe havens and sanctuaries in Afghanistan, with terrorist supply chains broken. He said that an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire in Afghanistan was “the need of the hour”, and expressed 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.”
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.
– global bihari bureau