Human rights for all citizens in Afghanistan

7 Dec 2009

Human rights for all citizens in Afghanistan

KABUL - The Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan Robert Watkins, today spoke at the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in advance of Human Rights Day on 10 December. Read his full speech here.

Honourable Minister Spanta, Dr Sima Samar, distinguished guests:

First, I wish to thank the Minister of Foreign Affairs for inviting UNAMA to this important event. It is a pleasure for me to be with you on behalf of SRSG Kai Eide to celebrate Human Rights day.

This auspicious day honours 61 years of world-wide effort to push back discrimination – the theme of this year’s celebration – and to advance our common agenda that men and women everywhere enjoy their human rights which are fundamental to their safety, dignity, happiness and well-being.

On this day we should take time to consider how far we have come in terms of human rights protection and promotion and the nature of the challenges ahead. Human rights are, as we know, inherent to all people, regardless of ethnic or tribal identities, gender, income differences, social status, or where a person may live.

And 64 years ago, the United Nations was founded on the principle of respect for fundamental human rights as a means of securing peace and prosperity for all the peoples of the world. United Nations involvement with Afghanistan dates back more than sixty years; Afghanistan joined the United Nations in 1947 and, since then, the UN has been a constant partner of the Afghan people to help them fully enjoy their human rights.

A number of important gains have been made particularly in terms of enhancing the right to health and education and identifying the need to undo the discrimination that marginalizes and impoverishes a very large swathe of the Afghan population. Unquestionably, an urgent priority confronting the Afghan people, and its international partners, is the interrelated challenge of peace, development and human rights.

Past experience has shown that this is no easy task; there is an urgent need to build institutions that are transparent and accountable and responsive to the needs of Afghans. Together, we need to strengthen the rule of law, including an effective police service and judicial system that have the faith and trust of the Afghan public; and we need to help the impoverished climb out of the depths of grinding poverty and the misery it entails, daily, for millions of Afghans.

I have been in Afghanistan for nearly six months. During this very short time, I have met many Afghans, men and women, from all parts of the country, from all walks of life. What has continually struck me is the relentless desire for justice of the Afghan people.

It is clear, however, that injustice and human rights violations are neither accidental nor inevitable. They are symptomatic of the underlying problems that contribute to, and perpetuate cycles of violence, lawlessness, and widespread impunity.

A key driver of injustice in Afghanistan, and related instability, is the abuse of power. Linked to this is the issue of pervasive corruption. Re-establishing the rule of law and ending impunity for criminal conduct remains crucial to creating durable peace and justice in this country. Known violators of human rights should be punished, not rewarded. Ignoring this issue has inevitable consequences and serves to cast a dark shadow over the country and its prospects for a democratic future.

There is an urgent need for a new deal for the people of Afghanistan. This necessarily entails an inclusive political agenda shaped by the values inherent in human rights and genuine efforts to give them meaningful effect. A national dialogue, that allows for all voices to be heard, particularly the voices of those who historically have been compelled to remain silent, is very much needed today. The need to secure freedom of expression, therefore, is paramount; without it, large sections of society will continue to feel marginalized and powerless.

The issue of accountability and justice has to be a priority in any dialogue geared to the realization of peace and reconciliation.

2009 as we have all seen, very sadly, has seen an intensification of the armed conflict. The worsening security situation has grave humanitarian consequences, hindering efforts to undertake timely and effective life-saving humanitarian action.
This year, I am sad to say, has seen the highest civilian death toll since 2001 – with anti-government elements responsible for the largest number of casualties.

However, I am pleased to note that there have been some positive steps by international military forces to reduce civilian casualties; such measures include improved transparency of command structures and tactical directives that prioritize measures to safeguard the lives of civilians. As SRSG Kai Eide has publicly stated all of the conflicting parties must make every effort to minimise civilian casualties. Pursuant to its mandate, UNAMA will continue to monitor, report and advocate for the protection of civilians.

But another challenge that we can ill afford to neglect is the human rights of Afghanistan’s women and girls.

As noted earlier, HR Day 2009 is focused on non-discrimination. The most manifest example of discrimination today in Afghanistan is, unquestionably, the “second class” status of the women and girls of this country. The fact that twenty-five per cent of seats in parliament are allocated to women is commendable and a huge achievement for a country where less than 10 years ago this would have been unimaginable. However, for the vast majority, to be born female is to face a lifetime of injustices that are largely responsible for the short life expectancy and high maternal mortality rates that characterize the lot of women in Afghanistan.

It has been repeatedly stated, a country cannot prosper if it denies half its population the opportunity to participate in all aspects of social and economic life. True prosperity is only achieved when all citizens – men, women, girls and boys – benefit equitably from, and have the opportunity to contribute to, their society’s development.

Violence against women in Afghanistan is an acute problem of profound proportions. UNAMA’s own field-based research reveals that sexual violence remains widespread in all parts of the country, and threats, harassment, and attacks against women occur unfortunately on a daily basis.

We need to confront this issue head on. We need male voices to say that violence against women is neither tolerable nor excusable.

The UN department of Human Rights has been closely following legislative developments affecting the rights of Afghan women. The recently published law on the Elimination of Violence against Women is an important step in the right direction; it explicitly criminalizes rape – something that we have all been advocating for. As currently drafted, many provisions of the law will, however, fail to meet the original aims of the legislation. I do hope that when Parliament discusses the law it will recommend amendments that are needed to adequately protect the rights of women.

The reinvigorated Compact that I have been calling for between the Government and its people needs to ensure that the voices of women and other discriminated groups are heard and valued including with respect to reconciliation efforts.

I cannot, of course, cover in detail all the human rights challenges that we are today facing in Afghanistan – which we know are not only widespread but also deep-rooted. But I hope that my remarks on some of the challenges we face, has enabled us to reflect on the journey we need to take together to fully realize human rights in Afghanistan. We should not be afraid to congratulate ourselves on the progress made so far, so long as it is tempered with the understanding that much more needs to be done.

The United Nations remains committed to our joint efforts to foster an enabling environment for the enjoyment of all human rights by all the citizens of Afghanistan.