Norah Niland, Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Afghanistan
KABUL - Transcript of press conference in Kabul by Norah Niland, Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Afghanistan.
OHCHR (NORAH NILAND): The annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Afghanistan was presented to the Human Rights Council yesterday in Geneva. The report was drafted in November last year. It outlines the many challenges faced in protecting the rights and freedoms of Afghans throughout the past year.
The High Commissioner noted that efforts to develop accountable governance and effective rule of law in Afghanistan must be strengthened. As in any society, there needs to be clear checks and balances so that power is not mismanaged or abused.
The lack of political commitment to the justice agenda is seen by the High Commissioner as an urgent concern exemplified by the Amnesty Law; it was gazetted in December 2008 but it only came to light at the end of last year. This Law relieves Afghan authorities of their obligation to investigate and prosecute, on their own initiative, those allegedly responsible for gross violations of human rights. It contravenes Afghanistan’s obligations under international law and it green-lights impunity and continued human rights violations. It ignores the grievances of victims and denies them access to justice. This Law also sends the wrong message to victims who have repeatedly called for justice and the removal of human rights violators from public office.
The Law is likely to undermine efforts to secure genuine reconciliation which is of course about bringing together different elements of a fractured society in a manner that allows them to overcome, or deal with, harmful and divisive policies, practices, and experiences. At the very minimum, there must be an acknowledgment of the grave injustices that have occurred if the long and notorious pattern of abuse is to end in this country.
Moving on from the Amnesty Law, the High Commissioner’s Report also sets out her concerns about violence against women. High Commissioner Pillay criticized the Shi’a Personal Status Law in her report as it legitimizes discriminatory practices against women. This Law is a step backward for women’s rights in Afghanistan. It contains provisions which legitimize traditional practices which are harmful to women and girls. The UN will of course continue to work with the Government, Parliament and Afghan society to end discrimination against women and girls in this country and to strengthen the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women so that it meets its stated aims. In sum, there needs to be a safe and respectful environment that is antagonistic to widespread and routine violence against women and girls.
The High Commissioner in her report also urged the Government to take steps to foster an open political environment including measures that facilitate free and fair elections later this year. In this regard, it is good to note that Ghaws Zalmay, a former journalist who was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for distributing a translated Dari version of the Quran in September 2007, received a Presidential Pardon a few days ago. I know I do not have to convince this room of the importance of freedom of expression and that freedom of the media is an essential factor in advancing democracy and accountable governance in Afghanistan.
As you are aware, the armed conflict intensified significantly in 2009, with a 14 per cent increase over 2008. This resulted in 2,412 civilians losing their lives last year. Last year deaths attributed to the armed opposition accounted for 68 per cent of civilian deaths; pro-government forces were responsible for 25 per cent. In the first two months of 2010, January and February, we recorded 385 civilian casualties of which 39 per cent are attributed to pro-Government forces, 55 per cent to the armed opposition and 6 per cent where parties responsible are undetermined.
Moving on from the armed conflict but of course not unrelated, we all know that Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. One third of its population lives in absolute poverty. Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of a massive human rights deficit, including widespread impunity, inadequate investment in, and attention to human rights including discrimination. This of course inhibits the poor from accessing opportunities and participating in decision-making that would allow them to overcome poverty.
In closing, I wish to underline that attention to human rights and justice concerns will become more and not less critical as the crisis deepens in Afghanistan. There is a dramatic need to ramp up attention to human rights and secure a stronger footing for justice that is the dream and aspiration of the vast majority of Afghans.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
KILLID RADIO [translated from Dari]: I have a question with two parts. The first one is, as you talked about the Amnesty Law, currently there are efforts led by the Government to talk with the opposition groups of Hekmatyar in order to negotiate; this at a time when Hekmatyar has been accused of war crimes by Human Rights Watch. I just want to know your views on that issue. And secondly on the change of strategy by NATO forces – how effective has it been in reducing civilian causalities?
OHCHR: Two very useful questions. There are two different but connected issues here with regards to the Amnesty Law. On the Amnesty Law it is a global UN position, not just regarding Afghanistan’s Amnesty Law, that blanket amnesties are a problem for obvious reasons.
For a country to move out of a crises it needs to be able to deal with the past so that the past does not allow the past to continue. And that is one of the issues in the country and one of the concerns of the vast majority of Afghan people. According to a study done by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission a few years ago, over 75 per cent of the population underlines the importance of justice. So the Amnesty Law is a real concern because of the blanket amnesty. Of course every country and every society whether South Africa or Rwanda, or Cambodia has to find ways and means on how to deal with their legacy and especially when that legacy continues with massive human rights violations.
Of course there is a widely understood need that the armed conflict must come to an end. It is very difficult for example to build the foundations for rule of law. So there should be no dispute on the aspiration of the vast majority of the Afghan people and the Government to bring the armed conflict to an end. Of course it is well understood and should be understood that in any negotiations there are certain red lines to be addressed, including for example to protect and not trade the rights of women in particular, but also others, including victims.
The third thing I would say is that reconciliation must be between the people of Afghanistan, not between different groups. So that is why we would argue that women for example and victims in particular, who have already suffered tremendously from the last three decades, have to be at the negotiation table. So reconciliation is between people and that is slightly different if it is between different groups.
On the second part of the question: Yes the tactical measures undertaken by ISAF and NATO are successful and welcomed and have proved that greater attention in taking precautions and measures to safeguard civilians have helped. However, the overall portion of civilian causalities by the pro-Government forces came down last year, although there’s a slightly different pattern regarding the first two months of this year. But those measures have shown to deliver in particular with new directives on air strikes and night searches.
Of course it is also super important that the armed opposition also gives effect to the code of conduct it adopted in the middle of last year. Improvised Explosive Devices and suicide attacks are the biggest killers in this country and account for 44 per cent of all civilian causalities
IRIN NEWS: You just presented a very bleak situation about this county. From the Amnesty Law which is bringing impunity, to the Shi’a Law which recognizes rape or discrimination and also an intensifying conflict. This stands in contradiction to the rosy picture of the Afghan Government. Is this a warning that this country has been relapsing and its whole tragic conflict and violence and human rights violations are systematic and widespread?
OHCHR: Indeed it’s the view of the High Commissioner in the report’s recommendations that hard won gains have been eroded and have been contributed to of course by the ongoing warfare which is spreading and intensifying. The non-stop problems of impunity which I think are a central problem in this country and of course the push back of freedom of expression that we have seen, although there’s been some relaxation of that in recent times.
But is it all bleak? I think this is a very difficult situation but it is not all bleak.
I have to say I am constantly amazed and impressed. I was in Kandahar the week before last, and not withstanding a very tough situation, there are Afghan people, both women and men, who are still trying and struggling to secure an environment where there is basic respect and fairness and not withstanding a lot of odds and a very insecure environment. It was the same in Herat a few months ago. I am always impressed with the Afghan people and organized groups but also individuals who are still struggling for their very legitimate aspirations of a country that is governed by justice so they can enjoy peace and security.
To add and conclude of course there is a very interesting and busy calendar coming up over the next few months and hopefully the Peace Advisory Jirga will be an opportunity for different elements of Afghan society to put their views on the table in a way that addresses some of the problems that this country is facing and there is also of course the Kabul Conference.
TOLO TV [translated from Dari]: Given the report that your organization just launched and that there are concerns with regards to weak governance and also poverty, and an increase in the conflict in the country and, in addition to that, the adoption of the Amnesty Law and those who are alleged to have committed gross human rights violations, how would you see the human rights situation, will it continue to deteriorate or go the other way?
OHCHR: Afghanistan is facing a difficult situation but of course it is, here as anywhere else, whether in Rwanda or Northern Ireland, where societies and countries have experienced very difficult, political, violent situations; there is always lots of room for hope because the vast majority of people do want a different type of country to live in. Of course the critical central issue is: Is there political will and support to advance an agenda that is pro-peace, pro-prosperity, and is an inclusive system of governance? And as I just mentioned in response to the previous question, hopefully the opportunities that are on the table in the coming months will be utilized for the benefit of the Afghan people and not for agendas that are at odds with the welfare of the Afghan people, whether we talk about prosperity, about access to better administration of justice and rule of law or indeed how to deal with an Amnesty Law, that as I said earlier, effectively green-lights impunity. There are opportunities there, the real question, which is not for me to answer, is will Afghans and the international community utilize this opportunity to address the problems that the country is facing?
FREELANCE: The international community keeps talking about red-lights and constitutional guarantees of human rights regarding the reconciliation process, but as this High Commissioner’s report points out, there is an erosion of these constitutional guarantees, even before reconciliation. Why isn’t the international community using its influence and considerable leverage to reverse this erosion and isn’t there a danger that if it doesn’t do so, there will be further erosion of rights in the name of reconciliation?
OHCHR: Long question but a short answer because, actually, I am not in a position to speak on behalf of the international community. I think I am best positioned to articulate, the view point of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on indeed very complex difficult issues pertaining to human rights, with the larger agenda of the rule of law in this country. So why does the international community not use its influence? I think that is a question that needs to be asked to the international community. Of course, I think it is also worth noting that, here in Afghanistan, it is the Government that is in charge. When it comes to human rights, we always have to be mindful that there is also the broader Afghan society that has both responsibilities and opportunities to address the situation. That is true of all countries, that to advance human rights, it is as important that civil society and the media indeed are involved, as is the Government. Like I mentioned earlier in the morning, I don’t want to repeat myself, let’s hope and let’s push that these conferences are indeed a genuine opportunity to address the problems that confound efforts to build a foundation for the rule of law, which of course is also essential, as we know, for peace.
EL MUNDO: Can you explain better about the Amnesty Law? What effect will that Law have for the human rights situation in this country? Also can you explain better the red lines of the reconciliation process? You mention before about victims and women so can you explain better about those red lines for human rights in the reconciliation process? You also insisted about the importance of the Peace Jirga which will happen at the beginning of May, however, the people who will take part in that Jirga are mainly Ulemas and people from Parliament, but very few women and NGOs. What kind of people should take part in that Jirga?
OHCHR: On the first part, what would be the effect of the Amnesty Law for human rights? It is a real concern because the Amnesty Law does give blanket immunity, but we have to underline it is not just pertinent to Afghanistan but everywhere in the world, where there has been a similar situation. The UN is taking a generic core global position in that blanket amnesties do not help achieve justice and peace, but that it is also in danger of undermining stability. So that’s a major concern that we have about the Amnesty Law.
It also the fact that it green lights impunity and it is obvious what its ramifications are. This is a country where the abuse of power is widespread and deeply entrenched. It sends the wrong message to victims. Since we became aware of this Law in January there has been a lot of consultation and debate amongst Afghans who are most directly affected. So Afghans who have expressed concerns, including a group of Afghan activists – the Coalition on Transitional Justice – have spoken out at London Conference and more recently set out their concerns. The Amnesty Law is the major headache for everyone with concerns about human rights and justice in this country.
The third part is about red lines and about participation in and the Peace Advisory Jirga. The red lines refer to the absolute and fundamental importance that the rights of women and girls are respected in any negotiation that is under way under the current reconciliation discussion. It is a bleak situation we talked about, the erosion of rights, so it is absolutely vital that the human rights situation isn’t further worsened or weakened by the rights of women not being respected.
In terms of combining the question, we’ve talked a little this morning for obvious reasons. It is about the Amnesty Law and victims and how they will participate at the Peace Jirga. Additionally, in any setting where the goal or the agenda is to try to achieve a transition out of a difficult situation where human rights violations have been carried out, it is clearly up to each society to figure out a best way to move forward. I would say human rights experience shows that in countries trying to achieve transition there has to be an acknowledgement of what happened was unacceptable. With massacres, torture, and arbitrary detention, for society to move out of that political environment there has to be some acknowledgement that what happened is unacceptable. That helps you move out, but also so that victims know there is an acknowledgement of what they have suffered. Here in Afghanistan, there are a lot of mass graves which have been documented. For these two reasons it is absolutely vital to secure a transition by trying to building a foundation for peace and justice. At a minimum there has to be acknowledgement that what happened was terrible and it is unacceptable. Otherwise it’s very difficult to see how society can move forward.
REUTERS: You said the Amnesty Law contravenes Afghan law and you have expressed concern about this law. Are you calling for a repeal of this Law?
OHCHR: Yes the answer is the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Afghan civil society and human rights NGOs in and outside of the country have asked that the Law be repealed.
BBC PERSIAN TV: What is your prediction regarding 2010 and on the Afghan Government and international community regarding human rights violations and protection?
OHCHR: What is my prediction for 2010? I actually do not have a crystal ball and I think all colleagues in the room, including Afghans, will have a better handle on what is likely to materialize in the coming year, but I think there is no secret that this is a difficult period for the country.
My assumption, and hope and prayer, is that it will be less difficult if we learn from last year and recent years. Experience, shows us that until there is a more meaningful attention to an investment in the justice agenda, it is going to be difficult to anticipate if we will turn a corner. We know, there is armed conflict and impunity in the country. The situation is getting worse not better. That is for the first part of the question.
In terms of the second part of your question, what I am going to do is refer you to the last two pages of the High Commissioner’s report. It is two pages of recommendations. I will flag them. But there are copies here in English, Dari and Pashto on the side table.
Of absolute vital importance in any negotiations is to respect core fundamental human rights standards and principles. In terms of the other recommendations, it is about the armed conflict.
The absolute importance, of course, is that all parties to the conflict, respect fundamental humanitarian law, international law, principles which basically mean that every effort is taken to safeguard the lives of civilians.
The High Commissioner has also made recommendations about ways and means of trying to roll back discrimination against women. We talked earlier about the Shi’a Law, and we need to give effect to the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law.
Also, on the central problem of impunity, the High Commissioner has recommended a series of measures. And of course we also know that later this year, parliamentary elections are planned, and there she has underlined the absolute importance of mechanisms being better used and being more productive than in the past.
On the issue of poverty, for good reason, the High Commissioner has flagged this. This is also a very critical concern – it is poverty that kills a vast majority of Afghans who lose their lives every year – so that the Government, also on issues such as decision-making and on issues of discrimination, and of how decision-making further marginalizes or does not marginalize the poor in Afghanistan.
Two other recommendations were about freedom of expression in the media. I don’t think I need to elaborate on that. I am sure you support the High Commissioner’s concerns about the absence of freedom of expression in this country.
And one other recommendation is for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission that of course plays a very, very important role in this country, and together with Afghan civil society, that there should be space and support available to facilitate their work.