UNAMA's weekly press conference

30 Nov 2009

UNAMA's weekly press conference

KABUL - Transcript of press conference by Norah Niland, UNAMA Human Rights Unit; Zia Moballegh, acting Country Director for the International Center for Human Rights and Democratic Development (ICHRDD); Aleem Siddique, UNAMA spokesperson. Dari - Pashto


UNAMA SPOKESPERSON: Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen. Welcome to UNAMA’s regular press conference. I hope you had a very pleasant weekend and I wish Eid Mobarak to you and your families.

We are very pleased to be joined today by Mr Zia Moballegh, acting Country Director for the International Center for Human Rights and Democratic Development (ICHRDD) and also our own Chief Human Rights officer and Head of the Human Rights Unit for UNAMA, Norah Niland.

As you know we are approaching Human Rights Day on 10 December – the theme of which will be discrimination. And as part of our efforts in the run-up to Human Rights Day, we will today be focusing on the elimination of violence against women.

HRU: Good morning, everybody. Today we want to use this platform, the press conference, to underline the importance of Afghanistan’s participation in the international “16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence”. This international campaign, which runs from 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to 10 December, International Human Rights Day, is an important reminder that women’s rights are human rights. In sum, while the focus is on women, the campaign is an opportunity for diverse stakeholders to challenge the routine human rights violations and related violence that women endure.

The theme of this year’s campaign is ‘Commit – Act – Demand: We Can End Violence Against Women!’ Thus, the media have a very important role to play; it is good to see so many of you here today. A few months ago we launched a report “Silence is Violence: End the Abuse of Women in Afghanistan”. The research for this report found that violence, targeted at women and girls, is widespread and deeply rooted in Afghan society and cultural norms. Even though such violence is not openly condoned, neither is it adequately challenged nor condemned – either by society at large or by state institutions.


The growing trend of violence against women in public life is an indicator that the critical role of women in decision-making processes, economic and social development, as well as peace and stabilization efforts, is not fully acknowledged or valued in Afghan society.

Our field research found that the political space for women, including for those who wish to advocate for their rights, is shrinking. Of course, it is unrealistic to anticipate significant socio-economic progress when half the population is denied, or unable to participate, in poverty reduction, reconstruction or development projects.

Our field research also found that rape is under-reported and concealed and is a huge problem in Afghanistan. It affects all parts of the country, all communities, and all social groups. It is a human rights problem of profound proportion.

Women and girls are at risk of rape in their homes, in their villages, and in detention facilities. Rape is not unique to Afghanistan, but the socio-political context does have particular characteristics that exacerbate the problem. Shame is attached to rape victims rather than to the perpetrator. Victims often find themselves being prosecuted for the offence of zina, otherwise known as adultery.

For the vast majority of victims, there is very little possibility of finding justice. There is no explicit provision in the 1976 Afghan Penal Code that criminalizes rape. Thus, the UN recommended that the legislation on the Elimination of Violence Against Women make explicit reference to rape, contain a clear definition of rape in line with international law, and hold the government responsible for tackling this ugly crime

In more positive notes the United Nations is supporting a diverse range of activities, across Afghanistan, to enhance awareness and, by extension, to mobilize or increase attention to a problem that is universal but with specific characteristics in different locations.

Here in Afghanistan, violence against women cannot be divorced from cultural attitudes and practices that sustain the marginalization of, and discrimination against, women. Violence against women thrives in socio-economic conditions that see women as inferior and, somehow, less entitled to the full respect of their human rights. Afghan women are also subjected to the violence inherent in armed conflict as well as the lawlessness and criminality that is closely linked to a pervasive culture of impunity.

This 16-day campaign is an opportunity to support local initiatives and to draw on work at the global level to end violence against women. Additionally, this campaign period is an opportunity to reflect on, and evaluate efforts, so that ongoing or future strategies benefit from, and build on, prior experience.

The UN and its various partners, in and outside of the government, are working, through the year, to increase awareness of the harm that victims and their families endure when subjected to violence. Action is also taken to give effect to the commitments inherent in Afghanistan’s international human rights treaty obligations as well as a host of action plans and initiatives geared to countering, as well as responding to, specific acts of violence whether these occurred in or outside the home. Public reporting, whether by the UN, NGOs, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), media actors or others can play an important role in highlighting trends or specific cases and deterring acts of violence.

In conclusion, there is strong evidence to suggest that silence helps perpetuate violence. To quote the UN Secretary General: “Violence against women is never acceptable, never excusable, never tolerable.” It is important to publicly and explicitly condemn all forms of violence against women and girls. It is equally important to build an environment that inhibits rape and holds perpetrators to account.

If progress is to be achieved, it must start at home, with parents, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters. Democracy and peace in Afghanistan is dependent on the elimination of violence and the full participation of women, as well as men, in decision-making processes that affects the lives of individuals and the future of the nation. I thank you for your attention.

ICHRDD [translated from Dari]: Real peace and national development without the elimination of violence against women is not possible. Over the past years, the Afghan government has taken measures in order to remove discrimination and fight against violence against women: ensuring rights and equal obligations, emphasis to forbid the discriminations in the constitution, support for political participation of women and ensuring their part in the national and provincial councils, publication of the law of the elimination of violence against women, specific measures like personal status (family) special court, and gender units at the ministries are the worthy activities of the government in the elimination of discrimination against women.

The drafting of the law of the elimination of violence against women, which has been finalized with the help of civil society, United Nations agencies and other national and international organs, is a great achievement in ending violence. A law may not be helpful until it is implemented, but despite its shortages, the law has a clear message to all relevant organs and individuals and violators, which states that violence against women is a crime after this, and no individual will be safe. Also, this law guarantees the independent obtaining of legal rights by women and considers any restrictions towards that a crime, and anticipates penalties for the offenders.

Overall, the global day for eliminating violence against women is a good opportunity to emphasize the commitments of the nation and the Government of Afghanistan in the fight against violence.

As the state of Afghanistan indicates in its universal periodical report, the situation of human rights, despite the clear message of the constitution regarding the elimination of discrimination, still exists against women and children. And the challenges the government has indicated, like violation of the law by governmental organs, hindrance of women from the previous rights, the violence against women and children, has not decreased.

The UNAMA and OHCHR report in the current year states that women’s rights are largely violated and violence has not decreased. Restriction toward obtaining of civil, social, economical, political and cultural rights and violence and exertion of force, control and sexual harassment in social and specific environments are clear points of the report.

Those women who ask for their rights in social environments face various types of violence such as threat, harassment and physical attack. Destruction of female schools, the registered cases of murder, and use of acid and other murders under the title of defending female members only outlines some of the aspects of violence against women.

All these crimes cause these women to forbear from their rights and (prevent them to) leave their houses. This process does not only increase violence, but also hinders the process of socialization, and women participation and human development of the country.

Regarding civil cases: most of the cases indicate restrictions on marriage rights and even exchange of women against property. Such customs and traditions are against human dignity of women and (are a) clear violation of the Holy Quran’s instructions. Also, hitting, torture and inhuman acts by men against women are seen, which is contrary to the instruction of the Quran.

In the economical field, women’s rights are wasted due to restrictions. Prevention from work and restriction toward access to property and gaining of the rights like inheritance is very visible. This kind of violence expands poverty in addition to violation of basic women’s rights.

Elimination of violation, as a process needs, the programming and mobilization of all governmental facilities. Therefore, it is hoped that with this opportunity, the international campaign towards elimination of discrimination against women, and the points below are observed.

Since discrimination against women is a significant sexual discrimination, the Afghan government should pave all the grounds for the observation and implementation of Article 22 of the constitution on ending the discrimination, and conventions and international agreements like: Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, the National Development Strategy and national programme for Afghan women. Timely reporting to the relevant committees of this conventions and agreements can be indicators of Afghanistan’s (commitment) in international field attributed to the duties beyond this treaty.

-The justice sector should recruit female judges, police, prosecutors and defence lawyers to help women and have an important part in ending violence against women.
- The Afghan Supreme Court should provide access to justice for the victims of violence, particularly domestic violence and fight against corruption, strengthen rule of law, justice and judicial system for women.
-The National Council’s approval of the law of elimination of violence against women, the improvement of family law and the fight against discrimination and with monitoring of the budget regarding gender, the issues should support the victims of the violence.
- Police and the Office of the Attorney General, with implementation of the law of elimination of discrimination against women and criminal law should end violence against women, and should guarantee security of women both in social and specific environments.
- Ministry of Women’s Affairs, in accordance with the law of elimination of violence against women, should hold the elimination of violence against women commission, and start their monitoring and executive activities and should pave the ground for gaining of rights by women.
- International organs and civil institutions of Afghanistan, in close cooperation and coordination should enhance the awareness programmes about violence against women and should expand such programs to deprived regions and pave the ground for the implementation of the elimination of violence against women law.
- Also, ending violence against women without national intention, particularly from the men’s side is not possible. Therefore, awareness programmes should be strengthened and the part of men in this process should be encouraged by governmental and non-governmental organs.


RFE/RL [translated from Dari and English]: My first question is addressed to Mr Moballegh. It is said that some high ranking officials are involved in violence against women. Do you have such reports? My second question is to Mr Siddique on the new cabinet. Recently the SRSG warned that the UN cannot tolerate and accept warlords in the new cabinet of Afghanistan. The new cabinet is going to be announced within three days. What will be UNAMA’s reaction if warlords are present in the new cabinet as members?

ICHRDD [translated from Dari]: As I mentioned, the government also mentioned violence against women in its periodical reports known as the UPR and also in the reports launched by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). But I do not have any reports about any specific case.

UNAMA SPOKESPERSON: On your second question regarding the future shape of the cabinet: Afghanistan is a sovereign country and the new cabinet will be decided by President Karzai. We are here as UNAMA and the international community to support the new government in some of the most pressing challenges that this country faces in the months and years to come. Over the last few months you have heard consistent messages from, both, the Special Representative and also me that we need to have a credible partner to work with over the coming months and years.

Afghanistan needs competent cabinet ministers who are able to deliver for the Afghan people. And in this respect the Special Representative, in particular has made it clear that we do need to see more reform-orientated ministers and we need to see technocrat people who are able to deliver public services for the Afghan people. Those are the people that the Afghan people want to serve them and those are the people that the international community wants to work with.

So very much, like you, we will be watching very closely over the coming weeks as those cabinet announcements are made.

KILLID RADIO [translated from Dari]: Referring to your remarks about your research on violence against women, are there any figures to show how many women have been subjected to violations or have been abused? The second part of the question is that you mentioned that violence has been committed against women and girls that are raped in detention centres. Can you tell us whether these are committed by the police or somebody else in the detention centres?

HRU: Two very useful questions. Thank you. In the field research, we identified two topics for this. So we didn’t go across the A to Z of all the issues of concern from the point of view of violence against women. So, the two issues we talk about, partly because this is the election year, are on women in the public sphere and the issue of rape.

Now, let me deal with the issue of rape to the best of my ability. In any country coming to grips with this kind of crime is extremely difficult. As we understand, there is huge taboo about the issue. Rape occurs inside the family, but it also occurs beyond the family. What we found is that the problem is widespread and it occurs through all socio-economic strata in Afghanistan. It’s not just in farming villages and not just in urban areas. It affects all communities. We don’t have figures per se other than to find that whether we are doing the research in Gardez or Kunduz or Herat, it’s a significant problem. That’s one part of the question.

On the other part of the question on women working in the public sphere – the trend appears to be that the space for women in public life is shrinking. This is what our data is showing. Again we don’t have a baseline. But we have seen over this past 18-24 months, for example, police officers being gunned down or female journalists facing particular problems. So, our conclusion is that the trend is negative. There are also some evidences of this in the elections with lower turnout in some parts of Afghanistan compared to prior elections.

On the question on violence against women in detention, we found that quite often women who are victims do themselves face additional problems of reporting the problem to the police. We have also found that while they are in detention – whether it’s before the trial or of course in the prison – they can also be sexually abused.

TOLO [translated from Dari]: I have a question for Norah Niland. How do you assess the human rights situation in Afghanistan, in particular, the situation of prisons which are under the control of foreign troops? Are there any measures taken with regards to that issue?

The second question is addressed to Aleem (Siddique) with regards to the new cabinet. How do you assess the previous cabinets? You have witnessed that in previous cabinets, ministers were just swapping positions from one ministry to another ministry. If these ministers would appear again in the new cabinet, what would be the reaction by the international community?

HRU: Actually you ask quite a big question. So let me try and be brief. Very briefly, the human rights situation in Afghanistan is of measured concern and continues to be of concern. The Afghan people face quite a significant human rights deficit. Nevertheless there is some progress in different fronts. There are still a lot of issues that complicate addressing the problems that do exist. Of course that includes impunity which is widespread and it is related to your second question that Aleem will answer.

You have a specific question about prisons and detention and the foreign troops. So let me break it down.

We, in the human rights team, came out with a report earlier this year on arbitrary detention – detention that is illegal. And basically I can break it down into two parts: there is a lot of corruption and there is also incompetence. The issue of incompetence can in principle be addressed by better training and all the rest. The issue of corruption is a more difficult one. And as you know the governments and the international community are very concerned about that. On the issue of arbitrary detention we have been working as part of state-building to see how to address that and to have better communication, for example, between the detention authorities and the judiciary authorities, so that, that issue is better addressed.

With specific reference to conflict-related detention and, I think, you mentioned Bagram. Of course it is not just Bagram but it is around the country. This, of course, has been a concern to the United Nations and the wider international community and for Afghan society for quite some time.

Since the arrival of the Obama administration and the efforts to close the prison in Guantanamo, it had some positive implications for Bagram too and that is good. However it is clearly not enough. And from the UN perspective what we have been focusing on is the overall legal framework. I am not in a position to speak on behalf of the international community and the Red Cross. But they have done very good work in terms of conditions and treatment. So the UN was focusing more, both directly with the authorities which are the American military in Bagram to provide a legal framework. In other words the detainees have access to a lawyer and know why they have been detained and when they will have their day in court.

UNAMA SPOKESPERSON: On the second part of your question, let me make one point perfectly clear. UNAMA has absolutely no role in the selection of cabinet members in this country. Who is up and who is down is of no interest to us – that is of interest to President Karzai and the Afghan people. However, both UNAMA and across the international community it’s been made clear the shape of the new government we need to work with in the future, over the coming months and years. We need to see a cabinet that is able to crack down on corruption in this country, that is what the Afghan people expect, and that is what the international community expects. We need to see cabinet members that are here to serve the people of Afghanistan, not rule over the people of Afghanistan. And, last, we need to see cabinet members who are able to deliver grass root services that are so desperately needed across this country, outside of Kabul, and across all the provinces. And we look forward to see President Karzai forming that cabinet very soon.