Afghanistan - Security Council Open VTC

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25-Jun-2020 02:14:38
Briefing Security Council, Afghanistan mission head expresses optimism government, Taliban will enter talks, concern over impact of COVID-19 on mandate.

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As leaders in Afghanistan prepare for long-anticipated talks with the Taliban, COVID-19 has cast a huge shadow over daily life and limited the ability of the United Nations Assistance Mission to fulfil its mandate, the Secretary-General’s top official in the country told the Security Council in a 25 June video conference meeting.

Deborah Lyons, Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), said the pandemic has posed unique challenges for its operational posture. UNAMA has adopted a range of measures to safeguard the health and well-being of its staff while sustaining the delivery of critical programmes throughout the country.

Nonetheless, the United Nations is leading a coordinated response to the pandemic, she assured, establishing laboratories around the country and providing personal protective equipment. The Afghanistan Humanitarian Response Plan has been updated to reflect the current $1.1 billion that partners will now require to provide immediate assistance.

Against that backdrop, she said Afghans today have the opportunity to turn the corner to a brighter, more stable future after four decades of war. “Many stand ready to support them,” she assured. Underscoring that Afghanistan has made immense progress in recent years, she said she is deeply impressed by the strength and courage of the country’s youth. Today’s two other briefers are part of a new generation committed to creating a peaceful and self-reliant country.

She also pointed to the creation of a free and vibrant media in a country considered among the most dangerous for journalists and “significant” improvements in living conditions, with a 60 per cent drop in maternal mortality over a 15-year period and a 50 per cent reduction in child mortality. And yet, too many people face daily struggles to survive. The United States-Taliban agreement and reduction in violence have provided only a brief respite from the violence. The 19 May attack against a maternity ward in Kabul was “particularly outrageous” and established a “new low”. The perpetrators must be found and held accountable.

She also drew attention to the threat posed by Islamic State Khorasan Province, whose recent suicide attack against a funeral ceremony in Nangarhar province killed 29 civilians. In 2019 alone, 874 children lost their lives as a result of the conflict. The number of minors out of school has not dropped, but instead, risen in the last eight years. “If there ever was a call to prayer for peace, surely it would echo the voices of these children,” she said.

In addition, she said efforts to fight corruption have slowed, with institutional reforms — including to establish the independent anti-corruption commission — neglected amid apparent impunity of well-connected political figures. Progress to end such practices is crucial as the 2020 Pledging Conference on Afghanistan approaches. “These challenges require determined and united leadership,” she asserted.

Welcoming the political agreement reached by Afghanistan President Asraf Ghani and High Council for National Reconciliation leader Abdullah Abdullah, she said she expects to hear announcement of a representative cabinet and formation of inclusive peace structures in the coming days. She expressed cautious optimism that the Government and the Taliban teams will begin negotiations in July in Doha. As they embark on what will likely be a “long and complex” series of talks, she encouraged them to show flexibility and foresight, and compassion for their people. She highlighted the commitment by both sides on the issue of prisoner releases, characterizing as “noteworthy” the fact that both have agreed these talks can start within a week of such actions.

For its part, the United Nations stands ready to support these direct talks, she said. As success rests on a broad consensus, both sides have reached out to various constituencies, seeking their views on achieving peace. Underscoring the importance of meaningful participation by women, youth, minorities and war victims, she said regional countries are likewise voicing strong resolve and she expressed confidence that a constructive atmosphere for the talks will be forged.

Ghada Fathi Waly, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said the COVID-19 pandemic — which arrived amid conflict, hunger, drought and flood in Afghanistan — is a burden too terrible to bear. The 2020 UNODC World Drug Report, launched today, reveals that the country remains the world’s biggest opium producer, with record levels of production.

She said that despite a 38 per cent decrease in cultivation — to 163,000 hectares in 2019 — production, at 6,400 tons, remained roughly at the same level. Evidence suggests that opium poppy cultivation and drug trafficking continue unabated, despite COVID-19 and related travel restrictions. Labour shortfalls at the start of the harvest in western and southern provinces were quickly addressed with women in poppy-growing households engaged to lance the crop.

Farmers compelled by poverty to grow opium poppy have seen their incomes decline further, as the farm-gate value of production plunged, for the second consecutive year, by 33 per cent, she said. This decrease follows a similar drop in opium prices, which are at the lowest level since systematic monitoring began. “The illicit opiate economy is expected to continue fuelling instability and insurgency, and funding terrorist groups,” she warned.

At the same time, methamphetamine use is now being reported from nearly all provinces, she said. Large-scale manufacturing is emerging: In 2008, only four grams of methamphetamine were seized in Afghanistan. In 2019, total seizures reached 1.25 tons. She acknowledged efforts by Afghan law enforcement authorities to contain the trafficking threat, notably through the use of Mobile Detection Teams and Precursor Control Units, created with UNODC support, and operations by Airport Interdiction Units, which led to the seizure of seven kilograms of heroin.

However, the question remains around how to scale up successes to create a real impact, she said. In the last two years, UNODC has helped to create over 18,000 new jobs — including 7,600 for women. Nearly 2,000 hectares of agricultural land have been brought under licit cultivation. But these efforts to create sustainable licit incomes face serious constraints, as many opium growing areas remain outside Government influence.

First and foremost, she said counter-narcotics policies should be situated in broader development and security strategies, with related actions sustainably resourced, and reinforced by regional cooperation and tailored to meet emerging threats. For its part, UNODC stands ready to expand alternative development initiatives as the security situation and resources allow, and to step up the integrated support it offers to Afghanistan in preventing drug trafficking.

Greater international support for evidence-based prevention and drug treatment services will also be needed. “I offer UNODC’s full support through our integrated country, regional and interregional approach,” she said, urging authorities to ensure that counter-narcotic operations will continue throughout the peace process.

Shaharzad Akbar, Chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, said COVID-19 has had a multidimensional impact on human rights in her country. The Commission has adapted measures to enable continued monitoring and follow-up on violations of women’s rights, advocating for children’s access to vaccinations and education, monitoring detainees’ right to health and safety, advocating for transparency, information access, the right to protest, and restraint by police. Importantly, it is participating in provincial COVID-19 response committees across the country to inform local authorities about human rights aspects of response measures.

As Afghanistan tackles the pandemic, the conflict leaves in its wake an alarming number of civilian casualties, she continued. Afghans suffer death or serious harm through suicide attacks, air strikes and night raids. They experience it while praying in mosques and gurdwaras, while at work — in farms, factories or at the office — while travelling to visit relatives or studying in primary and secondary schools. Mothers are targeted while giving birth, underscoring the extraordinary degree to which civilians continue to be harmed. “We must all work to bring about a comprehensive ceasefire as quickly as possible,” she stressed. The Commission has launched a “Put Down the Guns” campaign.

As an impartial entity, she said the Commission is mandated to protect all Afghans and wants a clear role in the peace process to provide expert input into the discussions about human rights for both negotiating sides. It also wants to monitor respect for human rights in various stages of the process. Its advocacy work focuses on making the peace process inclusive, with durable outcomes. It is calling for transparency and victim-centred justice, the meaningful inclusion of women and minorities and specific measures endorsed by both sides to acknowledge the voice and rights of victims.

In particular, the Commission has raised the issue of victim’s rights in relation to prisoner exchange, she said. It has reached out to the Taliban and put forward four mechanisms to enable the broader public participation in the peace process, each aiming to bring the issue of victims’ justice to the fore of negotiators’ consideration.

Like many Afghans, she experienced war and migration as a child, and is now raising her son in a war-torn country. Progress has been uneven, but it provides an opportunity for expanded access to human rights. Any compromise on basic rights will not succeed. “We will need the United Nations and global human rights community to help stop the violence,” she implored, preserve human rights and ensure the voices and demands of victims will not be overlooked.

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