"A Woman’s Place is at the Peace Table": June 2019: UN Security Council Debate on the situation in Afghanistan
by Zarin Hamid, WILPF WPS Programme Coordinator
On 19 June the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held a debate on the quarterly findings of the report of the Secretary-General (UNSG) on the work of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security (S/2019/493). The afternoon debate included briefings by the Secretary-General’s Special Representatives (SRSG) and Head of the Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, and Chairwoman of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, Sima Samar. Twenty-eight Member States shared statements on their general support for the free, fair, and safe upcoming elections in September, and hopes for economic and development relations in a post-peace process stable Afghanistan. The main concerns for Member States echoed those which were outlined in the SG report: political transition vis a vis the presidential elections and the emerging peace process that is “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned”.
The Secretary General’s report outlined a variety of issues that continue to affect the overall humanitarian, political, economic, and social situation in Afghanistan. These included updates on the recent political developments surrounding the presidential elections slated for September, elections monitoring by the Independent Election Commission and other bodies. A large part of the discussion during the debate was focused on the multiple peace talks between various stakeholders, including the Doha based peace talks between the US and Taliban; the Moscow led talks between Afghan political figures and Taliban representatives; trilateral meetings between Russia, China, and the US in Washington, DC; the recent visit of the European Union’s Frederica Mogherini to Kabul offering support for the peace process, as well as the separate offers to facilitate direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban by Indonesia and Uzbekistan.
Characterizing the protection of human rights as a shared responsibility of the Afghan community and the international community, Sima Samar spoke of the unprecedented fear that many Afghans, especially women, have of going back to a time when Afghans, especially women and minorities, were denied their freedoms. Ms. Samar spoke of popular demand that the outcome of any peace talks should uphold norms of freedom, nondiscrimination, and human rights values. She highlighted the voice of women, stating that women stress the importance of theAfghan Women’s Bill of Rights(presented by Afghan women to former President Karzai in 2003), and demand that their rights should not be negotiated with Taliban during peace talks. Ms. Samar reiterated women’s demands for an end to the culture of impunity that has flourished, and commitment by all parties in Afghanistan to human rights norms and values. Progress in Afghanistan is also key to stability and security. Regarding the presidential election, Ms. Samar called on the government and international community to support free and fair elections by refraining from interference. Regarding the recent decision by the International Criminal Court (ICC) not to conduct an inquiry into human rights violations in Afghanistan, Ms. Samar stated, “Access to justice is not a luxury, it is a basic human right.” Echoing the voice of many Afghans, Ms. Samar called for a reconciliation mechanism to promote lasting peace, stating, “If we are to safeguard a lasting peace, it is necessary to engage civil society groups and religious communities, including women [.]" Based on the national consultation on transitional justice, she recommended the UN support the next stage of justice.
SRSG and Head of UNAMA, Tadamichi Yamamoto, underlined the importance of ensuring the upcoming elections are free, fair, and safe for all candidates and for all Afghans. Not doing so will harm the stability and cohesion required for successful intra-Afghan peace talks and formal negotiations with the government and the Taliban. SRSG Yamamoto warned that when a peace agreement is reached, implementation could likely be derailed as a result of disputes on local resources and other issues. He underlined the importance of women’s participation and inclusion in building bridges, giving the example of the conflict over water among the Markikhil and Kadarkhil tribes in the Shirzad district of Nangarhar Province. Women played a key role in bringing together men within the communities to dialogue and also participated in the jirga that precipitated a peaceful resolution to the issue between the communities.”
Only an inclusive peace process involving all those affected by the conflict, including women […] can lead to sustainable peace,” SRSG Yamamoto reminded the Council. He urged all stakeholders to confront difficult questions in the peace process and to ensure the preservation of gains made over the past 18 years, including the positive gains made by women, questions of accountability, and reintegration of those who have taken up arms. He also reiterated the UN’s commitment to the priority of progress in the area of women, peace, and security, stating that “we know from experience that this is the best and the only way to secure a sustainable peace agreement. Afghan people have the most to win from an end to the conflict, but they are also still losing the most: people are deprived from filling their economic potential, children out of school, people losing their lives.”
Women’s Rights in the Peace Process
Over the last 18 years and prior, Afghanistan has witnessed and struggled with human rights violations by nearly every stakeholder that is currently involved in the various peace talks that have taken place. Women, who alongside ethnic minorities suffered the heaviest losses and violations over the last three decades of conflict, have made tremendous gains enshrined in law and practice. However, they remain the most widely marginalized in peace talks. Member States responded to the report of the Secretary-General, with many harkening back to the gains made especially by women, and the critical need to ensure that women’s participation is inclusive of any forthcoming peace efforts.
Women’s participation in the peace process across tracks and in free, fair, and secure presidential elections in September was the most prominent WPS topic during the debate. More than 50% of Member States spoke in support of and underlined the importance of women’s participation in the peace process for a sustainable and inclusive peace. The Dominican Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Peru, France, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Equatorial Guinea, Belgium, Canada, Italy, and others welcomed efforts to promote an intra-Afghan dialogue, acknowledging efforts to improve women’s participation in such processes as the recent Loya Jirga, where women were included but had a difficult time being heard or listened to, and eventold to go back to the kitchenby some male delegates. Turkey informed the Council that “going forward ensuring women’s participation in elections, peace negotiations, and the Government will help to preserve the achievements seen.” Echoing this, France called for direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, stating “it is essential that women participate at all levels of decision-making (the justice system, rule of law), and that respect of fundamental freedom, freedom of opinion and expression has to remain an absolute priority. Belgium also underlined that “peace agreements must preserve political, economic and social achievements of women, children and minorities’ rights over the last 18 years”. The September presidential election should draw lessons from the 2018 electoral process, she said, noting that their successful convening is a joint responsibility for all stakeholders – all of whom should avoid any interference in their outcome. Equatorial Guinea called on the Afghan government to continue pushing forward an inclusive dialogue for a lasting peace, saying that the “presidential election must be transparent, credible and inclusive. We have taken due note of the progress of women’s rights leading to participation of same in recent convenings. We have no doubt that with the support they deserve in place they will discharge duties. We hope that the participation and inclusion of women will be set as non-negotiable priority.” Canada warned that if women are not effectively engaged in the peace process, this will be a major flaw of the process, stating “When women participate outcomes are better. Women’s voices should be listened to not just heard.” Echoing the SRSG on Member States utilizing their influence to urge the Taliban to take part in talks and take steps required on the path to peace, the United Kingdom also reiterated the critical importance of women's participation across all forums.
Despite a strong focus on participation, many other Women, Peace and Security issues and broader feminist human rights perspective were missing from the debate. Only 14.3% of the 28 Member States connected the general Women, Peace, and Security agenda with participation of women in peace efforts. The United Kingdom encouraged women’s participation as “good vehicle to give meaningful and practical expression to UNSCR 1325”. The European Union later echoed this support in its statement. The issue of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) was another area that was largely missing. According to documentation from OCHA,GBV reported caseswere at least 23,696 in 2018 in a country where under-reporting is common due to stigma and access to services. South Africa and the Dominican Republic were the only two States (7.1%) who called for attention on SGBV in humanitarian efforts responding to natural disaster and the conflict, with the Dominican Republic calling on the Government to investigate SGBV crimes. South Africa stated, “the restrictions to humanitarian access affect the most vulnerable members of Afghan society," and called for all parties to ensure women and children are protected, particularly from sexual and gender-based violence. Discussion of root causes and disarmament were also largely missing from the conversation on the progress of UNAMA, the ongoing issues around elections, and the peace process.
It is encouraging that over 50% of Member States urged the government of Afghanistan and peace process stakeholders like the United States and the Taliban to ensure women’s participation in peace talks or that women’s rights are not negotiated away for a quick peace dividend. Adding women to the discussion is the first step in a long series of movements to reach a peace deal. Women’s meaningful participation demands a holistic approach to bringing women’s voices and physical presence to the discussions. It requires moving women from the margins to the centre of the peace process, and active and reparative acknowledgement that women have lost immensely in immeasurable ways during the last 18 years of conflict.
However, to reach a peace settlement that is sustainable for generations to come, it is critical that the root causes of violence, including militarised and patriarchal institutions, are addressed and women’s meaningful participation is placed at the forefront of how future peace talks are even structured. Key stakeholder Member States who are driving peace talks directly or indirectly (i.e. US, Russia, China, UK) must encourage Afghan women's meaningful participation and place substantial value on theircontribution as experts of their and their communities’ circumstances in the peace process.Women should be supported, and capacity should not be an excuse to exclude women.
After 18 years of the third phase of conflict since 1979, Afghanistan is entering a critical juncture in its history that will affect its people, neighbors, and the geo-political interests of governments thousands of miles away. There is a profound fear and anxiety by people of different religious sects, ethnicities, and genders who do not know if their rights and freedoms will be negotiated or diminished in a new political dynamic that may include the Taliban. Afghan women have lost not only their loved ones in the civil war violence of the 1990s and under Taliban rule, but they have lost their dignity, safety, and even identity under Taliban policies. Women’s economic, social, and civil rights were reduced during this time. The fear of going back is real and it is up to powerful stakeholders, including the Afghan government and the United States to make sure they never go back. Women’s meaningful participation in the peace process, including the work women have done as civil society for peace, must be regarded and upheld as non-negotiable for a just and sustainable peace in Afghanistan.