Afghanistan – Our issues with Karzai

New Zealand has quietly raised four crucial human rights issues with Afghanistan. But what happens if President Karzai’s new government fails to respond?

The New Zealand government has been raising critical human rights issues during the United Nations Human Rights Commission’s periodic review of Afghanistan this year. Until now, they have escaped media attention in this country.

A Ministry of Foreign Affairs paper, obtained under the Official Information Act, outlines the stance taken by New Zealand representatives during the UNHRC review of Afghanistan’s human rights performance.

“We appreciate the security challenges Afghanistan faces,” the MFAT paper says, "but we continue to hold concerns about ongoing infringements of fundamental human rights. These include access to justice, the right to due process, freedom from torture, freedom of expression and increased Government control over media and censorship. Civilians are too often victims of armed force, and children remain at risk of recruitment as child soldiers.”

The paper, dated 7 May 2009, raises four specific issues in the form of recommendations to the Afghan government, the first being the notorious Shia Personal Status law granting Shia husbands the right to withdraw sustenance from wives who refuse their sexual demands and imposing other discriminatory limitations on the rights of Shia women.

New Zealand has recommended that the Afghan government should amend “any articles that breach Afghanistan’s international obligations or its constitutional protection of the equal rights of men and women” and establish a process immediately to review all draft legislation to endure its compliance with those international obligations.

A UNHRC report (see points 8, 82, 101 and 138) published in September records Afghanistan’s less than positive response to the equal rights provision.

“The Shia Personal Status Law has been reviewed in the light of the Afghan Constitution and in the view of the international community’s concern and has been adjusted in accordance with Afghanistan’s obligations towards international human rights conventions. However, if it is found during the implementation that there are some inconsistencies with our national and international commitments, we can use the tool of amendment.”

New Zealand also expressed concern about the continuing use of the death penalty in Afghanistan, “and of the failure to observe the safeguards and restrictions set out in international standards on imposing capital government”.  During the UNHRC review in May, our government called on Afghanistan to introduce a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, with a view to its eventual abolition.

Afghanistan's response was negative. In September, the UNHRC records the following comment from the Afghanistan delegation participating in the periodic review.

Afghanistan’s criminal law recognized the death penalty as did the law of other Islamic countries. However, the penalty is rarely applied; it can only be applied after the decision of the trial court and two stages of appellate courts, including the Supreme Court. The application of the sentence further requires the consent of the President, who scrutinizes the whole case with the intention of finding reason to commute the sentence.”

New Zealand’s final area of concern during the UNHRC review was “the high rates of maternal mortality experienced by women” described in the Afghan government’s own report to the proceedings.

“New Zealand recommends that Afghanistan strengthen its efforts to reduce maternal mortality rates by including women in decision-making about maternal health, including decisions on the design of local health care mechanisms.”

The Afghan government response sidesteps the core of the New Zealand recommendation – the involvement of women in decision-making about maternal health – in favour of a glowing account of other general health achievements.

“Afghanistan’s achievements in the years following the Taliban’s rule have resulted in reduced mortality rates of children under 5 years of age (from 257 in 2001 to 191 in 2007), the expansion of public service coverage (from 9 per cent in 2001 to 85 per cent in 2007) and expansion of immunization to cover 83 per cent of the population. The Government stressed that the top health priority now is to improve maternal health and reduce maternal mortality.”

Reducing maternal mortality is a top health priority now – but note the lack of any comment about involving women in the decision-making.

So what happens if the Karzai government continues to ignore recommendations for reform from supportive governments?

The UN Secretary General’s Special Representative in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, has been spelling it out. At the beginning of this month, he was asked if international help and support for Afghanistan would decrease if the Karzai government does not respond to the call for reform. His answer was unequivocal.

“I do not only think that it will have an impact in a negative way, I know that it will have a negative impact. It is not a warning but it is statement of fact, when we look at the debates taking place in North America, in Europe, in Australia, in New Zealand and in other countries. It is a debate I have had over the last few days with a number of key ministers, with the President. And I believe that it is understood that we are in a situation now where a comprehensive reform programme is required.”

This week, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is spelling it out. Any civilian aid from Washington is contingent on improvements in the Afghan government.

When will the New Zealand Government take a stand, putting its money where its diplomatic mouth is? The time for quiet, polite diplomacy with President Karzai is over.