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Opening remarks by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay at a press conference during her visit to Afghanistan

Kabul, 17 September 2013

Good morning, and thank you for coming.

This is my first visit to Afghanistan, but it follows a lengthy one by one of my top officials, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic in 2011. While it has been a pleasure to be in Kabul, and to see the extent of urban development since 2001, one can only gather so much from a fleeting visit to the capital city of a country as diverse and challenging as Afghanistan. I regret having been unable to meet people in other parts of the country on this particular visit.

Nevertheless, the UNAMA Human Rights Unit includes senior staff from my office and has 80 human rights staff in 12 locations across the country, who talk to people on a daily basis. The Human Rights Unit reports to me as well as to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG). The Unit produces frequent reports on key issues, including the protection of civilians, violence against women, detention and torture. I have been greatly heartened during this visit to see the strong support provided to the Human Rights Unit – indeed the whole issue of human rights -- by the current SRSG as well as the acknowledgement by the Afghan authorities that these reports are helpful to them by pointing out both systemic problems and gaps in implementation.

I have focused on three main issues during the visit, which was triggered by some pressing concerns that have emerged during this crucial period leading up to the Presidential elections next April, and the subsequent rapid downsizing of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) scheduled to take place during the second half of 2014.

Afghanistan is clearly at a critical juncture with the ongoing political, security and economic transition concluding in 2014 – all of which will have an impact on the human rights of its citizens. There have been some distinct human rights achievements during the past 12 years, but they are fragile, and many Afghans are expressing fears that the overall human rights situation is deteriorating on several fronts.

Over the past two days I have discussed these issues with President Hamid Karzai, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Interior, the National Director of Security and the Deputy Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. I have also held talks with the Chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), and with members of civil society, including several key umbrella organizations representing large nationwide groupings of NGOs. I also met with the diplomatic community and with the Deputy Commander of ISAF and NATO Deputy Senior Civilian Representative.

My first aim has been to focus on the importance of ensuring these gains are consolidated rather than undermined. This will take determination and courage on the part of the President and his Government, and on the part of many thousands of State employees at both the national and provincial levels, and of Afghanistan’s active civil society and media. They will need to stand firm, not only against rising political pressures as the election approaches, but also against the ominous background of a sharp climb in the number of civilian casualties during the first six months of 2013.

Causes of this include the increased indiscriminate use of improvised explosive devices, as well as a sharp increase in targeted killings of civilians, especially government officials, by anti-Government forces. Although the vast majority of civilian casualties are caused by anti-Government forces, the number of civilian casualties caused by actions of various Afghan security forces including police – has also risen, and in my discussions with the new Minister of Interior and National Director of Security, just hours after they were confirmed in their positions by the lower house of parliament, I stressed the need to try to reduce the numbers of civilians killed and injured during military and police operations. They pointed out the tragic fact that the security forces themselves are suffering a constant stream of casualties at the hands of armed groups.

My second focus has been on the issue of violence against women. The landmark law on the Elimination of Violence against Women was a very significant achievement. However, implementation has been slow, and extremely patchy, especially in rural areas, with police reluctant to enforce the legal prohibition against violence, and prosecutors and courts also slow to enforce the legal protections contained in the law.

Violence against women remains endemic, and I have urged the relevant authorities to do their utmost to speed up and improve the implementation of this important law, which President Karzai passed by decree in 2009. I am encouraged by the ready acknowledgement by top Government officials that much more needs to be done, especially in rural areas, and their commitment to pursuing further improvement, I also note the widespread concern among civil society groups that the momentum on advancing women’s rights has halted, and indeed may even be regressing.

I thanked President Karzai for his strong public stand against the use of torture in numerous Afghan detention facilities. I requested the Government, as well as the Deputy Chief Justice, to act more firmly to ensure that cases where torture has been used to extract confessions are thrown out and that perpetrators of torture are prosecuted. Until this happens on a regular basis, the extent of torture taking place in Afghanistan today is unlikely to diminish. As far as we are aware, there has not yet been a single successful prosecution of a state employee for torture, and few, if any, thorough investigations designed to result in prosecutions.

The third main topic of discussion during my visit has been the future of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. This extremely important national institution succeeded, in an impressively short space of time after it was set up, in gaining the coveted ‘A’ Status under the Paris Principles – an international peer-run system of accreditation for these key national human rights bodies, which now exist in more than 100 states worldwide.

The status of the AIHRC will be reviewed this November during a rigorous examination by the cross-regional body of 16 “A” Status National Institutions, known as the International Coordinating Committee. There are real concerns -- which I share -- that the recent process leading up to the appointment of five new members of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission was sufficiently flawed for it to lose its “A” Status. This would be a very serious and regrettable setback for one of the current Afghan Government’s most notable achievements in the area of human rights. It is essential that the AIHRC is strengthened, not weakened, and I made a strong plea to President Karzai, who is in a position to rectify the problem, to do his utmost to strengthen the position of the AIHRC before it comes up for review in two months’ time.

To sum up, I end this visit to Afghanistan with mixed feelings. I had some good meetings, and heard some important commitments, particularly from the two new security chiefs. But my concern that the momentum of improvement in human rights may have not only peaked, but is in reality waning, has not been allayed. In addition to the issues I have already raised, related issues such as improvement of justice, development, alleviation of poverty and economic rights are going to need continued attention for many years to come.

I urge an extra effort by the President and his Government to ensure that the human rights gains of the past 12 years are not sacrificed to political expediency during these last few months before the election.

Afghanistan needs to brace itself to ensure that the tumultuous changes that will take place before the end of 2014 do not trigger a serious deterioration in the human rights of any segments of the population, especially women. Afghans have suffered enough over the past 34 years of conflict, destruction, displacement, hunger, greed and deprivation. We all owe it to them to make an extra effort to ensure the fulfillment of their human rights, to which they are all entitled. Afghanistan itself was a pioneer on human rights: one of the initial group of nations responsible for the creation of the UN Charter in 1946 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It is time its population drew the full benefit of the system its Government helped create all those years ago.

Thank you

ENDS

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