Roundtable Discussion with Afghan Press on Democracy and Human Rights


Assistant Secretary Posner: I am very pleased to be back in Afghanistan. Over the last three days in Kabul and Jalalabad, I have had a series of very informative, productive meetings with government officials and with members of Afghan civil society, including religious leaders, journalists, lawyers, and human rights activists, including brave defenders of women’s rights. I also participated in the U.S.-Afghanistan Bilateral Commission Working Group on “Promoting Shared Democratic Values,” which I co-chair. The working group, created by Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Rassoul last October, builds on our strategic partnership agreement. It seeks to identify and advance concrete measures to support the mutual accountability framework agreed upon in Tokyo by the Afghan government and the international community.

As President Obama noted after his recent meeting with President Karzai, there have been a range of improvements in the security situation in Afghanistan, including a greatly expanded assumption of authority and responsibility by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). This month, in conjunction with the fourth tranche of transition, the ANSF is expected to have the lead role in securing nearly 90% of the Afghan population. As Afghanistan assumes full responsibility for its security, the upcoming presidential election in April 2014 constitutes a crucial milestone. In my discussions here, I have heard many Afghans’ aspiration for a free, fair, inclusive, and democratic process — which is essential for a credible election, and which the United States fully supports. Credible elections are a shared responsibility for a democratic society, and electoral institutions, the government, political parties, media, civil society, and citizens alike need to work together to ensure an outcome accepted by all Afghans. We also support a strong Independent Election Commission, including a neutral and credible Chairman, best achieved through an inclusive and consultative selection process mandated by law.

We welcome the government’s ongoing work, through the High Peace Council (HPC), to advance an Afghan-led peace and reconciliation process. We all recognize that if such a process succeeds it will be the surest way to end the violence, ensure stability, and ultimately build a sustainable democratic future for Afghanistan.

This is a very important transitional period for Afghanistan – a time when friends of the Afghan government and people need to speak honestly about the remaining challenges, and then to stand with Afghans as they work to address their problems. We see three sets of human rights concerns. First are issues relating to building democracy and ensuring a fair and inclusive elections process in 2014. Second are issues relating to the process of peace and reconciliation, and to ensuring that women and other vulnerable groups have the constitutional protections they deserve in the course of this process. Finally there are important issues relating to security policies and practices.

With respect to the electoral process and the 2014 presidential elections, a number of civil society activists and government representatives with whom we met focused on the need for parliament to act quickly and in consultation with all interested stakeholders to adopt a new electoral law and a companion law that would define the electoral dispute resolution mechanism. They also view the appointment of a new chair for the Independent Election Commission as a key litmus test. Finally, they spoke of the need to expand public engagement and civic education to encourage broader and more inclusive voter participation next year, and for there to be active election monitoring.

Regarding the peace and reconciliation process, while there is wide recognition of the importance of this work, many with whom we spoke expressed concern that the process itself needs to involve more consultation with women and a diverse group of people from communities across the country. There is also a widespread desire – which we share – that as this process takes shape, it must protect the constitutional rights of all citizens, including women and those from other vulnerable groups. President Karzai and President Obama both recognized that the High Peace Council should be the only body negotiating peace with the armed opposition. This makes it essential that the Council continue to work to live up to its mandate to represent the voices of all Afghans. It is critical that it conducts meaningful and regularized outreach to Afghan civil society.

As Afghans continue to face many threats to their personal security – from the Taliban and other violent elements – the government should seek to advance a rights-based approach to national security. Effective security practices and respect for core human rights principles go hand in hand. Official accountability on a wide range of subjects enhances public confidence in government. The government’s appointment of a committee to examine allegations of coercive detention practices contained in a recent UNAMA report provides a good opportunity to investigate these allegations and to take remedial measures.

While these challenges are constant and formidable, we recognize the sacrifices that are being made each day by the Afghan people to move the country forward, and that considerable progress is being achieved. Lasting change can only come from within a society. The United States remains committed to supporting the Afghan people and to working with others in the international community to help Afghans – government and civil society – promote a sustainable democracy that will be the basis for stability and security in Afghanistan, and for our countries’ enduring partnership.

And now I’ll take your questions.

Media: [Through Interpreter]. Thank you very much. Shakila from Tolo TV.

She said in fact you shared the views and concerns of the Afghans from different part of the country you have met with. What’s your view in regard to these issues? You are representing the State Department. How do you evaluate the general human rights situation in Afghanistan? What’s your view in regard to elections?

Assistant Secretary Posner: Thank you for the question.

I think the statement I read does reflect the view of the United States government and it is a view that includes both hope about the progress that’s been made, but also a recognition that there are a range of challenges going forward.

With respect to the elections, we had very good discussions, both with the Independent Election Commission, but also with civil society, about the need for the two laws to be adopted, for there to be a timely appointment of the head of the Election Commission, and for there to be a process that’s open, fair, transparent, and that has the trust of the Afghan people. All of that is going to take work, but we are eager to stand behind the Afghan government and people as they undertake those efforts.

I would just stress, as we’ve said before, that the decisions made in an election are for the Afghan people themselves. Our desire is that there be an open, fair, inclusive process that gives people the ability to make choices about the government they want.

Media: [Through Interpreter]. From Voice of America.

Her question is about violations of women’s rights in Afghanistan. As you might know, women’s rights in Afghanistan are being violated on a daily basis and it is increasing every day. And there are concerns why these violations occur. And threats to women are also increasing on a daily basis. Her question is what is the role and participation of United States human rights organizations regarding tackling these issues and helping Afghan women.

Assistant Secretary Posner: The issue of violence against women has been a priority for the United States for many years. It continues to be a priority for us and for Secretary Kerry.

We believe very strongly that healthy, vibrant societies empower women, who strengthen both political and economic institutions and the well-being of a society. The rights of women are guaranteed both by international human rights treaties and standards and by Afghan law. And so the challenge is to make sure that those standards are implemented in a serious way.

There are issues related to lack of capacity among government agencies. There are also issues about the political will to hold accountable people who commit violent acts. Those are issues that we’ve had very open discussions with both the government and civil society about.

Media: Jennifer Glass, Al Jazeera English.

Do you have any indications or any examples of why you feel the Afghan government is as committed to human rights and transparency as you are? Because we’ve seen in the last few weeks, like you say, the UNAMA reports is a good opportunity and yet the Karzai government hasn’t appointed anybody with human rights background on the investigation committee, and has actually really pushed back on any kind of criticism of the government.

Assistant Secretary Posner: The Afghan government, like every government I know, is not a monolith. There are people within the government that are pushing hard for more transparency, more accountability, more inclusion, and there are others who are not.

I think the UNAMA report and the fact that there is now the appointment of a committee to look at it provides an opportunity for the government to do the right thing, which is to undertake a serious investigation and to, as I said in my statement, take appropriate measures based on what they find.

This is one of a number of specific things where the U.S. government will continue to monitor, continue to engage, and to continue to reinforce the notion that matters of human rights and democracy matter to us and they will continue to be part of our bilateral engagement with the government of Afghanistan.

Media: Amie Ferris-Rotman, Reuters.

Civil society groups that I’ve been speaking to in recent months say that there’s been sort of a tightening in the way in which they operate, and they think that there’s greater scrutiny of how they operate leading up to 2014. Was this your finding as well? If so, what reasons do you attribute this to?

Assistant Secretary Posner: I haven’t been here in three years, and I had more contact on this trip both in Kabul and Jalalabad with a wide range of civil society actors. I’m more optimistic than that, that there really is a lively, smart, principled civil society here and it’s one of the strengths of this country.

They’re determined, they’re focused, and they are very much committed now to not turning the clock backwards.

That doesn’t mean that they don’t meet all kinds of obstacles. They do, and we heard many accounts of that. But I think one of the messages or one of the feelings I have leaving here is that this is a moment where civil society and the government need to find more ways and more avenues to engage directly on the most sensitive and difficult issues, and that ultimately the future of this country and the future of a democratic Afghanistan will depend on the engagement between civil society and the government.

The pieces are in place. The people in civil society know what they want and they’re determined and I think it’s for governments like ours to amplify those voices to make sure that that engagement is real.

Media: Thanks for coming.

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