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Bonn Conference 2011: Time to get it right in Afghanistan

Bonn Conference 2011: Time to get it right in Afghanistan

December 5, 2011

Oxfam Media Background Brief


The Bonn Conference comes at a critical moment and it will last only one day. But a lot can happen in a day; lives can be changed. In which direction the change will take Afghanistan will be up to the participating leaders, and they must keep the needs of ordinary Afghans at the heart of the talks.

Oxfam believes that the players involved need to take a fresh look at Afghanistan and construct a new vision for the future of this troubled country. Over the past decade, approximately $57 billion in international aid has been committed to Afghanistan yet the country still faces the most basic of development and humanitarian challenges. For instance, two million people are at risk of hunger this winter because of the drought earlier this year. About one billion of the $57 billion came from Canada.

Meanwhile, NATO states are looking to the exit and there is a very real risk that the government of Afghanistan will be left unprepared to face the post-2014 challenges. The Bonn Conference must reverse that trend and instead mark a genuine turning point in the way the international community engages with Afghanistan.

It is absolutely vital that this precious time at Bonn must not be spent on posturing, flowery speeches and empty promises. The Afghan people, living in one of the poorest countries in the world, deserve better.

Delegates must be bold and ambitious. This is a significant opportunity to make progress in the three key areas which will benefit Afghans the most: women’s rights; security sector reform; and long-term aid which meets the needs of the poorest Afghans.

Now is the time for new innovations and true commitment from both the international community and the Afghan government. The needs of ordinary Afghans must not be sidelined at Bonn if Afghanistan is to ever be a stable, peaceful and economically-viable state.

Women could lose their hard-won rights

“The price we pay for peace should not undermine the gains from the past decade.”
Noorul Haq Oloomi, from the Hezb-e Mutahid-e Milli political party

The significant gains in women’s rights since 2001 are illustrated by the fact that 11 women will be in the official Afghan delegation to Bonn. Canada contributed importantly to this progress through support for girls’ education.

But Afghan women fear these gains are hanging in the balance – at risk from a quick-fix bargain for peace with the Taliban and other armed opposition groups. Already, some improvements are being eroded. For instance, the number of women in the civil service has dropped from 31 per cent in 2006 to 18.5 per cent in 2010 and girls’ education is at risk from a toxic mix of poverty and insecurity.

Violence against women is also increasing: in the second quarter of 2011 alone, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission registered 1,026 cases of violence against women, nearly half as many as in the entire year between March 2010 and March 2011.

United Nations human rights officials found that successful prosecutions in cases of violence against women are rare, despite the government’s ground-breaking Elimination of Violence Against Women law – which criminalizes harmful traditional practices such as honour killings, child marriages and giving away girls to settle disputes.

Bonn is the moment for all Foreign Ministers and the Afghan government to put pledges into action and make progress on:

  • Ensuring women play an active and meaningful role in peace and reconciliation
  • Committing to safeguard women’s rights in any future peace deal, for example by including benchmarks for the numbers of girls in school and women in public life.
  • Pushing the Afghan government to fully and effectively implement the ground-breaking Elimination of Violence Against Women Law in every Afghan province.


Security forces – end abuses and improve accountability

The Afghan army and especially the police are not ready to properly safeguard civilians, as thousands of police officers have yet to receive training and 80 per cent of police recruits are illiterate. The force routinely does not investigate civilian deaths at its own hands.

In the first six months of 2011 alone, at least 25 civilians were killed and 159 were injured in crowd control incidents. None of these incidents were promptly investigated.

Even more unsettling, the Afghan national security forces have been accused of torture, killings, recruitment and sexual abuse of children – crimes which many Afghans believe are carried out with impunity.

The international military forces in Afghanistan for too long focused on quantity rather than quality in building up a national army and police force. They have not done enough to prevent these crimes, or put structures in place to help bring the perpetrators to justice. There is a serious risk that abuses and violations by Afghan forces will escalate as their frontline role increases. The international community, including Canada, funds, arms and supports these forces. During the handover of security, NATO states have a clear obligation to address the forces’ culture of abuse and impunity.

The Afghan Local Police (ALP) initiative, which involves supporting local militia groups to fight the insurgency, is also a serious concern. There are continuing allegations of serious misconduct by ALP members, including robberies, assaults and even murder.

When it comes to serving Afghan women and girls, there are just over 1,000 women in the police force, not enough to deal with the huge numbers of crimes against women, who often will only report them to female police officers.

Bonn is an opportunity to take significant steps forward on security and justice for Afghan men and women:

  • The United States should immediately suspend any further expansion of the ALP
  • Supporting improved training, vetting and monitoring of the security forces by the Afghan government
  • Tackling the culture of impunity, for example by pushing for prosecutions of offenders
  • Ensuring better training, including for those officers who have yet to receive any training whatsoever
  • Encouraging the police force to recruit more women.


Poverty and hunger in Afghanistan – the forgotten story

Against the backdrop of conflict, Afghanistan still lurches from one humanitarian crisis to the next. One in three Afghans cannot feed themselves adequately each year and this situation has been exacerbated by the recent drought.

The continuing problems with hunger and malnutrition facing millions of Afghans, despite the billions spent in aid, are a graphic illustration of the mismanagement of aid in Afghanistan. Too much money and aid has gone to win hearts and minds in conflict-affected areas, rather than going to people most in need. There has been a clear preference for quick-fix projects that are often inefficient and inappropriate over long-term development that yields lasting results.

Aid has also been wasted because of corruption, poor governance, poorly designed projects and a lack of consultation with Afghan communities to understand their real needs. A stronger role for Afghan civil society organizations in monitoring how aid is spent and holding their leaders to account is essential to ensure aid is spent appropriately and effectively.

Steps can be taken in Bonn to ensure Aid to Afghanistan in the coming years must be more focussed and better spent by:

  • Prioritizing the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable Afghans, rather than using aid to pursue political objectives in conflict-affected areas
  • Committing to long-term solutions to alleviate poverty and reduce people’s vulnerability to humanitarian crises



It’s time for progress for all Afghans and not just an elite few. Progress that does not have a double-edged agenda of winning hearts and minds along the way.

Ordinary Afghans want the same as people all over the world. They want to send their children to school in safety, they want enough to eat, clean fresh water to drink and access to basic healthcare. All of this should be within their grasp.

Life in Afghanistan will not change overnight, whatever happens at Bonn. But the international community must make sure that Afghans themselves, particularly women, are meaningfully involved in shaping their country’s future.

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