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Afghanistan: Security Council videoconference on UNAMA

Tomorrow (25 June), Security Council members will convene an open videoconferencing (VTC) meeting, followed by a closed VTC session, on the situation in Afghanistan. Deborah Lyons, Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), is expected to brief on recent developments and the Secretary-General’s 17 June report on UNAMA. Ghada Fathi Waly, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and Shaharzad Akbar, chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), will also brief the Council.

The Secretary-General’s report, covering developments in Afghanistan since his 17 March report, paints a picture of the complex situation in the country. While the recent political impasse among Afghan government elites has been resolved and several phases of prisoner exchanges have been completed between the Afghan government and the Taliban, persistently high levels of violence continued to erode confidence between the sides. Throughout the reporting period, the civilian population continued to bear the brunt of violent attacks, with an overall dire situation exacerbated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A key focus of tomorrow’s meeting is expected to be the progress towards intra-Afghan negotiations, which were stipulated in the 29 February Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan signed by the US and the Taliban and in the Joint Declaration for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan issued by the US and the Afghan government. Resolution 2513, which welcomed the progress towards a political settlement of the war in Afghanistan, called on the parties to carry out confidence-building measures to facilitate the commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations, including reductions in violence and the release of prisoners.

Council members are likely to express support for the peace process in Afghanistan, while welcoming steps such as the resolution of the dispute in the Afghan government over the results of the 28 September 2019 presidential elections. On 17 May, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah—who had contested the results of the election and declared himself the rightful victor—signed a power-sharing deal under which Abdullah relinquished an executive role in the government in exchange for half of the cabinet positions for his coalition (50 seats in total) and his own appointment as chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), which will oversee the peace talks with the Taliban.

In addition to the resolution of the political stalemate in Afghanistan, which was seen by many as one of the preconditions for movement towards intra-Afghan negotiations, some tenuous progress was made on the issue of prisoner exchanges between the two parties. The Taliban continues to view the government’s full release of the 5,000 prisoners who are Taliban members as a precondition for its participation in the peace talks. At the time of writing, the Afghan government has released more than 3,000 Taliban prisoners, while the Taliban has released approximately 500 Afghan prisoners.

Council members are expected to express concern regarding the persistently high levels of violence in the country, which continue to cloud prospects for intra–Afghan negotiations. Tensions between the sides mounted following two attacks on 12 May—one on a Kabul hospital in which assailants attacked a maternity ward, resulting in at least 24 deaths, mostly of women and newborn babies, and another on a funeral in Nangarhar, in which at least 25 civilians were killed and 68 injured. The latter attack was claimed by the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP), while the former was not claimed by any group. On 23 May, both sides observed a three-day ceasefire for the duration of the Eid al-Fitr holiday. This marked the second time a formal ceasefire was observed between the sides in nearly two decades of war, with the first brief cessation of hostilities taking place in 2018, also during the Eid al-Fitr holiday. The ceasefire was not extended and, soon afterwards, attacks against Afghan security forces resumed.

International mediation efforts raised hopes that intra-Afghan negotiations might commence in the near future, with international stakeholders estimating that face-to-face talks between the sides might start in July in Doha, Qatar. However, at the time of writing, a date for the start of the negotiations had yet to be set and a recent uptick in violent attacks has created further uncertainty. According to Afghan government officials, during the week of 15 June, the Taliban carried out 422 attacks in 32 provinces, killing 291 security personnel and wounding 550 others. The Taliban, while admitting to having committed attacks in that period, rejects the figures presented by the Afghan government. On 22 June, two prosecutors and three other employees of the Attorney General’s Office were killed in an attack by gunmen on the outskirts of Kabul. The attack was not claimed by any group and the Taliban has denied involvement. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative to Afghanistan, condemned the attack, stating that the victims had been working to facilitate the prisoner releases between the sides. He further called on the sides to not be deterred by spoilers who are attempting to delay the peace process.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members might seek further information from Lyons on the prospects for the start of the intra-Afghan negotiations and on UNAMA’s possible role in the envisioned negotiations. In that regard, Lyons may update the Council on her recent meetings with representatives from both sides, including her 21 June meeting with Taliban deputy leader Mullah Baradar, and meetings in Kabul with government officials such as Abdullah and Masoom Stanekzai, head of the Afghan government negotiations team, in which she conveyed the availability of impartial UN expertise and assistance to support the peace process.

Several Council members might stress the importance of ensuring the meaningful participation of women in the negotiations. They may also emphasise the need to preserve women’s rights, as enshrined in the Afghan constitution, as part of the peace process. The Taliban has previously criticised the Afghan government’s negotiations team, which includes four women, and questioned whether it was truly representative.

Shaharzad Akbar is expected to brief on the human rights situation in Afghanistan, including in the context of the effects of COVID-19. In this regard, she may address its worrying impact on vulnerable populations such as women and children. According to the Secretary-General’s report, lockdown measures put in place to stem the spread of the pandemic in Afghanistan are likely to have increased domestic violence against women and girls. In addition, the report warns that women, especially those outside Kabul, may be disproportionately affected by the pandemic due to limited access to health-care services.  Akbar may also emphasise the importance of preserving civil liberties in the context of the pandemic. The Secretary-General’s report notes instances in which journalists were arrested, presumably for raising concerns about the government’s COVID-19 response, and in which security forces reportedly killed civilians who were participating in protests criticising the perceived lack of transparency in the government’s distribution of humanitarian aid. In addition, Akbar may call for the inclusion of transitional justice principles in the future intra-Afghan negotiations, while presenting the mechanisms proposed by her organisation to promote a more inclusive and victim-centred peace process.

Several Council members, such as Belgium and Germany, are likely to raise the dire situation of children in Afghanistan. The Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict, issued on 9 June, states that Afghanistan remains the deadliest country for children, as 3,149 cases of killing and maiming of children were confirmed in 2019. According to the report, armed groups bear responsibility for 1,535 casualties and pro-government forces, including international forces, for 1,032 casualties.

Another likely topic of discussion is the socio-economic effects of COVID-19 in the country. Lockdown measures instituted in Afghanistan since 27 March have had a serious impact on economic activity, with the World Bank estimating that its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will decrease by 17 percent in 2020. The Secretary-General expressed concern in his UNAMA report regarding the 13.4 million people who face crisis and emergency levels of food insecurity and called for renewed international assistance and national leadership on this issue. The Humanitarian Response Plan for Afghanistan has been revised to support the Afghan government’s COVID-19 response and is now seeking 1.1 billion US dollars to assist 11.1 million people in need.

Another issue which may be raised at tomorrow’s meeting is the 5 March ruling of the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) which allowed the Prosecutor of the ICC to commence an investigation in relation to alleged crimes committed in Afghanistan by the Taliban, Afghan government forces and US forces since 2003. The decision of the Appeals Chamber overruled a previous decision of Pre-Trial Chamber II of the ICC, made on 12 April 2019, to not proceed with such an investigation. On 26 March, the Afghan government requested the ICC to defer to Afghanistan’s domestic investigations and provided the Prosecutor with a summary outline of national investigations and proceedings being undertaken in the country. The US, which is not party to the Rome Statute of the ICC and does not recognise the court’s jurisdiction, has expressed its opposition to the investigation. On 11 June, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US will impose economic penalties and travel restrictions on ICC investigators looking into allegations against crimes committed by US forces in Afghanistan. At tomorrow’s meeting, some members may note in general the need to uphold accountability and investigate allegations of human rights violations in the country.   At the time of writing, 67 member states had joined a statement of support for the ICC, including Council members Belgium, Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, St Vincent and the Grenadines, South Africa, Tunisia and the United Kingdom.

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