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Human Rights and the Taliban

Human Rights and the Taliban Lorne W. Craner Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Remarks at the Washington Foreign Press Center Tuesday, November 6, 2001

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It's a pleasure to be here today to discuss the human rights situation in Afghanistan. We think it's important for the world to know the situation in which Afghan men and women are living today.

I testified on the Hill the other day. I said at the time that under Taliban rule, Afghanistan has one of the worst human rights records in the world. Universally accepted human rights, particularly those of women, are virtually nonexistent. The human rights of women and girls, ethnic and religious minorities, and indeed all who do not share the Taliban's increasingly radical interpretation of Islam continue to be systematically denied by the Taliban. And I would encourage you, beyond listening to me today, to check out the websites of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch; a May 2000 report -- 2001 report by Physicians for Human Rights; and a Journal of the American Medical Association article published -- on women in Afghanistan -- on August 5th, 1998.

The Secretary of State has identified Taliban-ruled Afghanistan as a country of particular concern, in view of the Taliban's serious violations of religious freedom.

The promotion of human rights, particularly the human rights of women and girls, is a high priority for us in Afghanistan today. Even before September 11th, we kept the international spotlight focused on the Taliban's abuses. And we remain the largest provider of humanitarian assistance to Afghans, focusing on the weakest and the most vulnerable. We are committed to a greatly improved human rights situation under a broad-based, representative government in Afghanistan, and we are working at this moment with other countries and with the United Nations (UN) to bring about that change.

I'll take your questions now.

QUESTION: I know that your -- (inaudible) -- are not just focused in Afghanistan, democracy and human rights, but -- (off mike). That's why (inaudible) to the Middle East. There have been, actually, a lot of writings over the past 4 or 5 weeks that -- I mean, suggesting that the feelings of frustration and what's perceived as extremism in the Middle East is not just blamed on the Middle East peace failure, but just on what's described as lack of democracy in the region. I just need your insight on that. And do you believe that we do have a democratization process taking place in the Middle East step by step, or do you see nothing of that?

MR. CRANER: I think that democratization is not the only answer to terrorism, but it is part of the answer. And I think if you look, there are a number of countries in the Middle East, which, frankly, deserve greater notice here for the process they're going through in opening up their society.

I was in Oman 2 years ago, where the sultan began a process in basically the early 1990s, to begin to open up the society through the formation of what is turning into a legislature, where both men and women can vote, where both men and women are represented. The purview of the legislature remains somewhat limited today, but it is a gradual, step- by-step process.

Look again just up the coast at Qatar, which is planning important elections for just a few years from now, local elections. Look at Kuwait -- Kuwait has had a functioning parliament for some years. So I think there is cause for optimism, in a sense, in the Middle East. There are a number of countries that are at the leading edge of this movement, both in terms of formal processes of democratization but also in terms of some greater freedoms. In a number of the countries I just mentioned, you can go into a Catholic church. A number of the countries I just mentioned, women form over half the university population and women are involved in the workforce. So I think there is cause for optimism as you see some of those examples, particularly at the moment in the Persian Gulf. There are others around the Middle East. But I think there is cause for optimism.

QUESTION: Democracy and human rights go along with dialogue, constructive dialogue. Don't you think it is important for the United States at this stage to engage in a dialogue with Taliban, given the fact that the isolation of the regime there contributed to the terrorist attack that struck America in September? And many countries, many governments around the world do not have a relationship with the Taliban regime, which give them, you know, a window of opportunity to maneuver, not -- beyond any control. Don't you think it's important?

MR. CRANER: Well, first of all, I think whatever isolation Afghanistan is undergoing has been imposed in essence by the Taliban. The United States tried dialogue with the Taliban for many years, and that dialogue pretty much ended on September 11th. The president has made very clear what we're seeking from the Taliban.

QUESTION: You talked about humanitarian assistance. It's quite clear that there isn't going to be a pause in the bombing for the holy month of Ramadan. But several of the aid agencies are calling for a pause, saying that if they don't get food and assistance in now, then, you know, there's going to be a huge catastrophe. How can the U.S. reconcile the question that if it's concerned about human rights, it would stop the bombing and, you know, have both human rights -- deliver the food; you know, people's human right to eat.

MR. CRANER: The scale of the refugee problem in Afghanistan is not a product of this bombing. It is something that has been going on for many years. The sooner there is a broad-based, representative government in Afghanistan, the sooner there's a peaceful country to which refugees can return, the sooner this refugee crisis is going to end.

QUESTION: Given the potential for human rights abuses by various elements of the broad-based government, given their past track records, are you planning special safeguards to protect the Afghan people from any new government and any sort of power vacuum that follows?

MR. CRANER: Well, I think a number of people in the administration have made very clear, we're looking at the outset for a broad-based representative government that respects human rights, amongst many other things. But we're looking for a government that we're not going to have to protect the people of Afghanistan from.

I met with a gentleman from the UN today who put it very succinctly. He said, "We're looking to restore Afghanistan to its people." And I think that's what we'll be looking for at the outset.

QUESTION: Given that a broad-based government could include members of, say, the Northern Alliance that have some, frankly, patchy human rights records, also some moderate Taliban members, is there anything the U.S. can do to make sure that some of the abuses of the past aren't repeated?

MR. CRANER: We've already made very clear, including to people in the Northern Alliance, that our aid today and their inclusion tomorrow is in part dependent on their record on human rights these months.

QUESTION: The Muslim holy month, Ramadan, is coming up and people are a little bit afraid that the United States may go ahead with the bombing of Afghanistan. Do you see any political risk for you to go ahead with bombing given the fact that you are right now seeking help and diplomatic support from Muslim countries?

MR. CRANER: No. I think, if you look at the history of the last 50 years in the Middle East, I believe there's been a war going on for 30-some of those years that has involved, on at least one side, an Arab-Islamic country.

QUESTION: So, would you go ahead with bombing?

MR. CRANER: I'm not in charge of the bombing. You'd have to ask Secretary Powell and Donald Rumsfeld.

QUESTION: Will the military oppression continue during Ramadan?

MR. CRANER: Again, you'd have to ask them.

QUESTION: Can you talk about the humanitarian assistance that the government is trying to attempt during this time, in conjunction with the bombing campaign?

MR. CRANER: As I've said, the U.S. is the largest donor. As you know, the air drops are well publicized, but I know that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) under Andrew Natsios's leadership -- and one of his fortes is disaster relief -- has been looking for a variety of means and methods to be able to deliver the aid -- not only on the border, but also inside Afghanistan.

So far, he has proven very, very innovative at that, and I know he'll continue to be innovative.

QUESTION: Are we likely to see increased airdrops as the winter comes and, obviously, the weather is going to be very severe?

MR. CRANER: You'd have to ask Andrew that. The methodology is his.

QUESTION: Is Andrew coming?

MODERATOR: We will have the director for humanitarian assistance from USAID here on Thursday to follow up on that.

QUESTION: You know that the U.S. was involved within Afghanistan like 10 years or more ago during the Soviet invasion, and helped the Afghans, at least militarily. So there is some sort of a debate that the U.S. followed a hands-off policy in Afghanistan, and that contributed largely to the failure to build democratic institutions in Afghanistan and to care for human rights in general.

Where does the U.S. argument fit in that debate? And there is, you know, some sort of a belief that the U.S. is now following this "feed and then kill" policy after what happened for 10 years. So what kind of argument can you provide today to help the people, to convince them that the U.S. has been involved for long years, not just now?

MR. CRANER: I'd like to say a couple of things. One is, in the years between '89 and today, the U.S. continued to expand humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and was among the largest, if not the largest donor during those years.

The second thing is that I think it's a myth that the U.S. somehow created the existence of the Taliban. None of the senior Taliban commanders really fought in the civil war. Bin Laden did not -- he financed, but he did not fight in the civil war. So it simply isn't true that the U.S. helped create these monsters that are out there today.

And the final thing is that I think it's clear that the U.S. has taken it on to help bring about a better human rights situation in Afghanistan, and to be able to deliver that.

QUESTION: Just to follow up on his question, I think the question isn't about humanitarian assistance. I think there is a difference between democracy-building and providing food. The essence of the question that he's trying to ask, and I'd like to know about too, is does the United States feel comfortable with the role it played in Afghanistan, after it had driven the Soviets out, in building democracy in Afghanistan? I'm not asking about humanitarian assistance. What did the U.S. do to actually promote, help, and build democracy in Afghanistan?

MR. CRANER: Oh, I think it's obvious we didn't do enough, or Afghanistan, I think, would be a different place today. But it is also not just incumbent on the United States. We don't walk into a country and impose a democracy. It is, in large part, us assisting people in the countries who want to bring democracy themselves. That's how these things happen. I can only think of two instances where it's been otherwise, and they were Japan and Germany.

QUESTION: If that is indeed true, when we try to rebuild Afghanistan -- looking beyond the airstrikes there and the battle that we're waging there, we are now involved in Afghanistan. We are now involved in whatever the fate that Afghanistan is going to face in the future. We will have to play some kind of a role there in the rebuilding to also help in democracy building.

MR. CRANER: Right.

QUESTION: So, is there a lesson learned, or are we going to say, "We're fighting terrorism, but that really doesn't have anything to do with democracy building. So we're going to fight terrorism, but we don't help countries build democracies."

That's not what we say to other countries, Lorne. You know, we often -- we often go into countries and tell them that we are going to help them build democracy within their borders. We didn't do that with Afghanistan. Have we learned a lesson from that? And will we help build democracy, not just another government in Afghanistan, after this war is over?

MR. CRANER: No, I think a number of people, from the Secretary of State and the President on down, have stated our commitment to human rights in Afghanistan, including a broad-based representative government. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from democracy building that the U.S. and others, most importantly, I think will be applying as we assist people in Afghanistan who want to bring democracy to their country. And I would say that I would imagine most people in Afghanistan, having lived through the Taliban, would very much want to see that.

QUESTION: I have two questions. One, is that as far as I remember, there have been some reports of the human rights abuse even before Taliban, especially since after mujaheddin took Kabul in '92.

So do you think that human rights abuse by Taliban is something very much different from previous government? That's my first question.

And the second question is that -- how are you going to resolve conflicts between the idea of the respect of human rights and their Islamic or Afghan traditions? For instance, that burka, the veil which covers from head to toe, for women -- that attire existed for long, long time in that country. So how are you going to tell it is one example of the human rights abuse in Afghanistan? Thank you.

MR. CRANER: The human rights abuses that the Taliban have imposed on Afghanistan are in a class by themselves. In a number of categories, they rate in the worst possible sector. There's no other country on earth that has this kind of treatment of women.

I met with a group of Afghan women earlier, who were talking about the period after 1964, after the 1964 constitution. One of them left Afghanistan when she was 21. She moved to New Zealand to go to college. And she said that societally -- this is very difficult for us to imagine today -- but societally New Zealand did not feel that much different from Kabul in those days.

For Americans, I think, a lot of history of Afghanistan began in 1979. But it had a very long history before that, with the liberalization that began in the 1920s and that really came of age in 1964, with a new constitution that provided equal rights for men and women; that allowed them, unlike the Taliban, to go to college; that allowed them, unlike the Taliban, to wear what they wanted to, including, if they so desired, the burka, which they did wear in many rural areas; that did not impose the kind of religious restrictions you see today; that did not try to destroy Afghan culture the way that occurred -- in some ways, it's quite similar, actually, to the Cultural Revolution in China -- the way the heritage of the country is being destroyed today.

So, if you look back in Afghan history, certainly pre- Taliban, certainly if you go all the way back to the 1960s, certainly in the Islamic world, this was actually a relatively liberal country.

It is very far removed from where they've been in the past. It's very, very far removed from where many, many Middle Eastern countries are today in terms of their treatment of women, in terms of religion, and in terms of general treatment of the population, including in wartime. It's very much different from the past.

So, one of the reports I mentioned, the Physicians for Human Rights report, I think is worth reading because it points out how most men in Afghanistan actually don't think women are being treated in the right manner. That might come as a surprise to some of us, that many of these edicts that are underway today are not agreed to by most of the Afghan people, and that's because they have had something different in the past.

QUESTION: Going back to the participation of some of the members of the Northern Alliance in the post-Taliban regime, did you say that the possible participation of some of the members of Northern Alliance would all depend on the human rights record of those members? Is my understanding correct?

MR. CRANER: We've made clear to them that our aid today and their participation in a future government is in part dependent on their performance in human rights issues today.

QUESTION: My question is loosely connected to this topic. In previous administrations before the September 11 attacks, [the U.S.] paid great attention to opium production in Afghanistan and there were even some informal contacts between American officials and Taliban representatives. Could you elaborate on this issue, which also greatly contributes to human rights abuses? Is the administration convinced as it was a few months ago that the Taliban's really stopped opium production?

MR. CRANER: What has become clear is that while production was cut, the storage of raw opium was kept up. And as the price increased on world markets, the value of these stocks that exist in Afghanistan has been driven up dramatically. I'll leave it at that on that one.

QUESTION: My colleague just here brought up this point about women in Afghanistan wearing that sort of attire covering their whole body. And my concern, my question actually is if some countries in the Arab world and in the Islamic world, like Saudi Arabia, like Afghanistan -- wherever, they so choose that women should not cover their heads, cover their faces for some interpretation of Islam, whether we accept that or not, if so they choose, is it the business of the U.S. to tell them that this is a human rights violation?

Is it the business of the U.S. to impose its self-styled code of human rights and freedom on countries that might have different cultures, might have different interpretations of human rights?

MR. CRANER: The issue in Afghanistan in terms of human rights goes way beyond the wearing of the burka. It goes to the fact that little girls are not being educated; that women don't go to college -- aren't allowed to go to college; that women are not allowed to work; that it is very difficult for women to obtain proper health care in Afghanistan. I was told earlier today, unbelievably -- I've got three kids of my own -- that 99% of child births in Afghanistan are unattended and that partly as a result, it has the second highest mortality rate during childbirth in the world. So the issue is not about just about what people wear. It's about all the things that I just described, that I think one can easily describe as human rights violations.

QUESTION: Broadening it out a little bit, but keeping within your official remit, given that this conflict has put the U.S. closer to countries such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan who, in some of your own reports, come out of them pretty badly when it comes to human rights -- in the next couple of years, are you going to face serious problems with consistency when your agency issues reports on religious freedom and human rights? Given that you've got -- the obvious?

MR. CRANER: That report you're referring to came out after September 11th, and it was unmodified from the draft form that existed before September 11th. Not a word was changed. I'm proud to say that in the meantime, the Secretary of State and the Deputy Secretary were actually reading the text of it. But not a word was changed, and that, to me, answered the question when I got it back.

QUESTION: Obviously the U.S. is looking to a post-Taliban era. Is there any talk of bringing Taliban leaders to justice for their human rights abuses, or are you concerned at all that these are just going to sort of get lost in the formation of a new government and the anxiety to get to normality and peace?

MR. CRANER: We're looking at that question.

QUESTION: How hard are you looking at the question?

MR. CRANER: What?

QUESTION: How hard are you looking at it?

MR. CRANER: Pretty hard.

QUESTION: Can you give us a few more specifics?

MR. CRANER: No. I'll just leave it at that.

QUESTION: Would you leave it up to the new regime to deal with, or would you look for some sort of international court?

MR. CRANER: I'll leave it at that -- at what I said.

QUESTION: Thank you. Why did you wait until September 11 to boost democracy in Afghanistan, even though you knew before that Taliban was not a democratic group?

MR. CRANER: Some of the implication here has basically been that we ignored the place for 10 years, and I don't think that's accurate. The fact is that we were aiding the people of Afghanistan through humanitarian aid. A number of people were working, including with the U.S. Government to help bring about a loya jirga in Afghanistan to help resolve the conflict there, and that was all going on long before September 11th.

QUESTION: How about the Northern Alliance opposition you are helping right now? Your contacts with the Northern Alliance have increased in recent days, and you very basically are helping them to root out Taliban regime there. Why you did not do that before September 11th?

MR. CRANER: Like I said, before September 11th, we've had contact with a lot of different actors in Afghan society to try and bring about a political solution and, in the meantime, to help in the humanitarian crisis there.

MODERATOR: Thank you all very much.

ENDS


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