Australia’s core mission in Afghanistan must be to promote and protect human rights

Next week, delegates from 90 countries will gather in Bonn to discuss the transfer of security responsibilities in Afghanistan to the national government by 2014. It will be ten years since the international community last gathered in Bonn to agree a framework for rebuilding this shattered, war-torn state. As such, it’s a good time to reflect on what we’ve set out to achieve in Afghanistan over the past decade, both as a nation and as an international community.

At Bonn 2001, the international community expressed its determination to promote national reconciliation, lasting peace and respect for human rights in Afghanistan. Four years later, at a conference titled ‘Building on Success’, we renewed our commitment to build a “secure, prosperous, and democratic nation”, with “good governance and human rights protection for all under the rule of law.” We pledged to support the Afghan government to reduce hunger, poverty and unemployment. We agreed that national security and law enforcement agencies would adopt measures to prevent arbitrary arrest, detention and torture; and that the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) would be supported to monitor, investigate, protect and promote human rights. We said that we’d support the Government to implement the Action Plan on Peace, Justice and Reconciliation, aimed at promoting accountability for past human rights violations and war crimes. We committed to building a nationally respected, professional army and police force. And we said we’d strengthen the role of women in governance institutions.

Today in Afghanistan, these sound like lofty ideals.

Afghanistan today is one of the worst places in the world to be either a child or a mother. One in 11 women die during childbirth. With more than half of all Afghan girls marrying before their 16th birthday, many of the mothers dying in childbirth are themselves children. One in nine children die before their first birthday and one in five die before the age of five. More than 4 million children lack access to education, most of them girls.

The Action Plan on Peace, Justice and Reconciliation has been all but forgotten, and suspected war criminals dominate the political elite. President Karzai has described justice as a ‘luxury’, not to be pursued at the expense of peace. But you can’t have one without the other, and now in Afghanistan we have neither.

Women are poorly represented in peace negotiations, with just nine women in the 70 member High Peace Council. Moreover, recent statements both by the Afghan Government and the international community suggest that the once-strong commitment to women’s rights may be waning. As one Kabul-based embassy official explained, “we can’t impose [women’s rights] as a pre-negotiation red line because that will be counter-productive in getting to talks. Women’s issues are important but they are not our top priority.” Constitutional guarantees of gender equality already appear flimsy. In 2009, the government passed a law allowing men to deny their wives basic sustenance if they refused to submit to sexual intercourse.

The Afghan police are regarded as corrupt, abusive and incompetent, and a recent inquiry found evidence of widespread torture in Afghan detention facilities. The AIHRC has a critical role to play in holding the national security forces to account, but last year was so short of funds that it went several months without paying its staff.

In light of all this, the easiest option for Australia would be to cut our losses and leave state building to the Afghans. After all, state building was never really our objective, and the agreement between Karzai and the US to have combat troops out of the country by 2014 would have been a reasonable excuse for Australia to disengage.

Fortunately, we haven’t taken this option. Prime Minister Gillard has promised that we’ll remain in Afghanistan for another decade, at least. The commitment is impressive; the stated objectives, less so. Gillard said that we were staying the course firstly to make sure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe-haven for terrorists, and secondly, to honour our alliance commitment to the US.

However, with ten years of engagement behind us and at least ten to go, we can and must do better than this. For starters, we need to shift the rhetoric and put the rights of the Afghan people at the heart of the post-transition strategy. So that when we talk about our objectives, we talk not about terrorist safe-havens or about allegiance to the US, but about providing a safe and secure environment where children go to school, women participate in political processes and state institutions are trusted and credible.

And then in the lead up to Bonn, we need to start thinking about what we can do for the Afghan people. We could ensure, for example, that the AIHRC always has enough money to pay its staff; and that relevant staff within the Ministry of Interior receive specialised training in investigating allegations of abuse. We could urge the Afghan Government to embrace the concept of external oversight of police, and promote understanding that ultimately this strengthens the credibility of the state. We could help to re-invigorate the National Action Plan for Peace, Justice and Reconciliation, such as by supporting vetting procedures for senior civil servants. We could seriously improve the quality of police training, as well as the institutional support that we provide for the Ministry of Interior. We could invest more in female teachers and health-workers. Finally, we could use our influence to ensure that any political settlement explicitly guarantees the rights of women and children.

With nearly $4 billion invested in Afghanistan, let us aim for something more than denying safe-haven for terrorists and sticking by the US alliance. Let us instead recommit to the promise we made in 2001 to create a stable and prosperous Afghanistan, with good governance and human rights protection for all under the rule of law.

Rebecca Barber is a Humanitarian Policy and Advocacy Advisor at Save the Children