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Statement by the High Commissioner at The Nobel Peace Prize Forum 2022: Afghanistan – Finding A Way Forward

Statement by the High Commissioner at The Nobel Peace Prize Forum 2022: Afghanistan – Finding A Way Forward

11 December 2022

Good afternoon. It is a great pleasure to be here as a twice Laureate.

But I wanted to say something much more serious and important before I start and to say that it is a great honour to be here to speak at this Forum in the year in which courage has been recognised by the Nobel Committee so clearly. I am in awe of the choices that were made this year. If I may say we are in awe of everybody’s courage who received the Nobel Peace Prize. Memorial has been a partner to UNHCR for many years in Russia, working with refugees, so my congratulations go to them and to all Laureates.

I want to say one more thing that is maybe less known. My remarks to you are fitting because, one hundred years ago — exactly 100 years ago - the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the first High Commissioner for Refugees, at that time it was the High Commissioner for Refugees of the League of Nations, the great Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen. He was, as many of you or all of you will know, an explorer, a diplomat, a humanitarian who never relented and always applied innovative solutions to tackle the most difficult of quests; traits that must inspire and guide us in addressing today’s difficult challenges.

I am also especially honoured to speak about Afghanistan – a country that like many young Europeans back then, I visited first as a backpacker in 1977, and in which I started serving for several years as a UN official, starting on September 11, 2001 - that September 11 coincidentally. A country with which I have maintained close personal and professional links for a long time.

More importantly, Afghanistan - like Erik said - is at the core of the work of my organisation, UNHCR. And indeed, we have been with Afghans since the beginning of their displacement, 43 years ago after the Russian invasion. And we have been with the millions of refugees in Pakistan, Iran and around the world and, as was mentioned, with those displaced inside Afghanistan; displaced by decades of devastating war, violence, bad governance, poverty and the impact of a very harsh climate.

Today, in total, six and a half million Afghans (as we heard) continue to be uprooted either as refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced; this is one of the largest nationalities making up the 103 million – globally - people around the world currently forced from their homes; the highest figure we have recorded since the Second World War.

Afghan exile therefore remains a lens through which we can see very clearly the longing for home felt by each displaced man, woman, or child - separated from family, from friends, from the familiar. Through them, we witness the price paid by civilians of actions and decisions taken by men with guns. How talent, resources, and opportunities can be squandered. How external partners, whose support has been vital, in Afghanistan like elsewhere, have also — and too often — put their own narrow national interests ahead of those of the people they say they wanted to help.

Afghanistan, this beautiful land – like so many of the lands from which refugees flee - is full of potential, and yet encased in literally layers of sorrow.

And while, as we saw from the video, we must learn from history, our task, and it is indicated in the title of today’s event, is on finding a way forward for Afghanistan, and may I add – even more importantly from my perspective – a way forward for Afghans, especially the more than 40 million who are not refugees and who do not want to leave their country.

The reality they face is striking.

Poverty is endemic.

Half of Afghans today are food insecure.

And the hard fought-for rights of women and girls are being quickly eroded, due to bad decisions by men which in so doing are simply depriving the entire country of its main potential.

Today’s programme challenged us to ‘also address the crucial question of whether and how the West should engage with the Taliban’.

Allow me to start with the first part — ‘whether’ to engage. After decades of war, violence, and loss, engagement today is difficult and sensitive for politicians and their constituents. It will be also personal for many families — especially Afghans but also others — who have lost so much, including at the hands of the Taliban.

It is unpalatable for those many, like me, who find the Taliban’s recent decisions further limiting the rights of women and girls both morally abhorrent and practically illogical.

And yet, we have no choice but to engage. Because the consequences of not engaging are even more unappealing.

Further humanitarian suffering.

Further despair.

Further flight.

And not engaging would mean cutting our connection with the the women, the girls, the minorities for whom we all care; abandoning them to a fate that they fear, but perhaps is not yet determined.

The question then is ‘how’ to engage. And there are no easy answers in such a complex situation full of terrible contradictions.

Ironically, physical security for most Afghans is greater today than it has been at any point in their lifetimes. War, for now at least, has ceased. More than one million displaced people have returned home, many with our support. And yet hundreds of Afghans continue to flee the country each day.

We have more female colleagues working today than in the recent past. And yet their work is complicated by restrictive rules.

The United Nations and humanitarians have access to every district in the country for the first time in decades. From that perspective — paradoxical as it may seem — there may be an opportunity on which to build.

Surely, this is difficult and uncomfortable, in a situation where the de facto leadership continues to take decisions that are causing so much harm (and where delicate balances can be easily destroyed if tensions among those in control deepen and surge into graver rifts, as has happened in Afghanistan many times before).

But we must start somewhere, including through humanitarian activities.

UNHCR is of course a humanitarian organisation focused on helping the displaced and searching for solutions to their plight — hence our support to those returning home. We can flag, but not resolve the bigger, more complex problems which will continue to challenge and confound many of us.

But looking at the engagement with the Taliban through the prism of preventing further displacement and searching for solutions for those already displaced may provide some reflections and lessons (both through positive and negative outcomes).

As the Taliban entered Kabul last year (it was the end of the video we just watched), we — the humanitarians — said that we would stay in the country and continue to deliver to the best of our ability. We all remember those dramatic moments, so painful for Afghanistan. Our colleagues, together with millions of Afghans, watched others hastily leave the country, anticipating a descent into chaos and uncertainty. But staying and engaging was the right decision — one of which I am proud and which was supported by the UN leadership right up to the Secretary-General.

Humanitarian support by the UN and its NGO partners throughout the past 18 months following that decision has prevented — to an extent — a further deterioration of the situation and greater refugee outflows. For example, UNHCR has provided essential assistance to more than five million people; the UN and the humanitarian system to a much greater number. And it has also created an operational space and a measure of trust for regular Afghans that we are with them, even – or rather especially – in these challenging times.

I have visited Afghanistan twice since the Taliban takeover. The first time just a few weeks after they took Kabul and then again in March this year. I saw an interesting evolution in my meetings — at least with my Taliban interlocutors; summing it up: fewer guns; more notebooks.

Their ask was that we help them not only giving humanitarian aid, but also help the displaced (their ask to UNHCR) and eventually the refugees return to their places of origin through practical support: shelters, schools, clinics, the rehabilitation of basic infrastructure.

Of course, like other colleagues who also visited Afghanistan, we pledged support to those in need. But we requested to be able to deliver, which meant unhindered access, including and especially for our female staff, indispensable in so many ways and especially to help women and children. With notable exceptions, the Taliban have generally permitted this to happen. And coupled with strong donor support, this has allowed our work to continue.

Engagement can also be facilitated by ensuring that humanitarian activities are not affected by sanctions. Work on this important aspect, in the Security Council and elsewhere (and this week an important resolution was actually voted in this respect in the Council), may sound bureaucratic and process-laden, but it is critical in enabling lifesaving work, and also it sends a message to all Afghans (or by the way other people living in other countries under sanctioned regimes) that the international community has not forgotten them.

And although this is at times controversial, engagement creates space for meaningful discussions. The Norwegian government must be commended for having understood and promoted this approach early on.

UNHCR’s exchanges with the Taliban, of course, have focused on displacement as I said, including refugees abroad. As I said, they requested help in creating conditions for them to return. Our position in that respect may offer some suggestions on how to engage. We have constantly underlined that nobody will return without trust that they and their families will be safe and that there is some perspective for a decent future. And that trust — we have constantly stressed — can only be created by the Taliban themselves: it is their responsibility now to protect and treat minorities equally. To ensure that women are safe and have opportunity. That girls can go to school.

My interlocutors – in Kabul and in the provinces – understood. I dare say that they were also, quietly, in agreement. And how could they not when all the local community leaders that we met together with the Taliban, including village elders and parents of school girls — mothers and fathers — voiced the same concerns? I am convinced that at least some of the Taliban I met were surprised (and disappointed) by the terrible decisions on girls’ education that followed by their leadership.

And therein lies another of the challenges in today’s Afghanistan. The Taliban hold different opinions on what they believe or do. Our own access to them is fragmented. And such fragmentation means – very practically – that (for now) we are not able to engage with all.

Staying and delivering with humanitarian support is a first step. We must now overcome its limitations, because living conditions are as harsh as they have been in many years. Young people see little hope for a future and many Afghans are still taking dangerous journeys abroad, a phenomenon I fear will continue if more work to stabilize Afghanistan (and help neighbouring countries) is not undertaken. These are the predictable consequences of limiting engagement to pure humanitarian activities.

Twenty years ago — and I remember that very well — when the opportunity was there, we failed to help Afghans fully and convincingly rebuild what they longed for — sustainable livelihoods, functioning services for all, basic infrastructure, a reliable police and judiciary: the foundations of a true social contract between a state and its citizens.

It is more difficult now. And it has been very frustrating. But as someone who is a relative optimist (and yet has seen enough war, death and abuses to be anything but naïve) I am convinced that we must persevere, with great patience, and also through trial and — yes — through error. We must do so of course with open eyes. Much has been said about the prudence that must be exercised in moving towards recognition. This is correct in the political domain but also from our angle — that of the people. From that perspective, we must move from crucial life-saving aid to the type of real support Afghans need — in other words, we must engage in gradual peace-building in a way that does not compromise the legitimate demands that Afghans – not the international community – Afghans have of the Taliban. Security, yes, but also a respect for rights and the equality of opportunity for all citizens, women and minorities in particular. It is challenging, but it is not impossible.

I would also encourage such engagement and support, and efforts if I may add, elsewhere. We live in a world so polarised, so divided, so traversed by conflict, that humanitarians - the front-line representatives of the international community – far too often find themselves working in places under sanctions, or in areas controlled by non-state actors, trying to swim against the current to keep people from dying, but not able to provide them with opportunities for meaningful lives.

If we – if you – want to change this dynamic and truly help the people, and even more so build real peace, we have a duty — together — to be bold; creative; risk aware but not risk averse. Because not taking such risks will bring the certainty of destitution and despair for millions.

The Afghanistan of today is not the country I first visited with long hair in the 70s or when I stepped off the plane on that terrible day in September, 21 years ago. Technology, connectivity, travel, influence, and exchanges have changed the country. We haven’t wasted all that has been invested in the past twenty years. And for the better. A whole generation of Afghans – we have some here - has seen and experienced a different world. They yearn for a country in which they can freely pursue their aspirations. They have not forgotten our promise back in 2001 of helping them build the country they want.

Now – especially now – is not the time to leave them alone.

A video of the event is available here.