Bonn II: any reason to be cheerful?

Today’s conference on the future of Afghanistan being held in Bonn, Germany, seems to be filling almost nobody with much enthusiasm or hope.

It’s ten years since the first big international post-Taleban conference, also in Bonn, and this meeting, Bonn II, comes amid a doom-laden atmosphere.

The Guardian’s Jonathan Steele dwells on mistakes made by Nato in the last ten years, especially what he sees as the marginalisation of the country’s Pashtuns. The experienced Pakistani author and journalist Ahmed Rashid also worries about ethnic divisions, reckoning that inter-ethnic rivalries in Afghanistan “are at their worst since 2001”.

Added to this, of course, is the fact that Pakistan is boycotting the conference altogether after the killing of 24 of its troops in a US air strike. Most observers are sceptical about whether you can have a meaningful meeting on Afghanistan without its influential neighbour, not least when it comes to talking to the Taleban.

Meanwhile, women’s rights in the country have recently been in the spotlight after it became clear that a shockingly high proportion (over 50%) of Afghanistan’s women prisoners are behind bars for “moral” crimes. Today's Daily Telegraph has published figures on the number of Afghan girls (aged 12-18) who are detained, with a staggering 80% (114) locked up for the “crime” of extra-marital sex or for running away from their families.

The misery that the punishment of zina or moral crimes is causing in Afghanistan has been heavily underlined by the story of Gulnaz, the woman jailed for 12 years for the “crime” of adultery” after she reported being raped by her cousin. (Words fail me …). As Amnesty’s Kate Allen says in a letter in today’s Guardian, though cases like Gulnaz’s occasionally receive wider attention (and in this case the personal intervention of the Afghan president Hamid Karzai), there appears to be a shocking lack of effort made to stop these abuses of women’s rights in the country in the first place.

And here is where I think you have to be a little sceptical about the very upbeat message from the Afghan foreign ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai. In a rather smooth radio performance on this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Mr Mosazai assured listeners that the Afghan authorities “are not going to compromise” on women’s rights or on the Afghan constitution in talks with the Taleban. He also said that “never before in our history” has Afghanistan had “such progress and development” in a ten-year period.

Mosazai’s “never before in our history” claim (which he repeated for emphasis) is a bold one. Against a background of huge civilian deaths in the last decade, he’s surely overstating it. At the same time, as I was saying in a post in October, there are measurable signs of genuine improvement in Afghanistan in terms of access to education and basic health services.

So, should we be with the prophets of doom or the boosters? I’d say – neither. The lingering suspicion remains. Could the Kabul government be talking the talk in public but preparing to give ground on human rights – especially women’s rights – in secret negotiations with the Taleban? (See the prominent UK Conservative activist Fiona Hodgson’s blog post on Bonn, which includes a telling quote from an Afghan woman who said to Hodgson in June: “We cannot trust our government”).

Amnesty’s Afghanistan researcher Horia Mosadiq is in Bonn today. On Friday she presented a 34,000-strong petition on the importance of safeguarding Afghan women’s rights to Afghanistan’s foreign minister Zalmai Rasould. The long-term aim, of course, is to improve women’s rights in Afghanistan (not just fight off the worst proposals from the armed groups or the cultural conservatives).

Don’t despair! One useful thing you can do is watch Horia speak in the video below, and take our letter-writing action on behalf of the Afghan Women's Network - an umbrella organisation of over 80 NGOs and 5,000 people.

Do we have reason to be cheerful about Bonn II? Not cheerful, no. But cautiously optimistic that the message on women’s rights in Afghanistan might be starting to get through – maybe.

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