Let me start by thanking the Norwegian government for organising this important conference. I should also like to congratulate President Karzai and his government on bringing about essential changes in Afghanistan. Those changes make it possible for us to hold this meeting, focusing on Afghanistan's future and the endeavours ahead of us. Just over a year ago, no one would have dreamed that this was possible. I am honoured to have this opportunity to tell you about my vision, the Netherlands' vision, of Afghanistan's development in the short and long term. I will also speak about the role donors should play in this process. What is most exciting is the window of opportunity that has now opened, giving us a clear view of Afghanistan's potential.
We are all longtime friends of Afghanistan and its people. For years we could do no more than try to contain the adverse effects of Afghanistan's 'permanent crisis'. However, in the past year the foundation has been laid for the country's reconstruction. Now, at this very meeting, we can push ahead with reconstruction and address the causes of the crisis. The plans that were presented to us yesterday will guide the way.
The Netherlands was one of the founding members of the Afghanistan Support Group. Clearly, that group has fulfilled its mandate, and I am proud of the way it has done so. Nevertheless, I fully accept that the time has come to include the work of the ASG in the new structure of the Consultative group, that will cover both humanitarian assistance and reconstruction.
My view is that humanitarian assistance should be incorporated into Afghanistan's development planning for as long as necessary. Specialised international, bilateral and non-governmental organisations should join hands with the government to bring this about. Formal parallel structures can be dismantled. If the need arises, they can be reinstated fairly easily.
Of course, reconstruction will not happen overnight, and our support for reconstruction is not unconditional. Security will not come about by itself and human rights will not be protected automatically. As a matter of fact, recent reports on the human rights situation in parts of the country, and in particular on the situation of women and girls, are a matter of concern to me.
The primary responsibility for addressing these issues, including gender equity, lies with the government. I welcome initiatives undertaken so far, including the processes leading towards a new Constitution and holding of general elections in June, 2004. Moreover, I welcome the decree by President Karzai on the Afghan National Army. The decree provides for a comprehensive programme of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of armed groups. It will contribute to the restoration of security and rule-of-law throughout the country. In addition to the role of the government, donors can give financial and political support. Sometimes, we can give military support too, and I believe we have found an effective way of doing so through ISAF, and by helping to build security structures in Afghanistan. It goes without saying that this requires that we are included in the relevant decision-making processes as well.
As I said, change will take time. But I am certain that Afghanistan's true friends are in this for the long term, as long as the Bonn Agreement is adhered to, and as long as we can agree on major benchmarks for the period ahead.
If you look at today's agenda, you will see that this session is entitled 'priority areas'. Following that title is an impressive list of priority sectors. My first thought was: 'How could I possibly choose?' My second thought was: 'How could I possibly know what other people might choose?' My third thought was that we might benefit from a different approach. What is the key issue here?
I want to contribute to Afghanistan's reconstruction, and I want to invest in the government's vision for the future. Having looked at the list of priorities, my answer is not to pick one or two of them, but to focus on the general conditions that make development work. These are coordination and ownership. And - and I am pleased that the Afghan government proposed this yesterday - systematic monitoring and evaluation.
I see this meeting, the Consultative Group process and the upcoming Afghanistan Development Forums, as opportunities to openly discuss options and priorities. We must first reach agreement on policies and then find the necessary funding for those policies. Again, the Afghan government's development budget is the basis for discussion. I realise, of course, that all this has been said before. But in my view it needs to be emphasised time and again.
This approach will put responsibility in the right hands: those of the recipient government. We must give priority to capacity building, giving them the support they need to coordinate efforts, set priorities, and monitor implementation.
Like many others, I have seen similar processes in other countries derail, because coordination and ownership were missing. I believe that in Afghanistan, we must do better.
For a number of reasons it is difficult for many of us to simply transfer funds to the government's account, no matter how much the Finance Minister would like us to do so. We have, however, created a substitute: the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund. To all donors, I would like to repeat the appeal made by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, to channel some or all of your contributions through the ARTF. This will enhance the effectiveness of the Afghan government. The ARTF will also improve and simplify coordination, strengthen ownership and increase transparency.
With more funds in the ARTF the government will be able to make a bigger investment in reconstruction. This might help satisfy the people's demand for a 'peace dividend'. The Netherlands will continue to channel its contribution through the ARTF.
I have tried to convey to you what I see as the key issues related to the reconstruction of Afghanistan: coordination, ownership and transparency. Please allow me a few closing remarks on humanitarian issues. When it comes to humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, the ASG's core activity, there are special considerations.
In Afghanistan humanitarian concerns will be incorporated into overall development policy, which I think is a step forward. However, humanitarian aid will still be allocated according to need, and through the quickest, most effective channels available. The very nature of humanitarian aid means that we cannot predict how much will be needed. Just look at the number of major crises in today's world. And most of the time, these funds are not channelled through governments.
A final issue is the safety of humanitarian workers. I consider this an issue of paramount importance. We are all aware of the dangers and insecurity in parts of Afghanistan. I believe that we must do everything we can to guarantee their safety. To begin with, a clear division of labour between military forces and humanitarian and reconstruction agencies is a prerequisite. The military can provide the security needed to deliver aid effectively. Then it is up to civil authorities and NGOs to coordinate and carry out aid interventions, with military assistance if necessary. I trust that all the parties involved will, through extensive dialogue, be able to make plans along these lines.
Let me conclude by saying that I place great value on all the work the ASG has done over the past years. I think we can look back with pride. We can also look to the future with confidence. By moving towards a Consultative Group and putting more emphasis on the role and responsibilities of our Afghan friends, I believe we are taking a major step forward.