Press conference by Chris Alexander, DSRSG in Afghanistan 18 Jun 2007

Nilab Mobarez, UNAMA (translated from Dari): In the name of God, good morning to all of you. My name is Nilab Mobarez from UNAMA's Spokesperson's Office and I welcome you to today's press conference. Today we are joined by Ms. Noriko Izumi, the head of child protection at UNICEF who will be talking about child labour issues here in Afghanistan. We are also joined by Mr. Chris Alexander, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan who will deliver a statement on the tragic incident here in Kabul yesterday. We will then turn to news from the wider UN family. So without further delay, I would now like to hand over to Chris Alexander.

Chris Alexander, DSRSG: All of us in Kabul, across the country, and around the world were appalled by yesterday's outrageous attack against Afghanistan's police trainers. Our deepest condolences go out to all the families, friends and colleagues of those killed, as well as to those wounded.

What are we to make of this violence - what message can there be in such a tragedy?

In November 2001 Afghans came together in Bonn to chart a course towards a better future. In Loya Jirgas in 2002 and 2003 and in elections in 2004 and 2005 they reaffirmed this choice. By their votes and their achievements, they revived the political legitimacy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. In response, the entire international community renewed its support for Afghanistan in 2006 by agreeing the Afghanistan Compact - a five-year reciprocal commitment to improve the lives of Afghans: an unprecedented international initiative to make measurable progress in security, governance and development.

With this scene set why is this international consensus, why are Afghans themselves, still under deliberate attack? Who is challenging this agenda - an agenda aimed at making life better for Afghans? Who has decided that those training a new generation of law officers for this country must die on their way to work? Which self-appointed bosses are trying to prevent the rule of law from being re-established in Afghanistan?

The answer is not always clear. Those responsible for these attacks do not show their faces. What is clear is that those attacking Afghanistan today - its institutions and its international partners - are arrogant, criminal and marginal. They are the enemies of Afghan life, faith and law. They will not succeed.

Yesterday, only hours after this attack, the European Union inaugurated its new police mission for Afghanistan, which will bring nearly two hundred mentors and trainers to all parts of this country. President Karzai announced new police leadership - qualified and carefully selected - for south and southeast Afghanistan. A conference on the consolidation of peace is set to open in Tokyo - to accelerate progress towards disbandment of illegal armed groups. A conference on justice and the rule of law will take place in Rome next month, generating unprecedented support for the justice institutions of this country.

Terrorists are swimming against the tide in Afghanistan. Police reform will continue to improve the quality of law enforcement in this country: better training, better leadership and better equipment are already prevailing.

So what is the message of the attackers?

Last Friday in Tirin Kot, Uruzgan province, at 11h15 in the morning - not long before Juma prayers - a man drove towards a group of children who were in conversation with a few soldiers. Challenged by the patrol, he stopped - then he detonated a bomb hidden in his vehicle. The fate of the soldiers is in this case of secondary importance.

This explosion on Juma morning in Uruzgan's capital killed eleven children aged between eight and fifteen years, including four girls. It killed Zaki, son of Niamatullah, who was ten years old. It killed Haseebullah, son of Niamatullah, who was twelve years' old. It killed Saleh Mohammad, son of Nek Mohammad, who was twelve years old.

I have one question: Who on the side of those calling themselves "Taliban" will take responsibility for these crimes? Who has decided that it is right to take the life of Totaki, daughter of Janan, on a sunny morning in Tirin Kot, with the Helmand river nearby and the beautiful mountains of Uruzgan, and circling children at play?

Who are those that celebrate the killing and the injuring of innocent civilians, of Afghans who so richly deserve peace? Who has chosen war, when Afghans and the whole world have chosen peace? Will Mullah Omar take this responsibility? Will the Taliban commander for Uruzgan be responsible? Will Mullah Dadullah's successor boast of his courage and bravery in killing Lal Mohammad, son of Wali Jan, on Juma morning in Tirin Kot?

We demand to know. You deserve to know, Afghans deserve to know.

Those responsible for these attacks - those who have killed hundreds of Afghan civilians this year in cold blood - are committing brutal crimes - these are crimes against the holy religion of Islam, they are crimes against humanity. Those responsible have placed themselves outside the law, certainly, but also outside of morality and faith - beyond the community of Afghans and their institutions. They have joined the company and infamy of terrorists.

We condemn these attacks unreservedly. We condemn those responsible for these attacks as war criminals. We call on Afghans to speak out against those few perpetrating such attacks. We call on insurgent leaders to stop deliberately killing innocent civilians.

We also call on the Afghan government and its international partners to continue their efforts to protect Afghans and to end this violence. In recent months these efforts have borne substantial fruit. Military operations in south and east Afghanistan have thinned Taliban leadership ranks, sharply reduced their capabilities, and sapped their will to mount and sustain coherent operations.

Perhaps In desperation, insurgents are targeting their own brothers and sisters - the citizens of this country - the defenseless youth of this country.

These acts are repugnant in the eyes of Afghans and in the eyes of the world.

They remind us of the importance of addressing and removing the roots of this conflict. Let us be very precise on this point. The roots of this conflict are in leadership, networks and sanctuaries supporting attacks on children such as Sadiqa, daughter of Abdul Razzaq, from Tirin Kot.

Their message is clear: they are aiming to kill Afghans such as Jamila, daughter of Fazal Mohammad, a thirteen year old girl - a martyr now for all Afghans - from Tirin Kot.

They are aiming to shoot dead girls leaving school in Logar. Their message, in short, is violence. And we, all of us inside Afghanistan and outside Afghanistan, have no choice. Our responsibility - as Afghan citizens, government officials, police, international military forces and international partners - is to work together, to stand together for decency and humanity, for the founding values of this country and of Islam itself, to end this violence.


Question - Internews (translated from Dari): It is clear that terrorists would not be able to do anything if they had no weapons. They get these weapons from neighbouring countries such as Iran and Pakistan. Iran and Pakistan are clearly sending them weapons - I don't know about other countries involved in this. Why don't you address the root cause by preventing neighbouring countries from providing the Taliban with weapons?

DSRSG: As you know, after thirty years of war, Afghanistan is all too full of weapons and ammunition. Despite the best efforts of the Government and its international partners there is still a huge amount of weaponry and ammunition in this country. In only two years, twenty thousand tonnes of ammunition has been destroyed. And we know that this is only a fraction of what is available. Weapons and ammunition also come from neighbouring countries - not one or two countries, but many countries. Sometimes they come in as contraband, sometimes on commercial terms, but always illegally. It is wrong to say that the conflict is caused by arms shipments from any country. The conflict is caused by the leaders of these groups and those who enable and support them. For that reason I spoke of leadership, networks and sanctuaries. These are the root causes which need to be tackled, and the work to collect weapons and destroy ammunition must continue.

Question - Aina TV (translated from Dari): What is your assessment as to the reasons for insecurity spreading from the frontier to the central provinces. In connection with the weapons shipments from Iran to Afghanistan - this issue was confirmed by the defence minister of Afghanistan. Do you also confirm this?

DSRSG: The insurgents are trying to operate in those parts of the country where it is easy for them to operate. This is one reason why they choose civilian targets. Last year there was not much insurgent activity at all in the Welayat [province of] Badghis. This year there is more, perhaps because these groups, these networks have a difficult time operating in the places they operated last year. And again, we do not see arms shipments from any country or any group of countries driving this Taliban-led insurgency. It is in our view inaccurate to say that such shipments are the cause of insurgency or the cause of instability in Afghanistan, or the principle cause of the instability in Afghanistan. The insurgency is driven by its leaders who are fewer in number but still present; by the networks on which they depend; and by the shelters in which they operate. And in the case of suicide bombing, it is very clear to everyone who has studied this issue that some of their sanctuaries are outside of Afghanistan.

Question - Radio Killid (translated from Dari): You talked about the civilian casualties. We see civilian casualties caused by NATO and other international forces, and an example of this is [Saturday's shooting following a suicide bomb in the Kabul district of] Kampany. Is this is considered a war crime? Is there any court for international forces to face justice?

DSRSG: We are concerned by civilian casualties whatever their causes, as we have emphasised many times from this podium and elsewhere. There are cases in which international military forces, after committing crimes in Afghanistan, have faced military justice and this must be the case if international military forces are to meet their obligations under international law. In the case at Kampany, we are all investigating, we are all still examining. There are causes for concern, but we do not have the full account of what took place, just as we do not have the full account of what took place last night in Paktika. Our question for the Taliban and other insurgent groups is when they commit these acts who will decide what justice should prevail? Who will take responsibility for these crimes? Because the statistics show, our statistics and every statistic, that the greatest toll being exacted is on the Afghan civilian population. Most lives are being taken by these attacks, attacks by insurgent groups, the Taliban and by their associates, because these are deliberate attacks. The man who detonated himself three days ago in Tirin Kot could see the children in front of him a few metres away. This is a different category of violence and a different category of crime because of its scale and its deliberate nature. And we expect those responsible to stop it.

Question - Associated Press: You mentioned that there is a need for more focus on leaders, networks and sanctuaries outside Afghanistan, presumably Pakistan. But we seem to beat our heads against the wall on this. What solution is there really? This is something that is repeated again and again. I do not see and have not heard anything that sounds like a solution. Meanwhile Pakistan says we are doing what we can. What solution is there with respect to sanctuaries?

DSRSG: It is wrong to say we are banging our heads against the wall - a great deal has been done. The work is very hard and it will take a long time. No-one can be complacent. No institution, no leader on any side has done enough to address the problem. The problem is urgent and it takes everyone's best efforts. Since we last met here some Taliban commanders have been arrested in Pakistan for which we salute the government of Pakistan. In the past six months some very important Taliban leaders have been killed inside Afghanistan on an unprecedented scale. This will not end the conflict and it is not ending the conflict now, but it helps to shows us what needs to be done for it to begin to end. The morale of the Taliban is not good. When Taliban fighters hear that one of their colleagues has killed eleven children in Tirin Kot - we don't imagine that they are proud. But our question for them is what is the point of fighting if the result is the killing of innocent children? What is the point of fighting if your leaders have no future?

Nilab Mobarez, UNAMA: We will now move to the next part of this press briefing, starting with information from UN agencies in Afghanistan: As of two days ago, 16 June, the United Nation's refugee agency, UNHCR has assisted over thirty-six thousand families return from Pakistan to Afghanistan; and over four hundred and fifty families return from Iran.

UNHCR has also assisted twenty-seven families from other countries to return to their homeland. The total number of those assisted by UNHCR for this year now stands at nearly thirty-seven thousand families.

The International Organisation for Migration, IOM, in cooperation with Afghan Management and Marketing Consultants and with strong support from the Government of Afghanistan, last week launched a nationwide survey on trafficking of people, particularly children, in Kabul and eight strategic provinces sharing borders with Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan.

Funded by the Government of Italy, the five-month project aims to assess the realities of child trafficking to, from and within Afghanistan.

The study will also focus on the issues of victim identification, investigation, and the prosecution of trafficking cases. The research results will be published in English, Dari and Pashto and shared with all as a guideline for the development of future counter-trafficking strategies here in Afghanistan.

Nilab Mobarez, UNAMA: I will now hand over to Noriko Izumi from UNICEF.

Noriko Izumi, UNICEF: Good morning everybody. It is my honour to have the opportunity to speak today with you about the issue of child labour in Afghanistan. Before I start, I would like to clarify one thing. I often get asked the question - what exactly is child labour? Is it all kinds of work that children do? Is it harmful? Work that children are engaged in is not all necessarily bad - some work helps children to learn new skills; and they can gain new skills which can help them to become responsible and productive adults. What we mean by child labour is work that interferes with the education of children and affects the mental, physical and social wellbeing of the child. It is those jobs which are detrimental to children's development that we are talking about.

Data published last year by the ILO [International Labour Organisation] shows that 218 million children globally are involved in work. The largest sector that engages child labour is agriculture - that accounts for seventy percent of all child labour. There is some good news. Although there are 218 million children involved in child labour, we have seen an eleven percent decrease compared to four years ago. So globally speaking, there are fewer children now involved in child labour. If we look at the Asia-Pacific region, that decrease is not really appearing - so we still have lots of work to do in this region.

If we now turn to child labour in Afghanistan. The data is from 2003 - twenty-four percent of children between the ages of seven and fourteen are working. So nearly one quarter of children in that age range works. We have some small regional differences - but not much. But if you compare boys and girls - girls work more than boys. In Afghanistan, we see more child labour in rural areas compared with urban areas. We need to do more work on what kind of hazardous work children do in Afghanistan and which sectors may engage children the most in the future.

If we look at the legal and policy instruments here in Afghanistan to protect children, we have a few. We have a national strategy for children at risk which was launched in May last year; we have a child labour law which defines the legal age of employment; we also have a Constitution which clearly prohibits forced labour under any circumstances. We also have challenges. For example, it is difficult to verify a child's age because of the low birth registration rate. Number one, it is very difficult to prove a child's age. Number two, it is difficult to regulate informal sectors like agriculture where we know many children are employed in Afghanistan. Number three, the Afghan government has yet to sign two important ILO conventions - one concerning the minimum age of employment and the other one regarding hazardous work. We strongly encourage the government to ratify these conventions.

Why do children work in Afghanistan? There are two sides - demand and supply or push and pull factors. Poverty and low family income levels force children to work to support their family. Lack of educational opportunities in the community pushes a child to work. There is demand for cheaper labour - usually children are cheaper to employ than adults and easier to manipulate. It is easier to hire and fire children.

I would like to explain a little bit about what UNICEF does to address child labour in Afghanistan. In a post-conflict society like Afghanistan we have introduced the reintegration of children as one of the key interventions to protect children from hazardous labour related to conflict. We have been supporting children associated with armed forces and groups and other war-affected children. In total over 12,600 children since 2003 have been supported in twenty-nine provinces. We provide these children with non-formal education such as literacy classes and vocational skills training. We also set up community-level protection committees to get the community to be involved in protecting the children from child labour. We believe education can be a social vaccination and we promote education among children not in school.

Over 192,000 out-of-school children, mainly girls, are now attending UNICEF assisted community-based schools in remote villages where schools did not exist. Over 8,100 female teachers are newly recruited to facilitate 325,000 girls to access education in rural areas.


Question - Tolo TV (translated from Dari): How do you assess the situation of children in Afghanistan? Do you know how many street children there are in Afghanistan and do we see their numbers on the rise? And finally what are your future plans?

UNICEF: The situation of child labour in Afghanistan is a matter of great concern to us and that is why we have several interventions as I explained earlier. We also see that more girls are working than boys. I think we have a huge challenge. There are a lot of challenges in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in South Asia. It is not a bright picture we have here. Given the security situation in the country, access to services among children in a family is limited. These things also affect families' livelihood opportunities and then children are forced to support the family. And there are many concerning factors which may or may not contribute to their participation in child labour. On street children; I hear people say the numbers are increasing but I have not seen any data. The document we have is from 2002 and the survey conducted by [NGO] Ashiana says there are 37,000 street children in Kabul. Again the security situation in the country and rapid urbanisation are factors that push children to streets. So I would not be surprised if the number of street children has increased. However I don't have any evidence showing an increase. On what UNICEF is doing I must say that we are looking at two interventions. One is services for children and it is basically non-formal education which will hopefully transit the child to formal schooling and provide this support. Secondly, is the vocational school for older children. Some children aged sixteen or seventeen may not want to go to school, but they want to learn something and earn something. So we are also supporting the vocational skills training. Another side of the problem is to work with the family. I give you an example; when we were supporting one child in a project and when we interviewed him he had four siblings. Four of them didn't come to the project. One was in the project and four others were working and were out of school. So we have to work with the family and that is the intervention we are working on now.

Question - IRIB: Last night NATO in Paktika killed seven children. Is UNICEF concerned about this and shouldn't this be a priority, rather than child labour?

UNICEF: UNICEF is concerned about all issues that affect children, whether it is safety or protection. It is difficult to say which one is the priority. In the current situation, children are at high risk, they are very vulnerable and we are very concerned.

Nilab Mobarez, UNAMA: I will just add that a team from the Gardez office of the AIHRC [Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission] will be going to the area to investigate this unfortunate incident. UNAMA will support the AIHRC to verify the facts and circumstances.