Press conference by Tom Koenigs, SRSG in Afghanistan 11 Jun 2007

Spokesperson: Welcome to today's press conference. Today's guest speaker is Tom Koenigs, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General.

SRSG: Good afternoon. Yesterday, as you know, there was an attempt on the life of President Karzai in Ghazni. This is an outrage, and I condemn it utterly. Those who are responsible clearly do not respect the views of the millions of Afghans who elected President Karzai and who work patiently day-by-day for the rebuilding of this country and its values - values of honour, peace, and mutual respect.

I also want to mention two other incidents. Last week, four employees of the Ministry of Health were released by their abductors in the south of the country. I am very concerned at the non-return of one of their colleagues, and even more of the rumours that he has been murdered. I want to make it absolutely clear to everybody in this conflict that deliberately harming civilians, including government employees, NGO workers, and UN contractors or staff, is a clear violation of international humanitarian law, as well as a crime under national laws. Those who engage in such acts will be held to account.

Additionally, I have been deeply saddened by the murders during the past two weeks of the journalists Zakia Zaki and Shakiba Sanga Amaj. Whatever the motives of these murders these were two prominent and respected women and their deaths are a great loss to Afghanistan. Such attacks have a chilling effect across society. This morning I have received information about a further reported threat against another female journalist. This must stop. Women must be protected and their roles in society respected.

I'd like to come to the main subject of this press conference and that is rule of law. On July 2nd and 3rd a major conference on Afghanistan will be taking place in Rome. The UN is going there with a message for everyone about rule of law in Afghanistan. The era of lawlessness, of corruption, of unprofessional police and an unreliable judicial system must end. I want to see clear, realistic priorities emerge from this conference that can guide everyone over the next months and years. People have been telling us they want better police, they want trusted institutions and they want the impunity to end. And UNAMA has listened. I will seek from this conference a comprehensive and coordinated approach to the justice sector and rule of law reform.

I will be looking for solid, high-level commitment of both the international community and the Afghan government and parliament to this aim. And I want there to be real action, not least by the Afghan government and parliament to ensure that this aim is prioritised and achieved. Laws must work, they must apply consistently and equally to all, and transgressors must be punished in line with agreed norms. Building rule of law will take time, but we must ensure that the goal of achieving it is never in doubt.

To reinforce the message that rule of law must be a top priority for the government, the international donors and friends of Afghanistan and the Secretary-General of the United Nations who will also participate in this conference. We all know that the people of Afghanistan are fed-up with corruption, with capricious following of procedures and rules, and with weak state capacity to uphold laws and punish violators. Our immediate goal is to secure high-level commitment to this focus on rule of law. We want to see an agreed, proper plan in place for dealing with the problems of the justice sector, prisons and the police. And we want to see clear responsibility, both in terms of donor funding, government commitment and decisions on who-will-do-what. We all know that you can't build rule of law overnight, but that doesn't mean that efforts in this area can't be accelerated. I repeat that rule of law must be a top priority for the government and for the international donors and friends of Afghanistan. I will now take your questions.


Associated Press: If you ask military people they will probably tell you that counter insurgency is the priority in this country. Can you tell me the link between what you see as the priority - that is rule of law and the counter insurgency fight that is going on here? What are the problems for these to fit together and what are the issues that might push them apart?

SRSG: I will give you two answers. The anti-governmental elements are supported, fuelled and partly financed by criminals, sometimes linked with mafia, sometimes linked with smuggling and quite a few times linked with the narcotics economy. And there is another link, quite a number of those who have been alienated by the government or by the performance of the government have been alienated by the absence of justice institutions. The call for justice is generalised over the country, but particularly in the insurgency affected areas. So we have to accelerate the effort to bring justice into all of the country, into all of the districts and particularly in those where the leadership is disputed among the government and the anti-government elements. And the third point - rule of law also means law enforcement - that those offenders against the law, those who turn to violence are held accountable.

Voice of America (translated from Dari): Lately some of the DIAG officials have expressed that weapons are coming to Afghanistan from the north. Which part of the north are these weapons are coming from, to whom they are being sent and who is actually sending the weapons?

SRSG: I have got some information that the weapons smuggled into Afghanistan is increasing. We already have far too many weapons in the country, even without this smuggling. It is certainly one expression of the insecurity in the country that people turn to buying weapons. I have no information where these weapons come from and where they go to, but I certainly do not see it as positive for the stability of the country. Possession of non-registered weapons is illegal and we have to say that very clearly. Everybody who deals, imports or owns weapons which are not registered and which are not legally certified are beyond the law. The effort of DIAG and before that DDR is exactly to get the weapons in the country under control or to disarm and in addition to disband all illegal armed groups. We stick to that goal and I am happy that the president recently has reinforced the message that possession of weapons in Afghanistan contributes to destabilisation and DIAG must continue.

BBC: Besides the insurgency in the south, there are some political tensions inside the government, for example the incidents in Jawzjan and now also one in Kabul. How concerned is UN about these incidents?

SRSG: I am concerned. Whenever any of the actors, in power or out of power turn to violence, whether it is a fist fight or whether it is beating up each other or whether it is throwing bottles in the parliament or somewhere else, we are concerned to contain this violence to normal civilised ways. Wherever we can, we try to diffuse this tension into discussion, if necessary using legal procedures, but better decent negotiations. And I think we have a number of valuable methods and procedures in place to diffuse tensions where they are for whatever reasons. I think to turn to violence not only destabilises, but also sets a very bad example. I would advise all who think about that, to turn to the legal institutions and legal mechanisms to diffuse tensions, because we have problems enough with the insurgency. If you refer to factional fighting in the north, I think we have to make sure that all those who start violence and for instance, shoot indiscriminately into in the crowd are held responsible for that crime. If you turn to other incidents, my advice would be to control your temper.

Radio Free Europe: What is the United Nations point of view about the rule of law in Afghanistan over the past three years? We know there are some in the parliament who do not accept the rule of law in Afghanistan. How much time will it take to achieve rule of law in Afghanistan?

SRSG: In the last three years, in some areas, progress has been made, but far too slow. Rule of law is a permanent challenge for all societies. Justice is a core of democracy. I am not satisfied with the progress made so far in the last three or five years and that is why I think it is right for the government and the international friends of Afghanistan to focus more on justice. You will always, in all societies have crime - but it must be the aspiration of all societies and most of all democratic societies to keep that level low. We all know that we are in a post-conflict country where we cannot expect that we have standards we might have in Switzerland within the next three years. It is not only the international community but the people of Afghanistan who want progress in that field. Those who are responsible for crimes must face justice, even if these crimes are in the past. We have several times spoken here about transitional justice, for example, bringing to justice those who might be responsible for war crimes in the past. One condition for that is to have a functioning justice system, and that is why if you have a look at the action plan of transitional justice, the improving of the justice system is one of the priorities which comes even before trials. Referring to all crimes in the wars of the past or in the wars of today or in the daily life, there will not be stability without justice.

Asia Times Online: My question is that there are ongoing complaints about the civilian casualities in south-western Afghanistan as a result of NATO bombardment. What is your take on this?

SRSG: In the last press conference, Richard Bennett, the head of the human rights unit in UNAMA spoke on this subject. The details he told you last time are the same that I told the Security Council two weeks ago. All the sides of the conflict have to do everything to prevent civilian casualties.

DPA: The security situation, as you said earlier, that we are running out of the time and something needs to happen fast. How do you assess the security situation now as the Taliban are getting stronger and recently they overran a district north-eastern Afghanistan and yesterday they had an assassination attempt against the life of the president?

SRSG: The security situation has worsened over the last year to all our surprise. This year we are not surprised and we had insecurity levels comparable with last year. I am very happy that the Afghan government and the international community have reacted to this increased insecurity. NATO / ISAF have increased their operations, some countries have increased their troops, particularly the Americans, but also the British and Polish, as well as other countries. The congress of the United Sates has passed a bill to fund with a lot of money to increase building up the Afghan national army and Afghan national police forces. The European Union has sent an additional group of police mentors - one hundred and sixty of them. There is a stronger focus on governance problems, particularly in the war-torn provinces. A number of countries have increased or reinforced their long-term commitment to the reconstruction including the security sector and conference on the rule of law is just one expression of this. So some things have happened fast and will continue to happen.

You know that I have been traveling a lot in the last few weeks and I will continue to travel to the capitals who are the major donors to Afghanistan and are its best friends. Next week, I am going to China and Japan and subsequently I am going to different European countries always to reinforce the message that Afghanistan needs a long-term and increased commitment in three fields - the security, reconstruction and development fields. And among the daily bad news on incidents here and there, we should not forget the good news that the commitment is stronger than ever. The commitment not only from the Afghan government but also from the international community, the troops contributing countries and the donors. I will also advocate stronger links between efforts in the military and the efforts in the civilian and political arenas. I think the international military forces could do more to back up law enforcement in the country. Not only to prevent and respond to violence and criminal activities of illegal armed groups, but also in the field of reinforcement of counter narcotics efforts. The challenge is not only in south, but also in Mazar or Sherberghan.

IRIN: Mr. Koenigs, as you know there are concerns about the protection of civilians in Afghanistan. As we all know, the Taliban have been condemned for their indiscriminate atrocities against civilians. I was wondering about your assessment on international forces performance in this conflict, particularly the US forces, which operate outside NATO's command?

SRSG: First of all, regarding the lack of protection of civilian lives and the attacks on civilians there have been two very good documents published - from Human Rights Watch on one side and by Amnesty International on the other. I think these are very valuable documents, which I think are necessary to study.

In those cases of civilian casualties caused by the international community, we have tried to find out the truth thoroughly. We cooperate with the military forces, national and international, to prevent them in the future. This is certainly a permanent challenge, but we have found open ears, not only from the president, but also from the commander of ISAF. We are not commanding any of these forces, but we try to inspire better coordination, also between the political forces and particularly with the Afghan government. We advocate a comprehensive approach - military and civilian - taking into consideration all actions in the different provinces and regions, so uncoordinated actions which might be detrimental to the government's political success can be avoided.

Reuters: To what extent do the political problems and apparent weakness of the president make the job of tackling lawlessness, corruption and the Taliban insurgency even more difficult?

SRSG: I am not in a position and cannot make a pronouncement on the political strength or political weakness of anybody - that is up to the Afghan population. But certainly, the strength of the executive is not as it is in other places, where you have stability, but that is natural.

Lawlessness, and particularly insurgency, and particularly the Taliban, try to exploit weaknesses they find, but they also try to exploit the weaknesses of the international community and their commitment. We see that very clearly. So, the stronger the political institutions - and I would clearly say not in terms of what party is strong and what party is weak, but how strong and how efficient the institutions are - this certainly makes a big difference in the fight against corruption, the narcotics industry, and the fight against violence.

Nevertheless, a strong opposition strengthens the political system, and need not weaken the executive. So, I think we have two fields. We have the political field with opposition and the government, and we have the executive being efficient, or being less efficient. For the fight against lawlessness, the latter is important.

It is only natural that two years before the next election, the different political forces make pronouncements for themselves and try to get their concepts and their opposition proposals together - that does not mean political weakness. On the other hand, an attack like the one that happened yesterday, on the legally elected president should prompt a response from all Afghans to stick to their legal structures and to legality; to step back from any acts of violence and condemn this violence or this violent attack on government. Such an action, I hope, will not weaken the president, but will strengthen him. But this, in the end, will depend on the reaction of the Afghans.

8:00AM (translated from Dari): Frustration in the most stable region of the north, in the west and in the capital is growing and do you not think this frustration will cause instability in the future? Do you think that this is more worrying than the Taliban? They were supportive of the government in the beginning, but that support is now beginning to wane.

SRSG: Certainly, people who have supported legality so far turn to violence certainly it is a reason for instability and it is instability. On the other hand, I know frustration or unmet expectations sometimes are reasons for people to be alienated or turning away from the government. I think one has to think very clearly. To oppose the ruling government does not mean instability - that is an opposition you have in every country and it can be healthy. If this opposition turns to illegal methods, beyond the constitution and beyond the rule of law, then it is a threat to stability and to peace. Certainly the democrats in the United States have been frustrated with the reactions of the republicans. So they have turned in the last elections against Mr. Bush. One reaction of Mr. Bush might have been to put Mr. Khalilizad as the ambassador to the United Nations. Neither one nor the other means the de-stabilisation of the United States. And that's why we call clearly on those who are frustrated or who wants things done differently to use political methods granted under the constitution and not turn to violence. Insurgency and violence are a direct threat to the constitutional order, but nobody should equate that with a legal opposition.

Radio Farda (translated from Dari): There have been reports that there have been fights amongst people in Bamiyan - between nomads and others. One person has been killed and a number of others have been injured. They have also burnt some of the surrounding areas. What is the United Nations view on this?

SRSG: If you have heard about the conflict we have call the authorities to mediate in this case. It is not unusual at this time of the year that there are conflicts between the kuchis and the settled farmers. This demonstrates again, that rule of law is necessary and also a sophisticated justice system which is able to regulate land disputes, because the basis of this is a land dispute. Not this case specifically, but land disputes will be the subject which has to be addressed also in the rule of law conference.

Radio Killid (translated from Dari): The scuffle between the Attorney-General and General Jorat. What is UNAMA's position on this?

SRSG: UNAMA does not have a position on that. I have already said in response to an earlier question that I would appreciate if everybody would lower the temperature. To answer your question two words - "cool down". Thanks very much everyone.