I welcome this debate convened by Kazakhstan as a sign of enhanced cooperation between Member States in Central Asia and Afghanistan. I also welcome the Security Council’s continued support for Afghanistan, as demonstrated by your recent mission.
The entire international community has a stake in peace, stability and development in Afghanistan, and the countries of Central Asia have a particularly important role to play.
Sustainable development is a fundamental end in itself, enabling people, communities and societies to flourish and fulfil their potential. But sustainable and inclusive development is also an important factor in preventing and ending conflict, and in sustaining peace. Only by addressing the root causes of crisis, including inequality, exclusion and discrimination, will we build peaceful societies resilient to terrorism and violent extremism.
The United Nations development system is engaged in supporting governments throughout the region to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and to invest in sustainable economic growth, including greater opportunities for young people, women and girls. Education, vocational training and jobs must be an absolute priority in national and regional development cooperation.
Central Asia has made significant progress on sustainable development in recent decades. In Tajikistan, for example, the poverty rate has been halved, from 81 percent in 2003 to 31 percent in 2015.
But countries in this region can never achieve their full potential alone. All are landlocked, and many developed over decades as economically interdependent parts of a larger whole.
Growth, increased employment opportunities and prosperity depend on accelerated economic cooperation and integration.
The common geography and history of Central Asian countries and Afghanistan, and their strong cultural ties, create enormous potential for mutually beneficial joint projects, trade and exchange.
Despite the centuries during which the Silk Road was one of the most important trading routes in the world, trade between Central Asian countries has fallen to low levels since they achieved independence nearly 30 years ago. Opportunities for intra-regional trade are significant, and even modest improvements can result in substantial gains for all the people of the region. I am heartened over recent signs of change for the better.
During my visit to Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan last June, I was encouraged to see new bilateral and regional connections and better regional dynamics.
First, new efforts are taking place to better manage the water resources that are fundamental to economic development in this region.
These resources are coming under unprecedented strain. As I witnessed during my visit, almost 30 percent of Tajikistan’s spectacular glaciers have melted in the last ten years alone. The Aral Sea stands as a terrible warning of the consequences of mismanagement. We must use these ecological disasters to spur greater cooperation and action.
Central Asian governments have recently begun to intensify cooperation on water resources through bilateral water commissions and agreements. These developments hold important lessons for Afghanistan, where water-dependent farming and agriculture make up nearly half of the economy.
The United Nations is promoting mediation and dialogue through the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia. The Centre is ready to help to modernize the regional legal framework on managing trans-boundary water resources, and is including Afghanistan in its efforts to build capacity in water diplomacy.
Finding joint approaches to managing shared water resources, including mechanisms to resolve disputes, build confidence in bilateral and multilateral relationships. This can lead in turn to greater investment and prosperity for the benefit of all.
Second, I was encouraged to see positive developments in energy cooperation, which is fundamental to promote development and security.
Several cross-border initiatives are now being planned or are under way, including the Central Asia-South Asia power project, a natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India, and a new power transmission line from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan.
The United Nations family stands ready to support these initiatives and others that can bring greater investment and prosperity to this region.
Third, increased trade is a prerequisite for growth, and also for sustainable development and to build resilience to external economic shocks. The personal contacts brought by trade can also help dismantle informal barriers and increase trust. We should build on civil society initiatives in this area to bring communities together across borders, including women’s groups that mediate local tensions and develop joint infrastructure projects.
In this context, I would like to highlight Kazakhstan’s ambitious programme for Afghan students. Over 500 students from Afghanistan have graduated from Kazakh universities and technical schools in recent years, and nearly 500 more are completing their studies. Kazakhstan has committed $50 million to supporting this initiative. Uzbekistan is on the same track.
Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan are now improving cross-border infrastructure, while Uzbekistan launched direct flights between Tashkent and Kabul last year. Several railway and powerline projects that are creating physical connections between Afghanistan and its northern neighbours, including the Lapis Lazuli railway connecting Turkmenistan with Afghanistan.
Such projects have enormous potential to spur economic transformation.
Security challenges continue to define much of the discussion around Afghanistan and Central Asia.
The Afghan Government’s fight against violent extremism, terrorism and transnational organized crime has implications for the entire region, and the world. Responding to these threats cannot be the responsibility of the Afghan Government alone. Effective counter-terrorism relies on regional and multilateral cooperation, based firmly on human rights.
The five countries of Central Asia have now completed the second phase of the Joint Plan of Action for implementing the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, adopted in 2011. I was honoured to host the high-level dialogue on the strategy during my visit last June.
The regional plan brings Central Asian countries together to share best practices and lessons learned, reflecting the five countries’ joint commitment in addressing and defeating terrorism, with the support of the United Nations.
Regional cooperation offers opportunities to address common concerns, including counter-terrorist financing, improving border security, fostering dialogue with religious institutions and leaders, and countering human trafficking and drug smuggling.
The upcoming meeting of the Kabul Process for Peace and Security Cooperation will be an opportunity for the Afghan Government to set out its vision for a more structured peace and security process coordinated with the wider region, including regional efforts to fight terrorism and violent extremism. The United Nations stands ready to support.
With greater regional cooperation and investment, Central Asia and Afghanistan have the potential to become symbols of dialogue, peace, and the promotion of contacts between cultures, religions and civilizations.
The United Nations Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan are cooperating closely and continue to seek out new ways to deepen their support.
The entire United Nations family stands ready to assist in promoting greater cooperation and integration among the countries of Central Asia and Afghanistan, toward achieving the goals of peace, sustainable development, stability and security.