TOLOnews interviewed Janez Lenarčič, the EU Commissioner for Crisis Management, about last month’s Geneva Conference in which the international community pledged over $12 billion in funding for Afghanistan over the next four years based on the conditions that corruption would be fought and there would be an inclusive peace process.
Q. How was the overall environment at the conference?
The 2020 Afghanistan Conference came at a very crucial point in time for Afghanistan, with the intra-Afghan peace talks underway. This will be a very difficult and sensitive process, but the fact that the negotiations have finally started was already a historic step. The conference carried a strong message of international solidarity and support to the country.
More than 90 participants – 66 countries and 30 international organizations – attended the event. There was an overall consensus on the historic opportunity that the start of the intra-Afghan negotiations had created and that this was the only way to end the devastating decades of war in Afghanistan. In that sense, a renewed sense of momentum and hope was felt. Hope and acknowledgement of the collective responsibility for change, reconciliation and a better future for all Afghans.
At the same time, the expectations were voiced very clearly by the international community, including the European Union (EU) and our Member States, that we stand ready to support a peace process which is inclusive. As this is the only way to ensure a durable and sustainable peace, which can foster progress and provide new opportunities for all, with stability and growing levels of prosperity.
Following the recent attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure in Afghanistan, there was also a general agreement that the level of violence remains unacceptably high. All participants strongly condemned the growing violence in the country. Many, including the EU, called for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire. The respect of International Humanitarian Law and protection of civilians in conflict remain imperative to save lives in the immediate term. They are also the essential prerequisite for a sustainable peace in the longer term.
The EU reaffirmed its principled political and financial commitment to all the people of Afghanistan, with possibly over USD 1.4 billion in support over a span of 4 years, mostly in development funding. At the same time the EU, similarly to the majority of other donors, has made it very clear that the development support comes with the expectations of an inclusive peace process, as just mentioned, and will be based on regular progress reviews. This is something we take very seriously, as part of our commitment both to our European taxpayers and to the Afghan people.
Q. The Afghanistan 2020 Conference was held to obtain the international community’s pledge to Afghanistan. Was the level of the pledged aid convincing?
The overall level of pledges, over USD 3 billion per year, are somewhat below the level raised of the 2016 Brussels Conference, but remain very high. Especially given the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on the world economy, which also affected all the contributing donor countries. In this light, a very significant overall pledge has been made, which was also recognised and welcomed at the conference by the high level Afghanistan representatives.
Q. What were the demands made of the Afghan government in exchange for the assistance?
As you know, I am responsible for the EU humanitarian assistance, which operates under different principles than the EU development assistance. There is no conditionality in regard to EU humanitarian aid. Our humanitarian assistance is always delivered solely on the basis of needs, it is never conditioned with progress made in the implementation of political commitments or any other political factors. This support is provided to the most vulnerable people affected by a crisis, whoever and wherever they are. This is in line with the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, independence and neutrality.
There are, however, expectations linked to the development support. There was a very unified call by participants at the conference for the need to preserve the gains made in Afghanistan since 2001. This concerns democracy, rule of law and human rights, especially the rights of women, children, minorities, victims of war, displaced populations and returnees. That is why we call for an inclusive, transparent and accountable peace process, which will address the needs of all Afghans, regardless of their ethnicity, gender and beliefs. The rights of Afghan women, in particular, are an essential part and parcel of this and where there should be no back-tracking. There are also expectations concerning the governance reforms in Afghanistan, on anti-corruption, greater transparency and accountability and addressing the current systemic issues in this respect. This will allow Afghanistan and its people to prosper and move towards self-reliance, reducing dependence on international aid.
Q. How seriously was corruption addressed during the conference?
As mentioned, corruption was considered very seriously during the conference and there was a unanimous call and expectation by the international donors to tackle it. This was accompanied by a request for functional representation, accountability and independence of the judiciary. It was underlined that war and corruption go hand in hand – corruption distorts justice, undermines the legitimacy of government, demoralizes citizens, reduces confidence in the system and creates poverty for the great majority of the population.
Q. How do you see the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan?
As you are aware, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan remains dire and complex. Almost 14 million people are in need of urgent assistance. With winter approaching, many more face the threat of acute hunger, with acute food insecurity predicted to affect 13 million people at this time of the year. Needless to say, the crisis has been further aggravated by our common global challenge, the COVID-19 pandemic. This is therefore a crisis on multiple fronts. Most importantly, this situation in Afghanistan stems from four decades of persistent conflict--a conflict that today remains the deadliest in the world for both women and children. It has forced millions of individuals to flee their towns and villages, and continues to cause immense suffering, incredible hardship and persistent poverty.
All these challenges need to be tackled simultaneously, both in the immediate term, and with a longer-term perspective. This is how the EU support is designed.
Q. How is the EU responding to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan?
The EU has been among the most generous humanitarian assistance donors to the Afghan people, having donated over EUR 975 million in humanitarian funding since 1994. Our humanitarian aid is provided directly to those in need, through cooperation with our humanitarian partners on the ground.
Our support includes emergency, life-saving health services for victims of violence and for people affected by COVID-19. We ensure access to healthcare for people also in areas where regular state services are lacking or disrupted due to violence.
We also deliver food and nutritional support, multipurpose cash assistance and protection in conflict and disaster settings. For both the newly displaced populations and for the host communities.
As part of our humanitarian education programs, we are supporting emergency projects for children who have been forced out of school due to conflict or displacement.
Q. What are in your view the key priorities in the short term and the key challenges in regards to the humanitarian response?
As I have mentioned, respect of international humanitarian law and protection of civilians in conflict remain imperative to save lives in the immediate term. While the peace negotiations are underway, reaching an agreement might take a while. In the meantime, civilians, education facilities, hospitals and humanitarian workers cannot wait. They must be protected here and now, even in an ongoing conflict.
In addition, safe and unobstructed access of humanitarian aid workers throughout all the areas of Afghanistan, where assistance to the people is needed, cannot be compromised. It is crucial that humanitarian aid reaches all those in need, whoever and wherever they are. Also for people in the areas not controlled by the government, which is more than 60 per cent of the country.
All parties to the conflict must do their utmost to ensure protection and principled lifesaving humanitarian aid for all civilians. The work of humanitarian partners on the ground must be facilitated without conditionality, in practice and not just in words. This is our most immediate challenge today.
Q. Considering the current situation on the ground, do you see a window of hope for the future of Afghanistan?
I certainly do. Afghanistan now truly is at a historic juncture. This is not just a phrase – the opportunity for change is there and it is more tangible than ever. And it should be recognised and seized, by all parties.
As mentioned at the start of the interview, after four decades of conflict, the launch of peace negotiations in Doha indeed brings a renewed sense of hope. We know the road ahead is not easy. Compromises and sacrifices will need to be made on all sides. However, it is clear that what cannot be compromised nor sacrificed is ensuring an inclusive peace process and its outcome. Inclusive for Afghan women, youth, minorities, victims of war, displaced populations and returnees. Inclusive for all the people of Afghanistan. It is the only way forward if we are to achieve long lasting peace, a peace that will be more than just the absence of war.
This peace process is and must remain Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. But Afghanistan is not alone in this. And the people of Afghanistan remain in the hearts and minds of the European Union, our countries and our citizens, and of many other members of the international community. The future of Afghanistan and the region depends on our collective action, commitments and follow up.
Through our humanitarian assistance and development funding, the European Union has been and will continue to be a strong supporter of Afghanistan and its people, of all Afghans everywhere, including those who remain on the move.