Statement by Ms.Mehr Khan Williams the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights

Honorable Ministers, Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is an honor to be here today with representatives from such a wide spectrum of Afghan society including government officials, religious and community elders, civil society groups and victims’ representatives, to support your efforts to achieve transitional justice.

I want to thank our co-sponsors, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission adenoma for their role in making this historic event possible. Thanks are also due to the International Centre for Transitional Justice and Global Rights for their contribution.

I last visited Afghanistan more than 30 years ago and admired its calm, its beauty and the special warmth of its people. Since that time this country has experienced incredible suffering. The severe hardships inflicted on family after family, the loss of fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and children, and the widespread damage to homes and livelihoods is almost beyond comprehension. Thankfully, this painful period has now come to an end.

Afghanistan has made significant progress during the past four years, particularly in the recent parliamentary elections, which marked the political transition envisaged under the Bonn Agreement. It now has a democratically elected President, a national assembly that will convene for the first time next week, and it has provincial councils. These are very considerable achievements.

But for many Afghans the legitimacy of the new governmental and parliamentary structures will be measured by their effectiveness in promoting national reconciliation, lasting peace, stability and respect for human rights. These can only be achieved through accountability for grave human rights abuses, both past and present.

Tragically, impunity prevails for serious crimes committed during the past quarter century. This is not simply a matter of dealing with history. The absence of accountability for grave crimes committed in the past has serious repercussions for rule of law and democracy today, and in the future.

I noted the reports of popular disappointment that the final lists of candidates for parliamentary elections included some individuals who were alleged to have committed human rights violations and other criminal acts. Clearly Afghans are not willing to accept the status quo and faith in new democratic institutions could diminish if past crimes go unpunished.

The national consultation on transitional justice undertaken by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission last year also underscored this. The vast majority of the 6, 000 or so respondents involved demanded justice and felt that the government would win the confidence of the Afghan people if it addressed the issue of impunity. Such sentiments have also been expressed in there-conference consultations undertaken in all the eight regions byname, our office, the International Centre for Transitional Justice, and Global Rights.

The consultation also revealed a desire for a comprehensive approach to transitional justice that should include public acknowledgment of past suffering, institutional reform, truth-seeking and documentation, reconciliation and accountability.

The President’s Office must be commended for its efforts to respond to these findings by drafting, in co-operation with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and UNAMA, a strategy for the implementation of transitional justice in Afghanistan. International groups have endorsed its comprehensive approach and offered to assist Afghanistan with its implementation.

I am very pleased that yesterday the Cabinet approved the strategy. This is a very positive step forward. It is also a ground-breaking achievement because it may be the first time a government has developed a comprehensive approach to transitional justice. I congratulate the government for doing so.

But I also understand the challenges involved in implementing transitional justice in Afghanistan. Countries emerging from extended conflict have to balance conflicting priorities. The tense security situation, particularly in the south and southeast of the country reminds us of how fragile the transition from conflict to peace is.

In these circumstances, it is argued that Afghanistan can neither risk nor afford to address the issue of accountability. I would argue that Afghanistan can neither risk nor afford not to. We know from experience that in societies emerging from conflict the past must be confronted if it is not to come back to haunt us.

This conferences intended to contribute to the discussion on achieving justice and reconciliation in Afghanistan.

In recent years we have supported truth and reconciliation initiatives in a number of post-conflict countries including in Sierra Leone, Burundi, Liberia, and Timor Lester. I am therefore delighted to have with us representatives from the International Centre for Transitional Justice and from truth and reconciliation commissions in Sierra Leone and South Africa who will share their experiences. They will provide information on the possible ways to address challenges here.

I use the word “challenges “deliberately. To many people, transitional justice primarily means trials. Thus, fact-finding commissions and reconciliation initiatives are often regarded as “soft options” – a second best when “real justice” is not possible.

The first point to make is that truth, reconciliation and justice are mutually reinforcing. International law requires that there be no impunity for those who commit war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide, truth-seeking or other related processes should not diminish the likelihood of trials. However, not every offender must be punished in order to achieve respect forth rule of law. Societies have the right to demand a full and impartial narration of the past without closing the door on criminal responsibility. We must look at complimentary approaches that allow us to go beyond individual accountability to questions of why and how such actions were permitted and their impact on victims, communities and society at large.

The second point is that truth-seeking and reconciliation are enormously complex undertakings requiring a detailed and lengthy but also painful and sensitive scrutiny of the past. Handled carefully, they can put to rest the past and help to shape a better future.

One of the more shocking findings of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission’s national consultation on transitional justice was that 69 percent of the respondents or their families were direct victims of human rights abuses during the conflict. I am sure that many victims know precisely what happened to them or their families or who carried out the abuses. Others may not know.

In Afghanistan, many thousands of people disappeared or were killed during the conflict and remain unaccounted for today. Their families are entitled to know what happened to them. Future generations of Afghans should also be aware of these events.

More generally, as in any post-conflict situation, it is likely that incorrect assumptions about responsibility and motives for abuses may also exist. Contradictory versions of the same event can exist. Absence of factual information and contested truths create space for politically-motivated denials or revisionist arguments, which do nothing to serve the goals of peace and reconciliation.

The importance of truth in combating impunity is recognized in the recently updated Unset of Principles for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights through Action to Combat Impunity. Under these Principles “the right to know” is recognized as a key component in combating impunity. The State also has a duty to preserve archives and other evidence concerning violations of human rights and humanitarian law. And, victims and their families have the right to know the truth about the circumstances in which violations took place, irrespective of any legal proceedings.

Each State responds differently to these obligations –truth commissions are one possible option. This option has so far been taken up in more than 30 countries. Each commission has been different. Some have been more successful than others. Afghanistan can benefit from lessons learned from these experiences and apply them to its own social, cultural and political norms in its own specific needs for truth and reconciliation.

One of the clearest lessons from the truth commissions is that key stake holders must participate in the process. I commend the Government of Afghanistan on the consultative approach taken to date and encourage this consultation and participation to be broadened and deepened to include marginalized groups.

Women and children in Afghanistan have endured extraordinary levels of suffering –for many, the suffering is not over. Comprehensive and gender sensitive strategies must be designed so that the experience and needs of female victims, including girls, are fully included in the truth and reconciliation initiatives.

Last night I read the results of the National Consultation on past human rights abuses. It vividly brought home to me how much of the pain and anguish of the past is still present with most people. It must be addressed for the future of Afghanistan and all its people.

Let me conclude by saying that I hope the discussions here will help you to develop appropriate approaches to truth and reconciliation in Afghanistan. Wearer committed to supporting the implementation of transitional justices set out in the new Action Plan.