Women's plight highlighted at Afghan conference

Clinton promises security for Afghan women. Sudanese security services criticised for role in repression. Israel likely to secure F-35 fighter deal. ASEAN summit hears concerns that Burma is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. All this and more in today's security briefing.
Patricia Rich
20 July 2010

An international conference held in Kabul today agreed that Afghan forces should take control of their own security by 2014, and that Nato and Afghan forces should begin a security transition by the end of this year. The communiqué highlighted women’s rights and the Afghan government pledged that within six months a strategy would be drawn up to implement a law with the aim of eliminating “violence against women and provide assistance to victims”. Before the conference Hilary Clinton promised the women of Afghanistan that they would not be left behind in any security agreements.

The openSecurity Verdict: When Nato states invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the rhetoric of women’s rights was used as part of the moral justification of their actions. Support was galvanised on the basis that the war would aid Afghan women achieve equality. While women suffered severe restrictions under the Taleban, questions still need to be asked about how serious the Afghan and occupying forces’ governments are in dealing with the question of gender equality. As feminist and gender analysts have long argued and illustrated, the rhetoric of women’s rights is often used as a justification for war and quickly forgotten in any state-building and post-conflict exercises (see for example Cynthia Enloe, Bananas Beaches and Bases). Women’s rights are seen as secondary to gun battles, training police and army recruits – in short they are seen as secondary to dealing with overt physical warfare. But, as argued by Patricia Leidl and Valerie Hudson argued in Foreign Policy recently, “without the security of women there is no security”. 

UNIFEM state that the government of Afghanistan has committed to “increasing the number of women in the civil service to 30%”, this alongside the communiqué released today which states that a new law will be brought in to protect women’s rights certainly points in the right direction. However, committing to increase numbers of women in the civil service – positions which will only be filled by an educated elite - and the possible introduction of a law to deal with physical violence will not be enough to secure and empower women in Afghanistan.

Any serious commitment to gender equity and empowerment must also be played out through grassroots projects which allow for women’s rights to be defined and understood in the local context. Thinking that having a 30 percent female civil service will lead to women being empowered is a simplistic analysis which assumes the homogeneity of Afghan women. It is also reliant upon a statistical, easy to evaluate methodology which ignores the importance of changing perspectives in a country which has been ruled by overt misogyny, the most apparent consequence of which has been the normalisation of the burqa. 

Further, as a result of the conference it is expected to be confirmed that the percentage of foreign aid into Afghanistan being directed through the government will increase to 50%. Currently the amount flowing through government agencies stands at 20% and Hamid Karzai has complained that the majority which currently flows through western agencies gets lost amid corruption and poor administration. The hope will be that increasing the spending power of Kabul will broaden the government’s relevance and support among Afghans. Radical alternatives, such as direct cash transfers, should also be considered as way of reducing poverty while potentially empowering women along the way.

As the Afghan government calls for more powers to be handed over and western powers in Afghanistan are keen to withdraw their troops amid ever increasing death tolls the transition will only work with a holistic approach to security which does not ignore the rights of women – a challenge which must be answered by more than just numerical quotas and top down laws - and instead focus on changing perspectives at the grassroots level.

Security services increase repression in Sudan

Last week the International Criminal Court issued its second arrest warrant for the Sudanese president Omar Al Bashir for three counts of genocide. The arrest warrant is to run concurrently to the one issued in March 2009 which indicts Bashir for crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes. However, since the ICC announcement last week, the security services have unleashed a “brutal campaign” against those who oppose the government. Amnesty international report the use of “arbitrary detentions, torture and mental and physical intimidation” used against those believed to critique the government. Repression increases at times of “political tension” the report states, claiming that the latest wave is a response to the ICC’s issuing of the second arrest warrant.

This report brings into the question the usefulness of an arrest warrant unlikely to bring Bashir to trial at any time in the near future, and highlights the power of the security services which were supposed to be curtailed as part of negotiations between central government and local leaders in the south of the country. A stipulation of the 2005 peace deal included a review of the security services’ authority but the subsequent government bill fell short of opposition expectations.

Israel likely to secure deal on F-35 fighter planes

On Sunday this week Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak met with Palestinian and Israeli leaders and an envoy from the US to discuss the possibility of direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials. The shuttle talks took place in Cairo, and, while a breakthrough seemed distant, these pre-negotiation are seen as a step towards face-to-face meetings. However, progress could be impeded by the news that Israel is set to buy 19 F-35 fighter planes from the US, in a deal reportedly worth $3billion. The deal could anger Palestinian leaders who may see this as yet another example of US support to Israel – increasing the Israeli military arsenal which is most often used in the Palestinian territories. The indirect talks, which are half-way through their projected four month duration, are set to continue.

ASEAN airs concerns that Burma seeks nuclear weapons

ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations) are set to meet this week with Indonesia, the largest member, voicing concerns regarding the Burmese government’s desire to develop nuclear capabilities. ASEAN has a nuclear-free agreement which came into force in 1997 – the same year that Burma (Myanmar) became a member of the regional organisation. An Oslo-based broadcasting association of exiled Burmese journalists reported in early June that the ruling military government intend to “build nuclear weapons facilities”. Kavi Chongkittavorn, columnist for Thailand’s English-language newspaper The Nation, predicted that the issue will be raised at the conference, due to take place in Hanoi over the next three days, despite a lack of concrete evidence, arguing that the issue is about “intent and motive”. Hilary Clinton is set to meet with ASEAN representatives and express her concern regarding Burma’s ties with North Korea, which successfully developed nuclear weapons.

Burma is under increasing scrutiny in the run up to elections due to take place by the end of the year. Numerous opposition figures have either been banned from participating or have boycotted the process. In sharp contrast, representatives of the ruling junta received a cordial welcome during a state visit to neighbouring India, at which energy and trade relations were discussed.

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