Despite violence, ‘tremendous hunger’ for peace in Afghanistan: top UN official

UN Geneva/Daniel Johnson Toby Lanzer in the UN studio where he said that 2019 would be “make or break” for Afghanistan, amid nearly 40 years of violence, poverty and drought.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.

A high-level international conference on Afghanistan got underway at the UN in Geneva on Tuesday to show solidarity for the war-torn country’s people and help strengthen Government efforts to promote development, along with wider peace and security.

Speaking to journalists at the start of the two-day meeting at the Palais des Nations, senior UN official Toby Lanzer, Deputy Special Representative for the UN Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), said that everyone he had met wanted a solution to stop the violence.

The UN would do what it could to help them, with the support of the international community, he insisted, noting that the question of peace would be “quite naturally” a component of discussions.

“2019 will mark the 40th anniversary – four decades of instability – in Afghanistan,” he said. “For the vast majority of the country, they have grown up knowing conflict and nothing else, so there is a tremendous – and you will know this better than me – there is a tremendous hunger for peace. I have only met people in Afghanistan who want the violence to end so the United Nations will be doing what it can and offering its support in that regard.”

One of the aims of the conference – which is being attended by Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, its Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, together with numerous foreign ministers, including from Russia, Turkey and the EU – is to emphasise the importance of development to securing peace and security.

The Geneva meeting will also provide an opportunity to measure what has been achieved in Afghanistan after the international community committed $15.2 billion to the country as part of a four-year plan, in 2016.

“Whether it’s peace, whether it’s security, whether it’s development, whether it’s trade, things need to be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led,” Mr Lanzer said, before noting that progress had been “quicker and better” than might have been expected – not least in reform of the Government security sector.

International Monetary Fund (IMF) benchmarks “have not only been met, they’ve been exceeded”, the UNAMA official continued, before listing a series of areas where reform could be assessed, from investing in “the basic services” of health and education, to enabling the private sector by passing key legislation and combating corruption.

Current humanitarian needs in the country are at emergency levels for millions of people, the result of one of the worst droughts in living memory that has destroyed crops and livestock, hitting the mainly rural population hardest.

With 3.6 million living with chronic food insecurity, Mr. Lanzer said that “to be clear, it’s one step away from famine. That’s how hard this drought has struck during 2018.”

In addition to delivering food to those in need, providing shelter to people who have been displaced by the famine – or who are returning to Afghanistan – remains among the most urgent humanitarian challenges in the country, before winter sets in.

“This year so far, 675,000 people have returned from Iran to Afghanistan”, Mr. Lanzer said. “And at the same time, half a million people have been forced from their homes in the country. Why? Because of ongoing violence and because of the drought.”

Elections on course for April

Amid reports that Afghanistan’s 2019 presidential election may be postponed, the UN official said that no change in date had been conveyed to him by the country’s Independent Election Commission (IEC).

“We are working on the information that we have which is that presidential elections are currently scheduled to take place on 20 April (2019)”, he said, “and that’s the date that we’re still discussing with the authorities.”

Mr. Lanzer noted that the recent Parliamentary elections marked an important moment because they took place “without massive organizational support from the international community”.

It was also very significant at the end of February this year that the Government of Ashraf Ghani had said it was ready for “talks without preconditions” with Taliban armed groups without preconditions, the UN official explained.

This new approach has been accompanied by a “more concerted effort by the international community to lend a hand to that process”, Mr. Lanzer added, making this “an apt moment to get together to reaffirm our commitments and support to Afghanistan”.

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