By Lisa Schirch
Bonn’s Beethoven Hall usually hosts violin, cello and bass players. From December 2-3 the stage supported Afghan engineers, university professors, media professionals and leaders from human rights, women’s rights and Afghan NGOs harmonising their voices at the Afghan Civil Society Forum.
These Afghan calls for a just peace contrasted with tragic news from Afghanistan of horrific bombings targeting Shia believers, as well as the US airstrike on Pakistani soldiers and the subsequent withdrawal of Pakistan from the 5 December Bonn Conference on Afghanistan, attended by members of the international community to talk about the country’s future.
Hundreds of civil society leaders from across Afghanistan elected 34 Afghans to represent their interests to international diplomats attending the Bonn Civil Society Forum. The Afghan delegates expressed thanks for the international community’s support, noting the many successes of Afghan civil society, the Afghan government and the international community. They lauded their own achievements in mediating conflicts across the country, building an independent media system and fostering public access to education and healthcare.
But they also analysed problems in Afghanistan: too much short-term rushed development, vast corruption, warlords in government positions and the need for a comprehensive peace process.
In short, they said, “There cannot be peace and stability without justice.”
What does justice mean in Afghanistan? A decade earlier, the 2001 Bonn Conference on Afghanistan excluded the Taliban while simultaneously including equally atrocity-prone warlords who had fought against the Taliban. The international community allowed the Afghan government to reward these warlords with government positions. This rush for a quick peace in 2001 laid an unstable foundation for peace and contributed to a decade of corruption, further violence and injustice.
A just peace requires negotiations between all stakeholders, including armed groups like the Taliban as well as unarmed civil society groups. It also means accountability mechanisms to ensure all are held to account for past crimes. But a just peace will not bargain away the Afghan constitution’s protections of human rights and women’s rights. And a just peace requires a process including the Afghan public.
At the meeting, Afghan civil society called for international support for their peace-building efforts to address conflicts, including the sectarian divisions evidenced in this week’s bombing – and it is this call that we as a global community must listen to.
An exhausted international community eager to leave Afghanistan and preaching a “talk and fight” strategy is no recipe for a just or durable peace. Too many government-appointed warlords still govern from the intimidating power of the gun rather than leading through the legitimacy that comes from providing public services. The international community’s programs to improve governance have too often relied on inexperienced, highly-paid contractors who lack knowledge of local languages and traditions rather than supporting and empowering local civil society to hold their own government to account.
Civil society’s voice in the peace process is a foundation for success, not a luxurious add-on. But opponents of Afghan civil society’s participation in the Bonn Conference and in the peace process are plentiful. Government officials say that they represent civil society’s interests, or say, “Involving civil society is a nice idea, but we simply don’t have time to involve the public before the 2014 deadline.”
Yet negotiations have stopped. It seems from most accounts that no one is talking to the Taliban. The US “talk and fight” strategy exists only in theory. In practice it does not include “talking”. And the Afghan government’s peace and reconciliation plan is at a standstill. Given this impasse, civil society’s involvement in the peace process is not a luxury, but a necessity.
History shows that military victory ends only a small percentage of wars. Most end through peace agreements. But half of all peace agreements fail, primarily because the process excludes the public. Dozens of researchers agree that peace processes that include civil society are more successful and more often lead to stable, durable, democratic governance.
Somehow the voices echoing from Beethoven Hall need to reach the ears of those in power.
Designing a process that includes the Afghan public and works out a way to deal with difficult justice issues is essential to the success of any peace deal in Afghanistan.
Lisa Schirch is Director of 3P Human Security and author of the report Designing a Comprehensive Peace Process in Afghanistan.