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UN: Afghan Arms Embargo Must Cover All Sides

  • Robert McMahon

The U.S.-based non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch says in a new report that the United Nations Security Council needs to adopt an arms embargo on all warring factions in Afghanistan. The report faults Afghanistan's neighbors for violating existing embargoes, and it comes as the Security Council is considering an unprecedented plan to set up sanctions monitors in most countries in the region. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 13 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- During the first week of the United Nations small arms conference, delegates and arms experts repeatedly cited Afghanistan as a worst-case scenario for proliferation of light weapons.

With an estimated 10 million small arms in circulation and a long-running civil war, Afghanistan was called the focal point of regional instability. Representatives from neighboring countries cited it as a source of terrorism and drug trafficking and a destabilizing factor for their own nations.

But independent experts say that despite these concerns, weapons are still flowing into the country in support of either the ruling Taliban or the opposition United Front, which controls less than 10 percent of the country in the north.

Human Rights Watch, a prominent U.S.-based non-governmental organization, says in a new report that the arms are not only keeping alive the Afghan war, but also contributing to abuses against the civilian population. The 55-page report, released today, calls on the UN Security Council to impose a comprehensive embargo on military assistance to both the Taliban and the United Front, also known as the Northern Alliance.

The rights group accuses Pakistan of continuing to send arms to the Taliban, months after Security Council sanctions against the Taliban leadership went into effect. It also singles out Iran and Russia for supplying arms to the United Front, despite their pledges to work for peace as part of the regional Six-plus-Two group.

The chief arms expert at Human Rights Watch, Joost Hiltermann, tells RFE/RL that those contributing to the warring factions have ignored the severe human rights and humanitarian problems of Afghan civilians. He says Afghans have fled the country in the millions, but those who remain have been subjected to abuses by both sides.

"It's very much a problem where the international community is, to a growing extent, complicit in what is happening in Afghanistan. And so by exposing this complicity, we hope to foment some political will to actually address the problem head on. I recognize this won't be easy. It hasn't been easy with Afghanistan for the last 10 years. We can't expect things to change overnight."

Human Rights Watch conducted research on military assistance to the Taliban and the United Front over a two-year period, with much of the field work done in 1999. The rights group sent monitors throughout Afghanistan, as well as to Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan. It interviewed government officials, military officers, civil servants, journalists, and others.

Hiltermann said the NGO timed the release of its report for the middle of the UN's current conference on small arms to stress the importance of reaching a global agreement on restricting their illegal trade. But he says Human Rights Watch is urging that greater controls also be placed on the legal trade of small arms and light weapons because, in Afghanistan's case, many governments are involved in weapons transfers.

The report charges that Pakistan violated the UN arms embargo against the Taliban as recently as two months ago, with shipments of arms, ammunition and fuel sent across its border into Taliban-controlled territory. Many of its findings echo a report from a team of experts commissioned by the Security Council this spring to monitor compliance with sanctions. Pakistan strongly denied the expert group's findings.

Human Rights Watch also says Saudi Arabia has provided funds and subsidized fuel shipments to the Taliban, through Pakistan. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates are the only three countries to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Diplomats representing the United Front occupy the country's seat at the United Nations.

The Human Rights Watch survey also found that Iran and Russia provided major support to the United Front. It says military assistance to United Front forces -- mainly from Iran -- crosses the Tajik-Afghan border with the assistance of Russian forces deployed in the area.

Hiltermann says the Six-plus-Two states need to be engaged in a scheme that blocks all weapons from Afghanistan, but he admits this will be difficult.

"The surrounding states -- what is called the Six-plus-Two group -- have in fact been instrumental in allowing both sides to be re-armed even when the civil war rages and atrocities occur. So they need to be brought on board. Now, that is also going to be a little bit of a juggling act because they may not have a great interest in stationing monitors on their territories."

The Security Council late last year approved an arms embargo against the Taliban in response to its failure to comply with an earlier resolution that included economic sanctions. It then commissioned a team of experts to visit the region and make suggestions on how the new sanctions could work.

The expert group recommends setting up a special UN office for sanctions monitoring that would oversee the work of sanctions enforcement support teams based in each of the countries neighboring Afghanistan. The teams' mandate would be to bolster the work of local border control and counter-terrorism services.

Colombia -- the Security Council member overseeing the expert group's work -- has proposed a draft resolution calling for sanctions support teams of up to 15 members to be deployed on the territory of Afghanistan's neighbors. The proposal says a monitoring office of up to five members should be set up at UN headquarters in New York.

It is not clear when that resolution will be discussed, but the council is scheduled to meet on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan next Thursday (19 July).

Hiltermann of Human Rights Watch welcomes the expert group's proposals on the Taliban sanction enforcement. He says they offer a good first step and deal with the most difficult arms embargo area -- the Taliban's broad area of potential supply lines. By contrast, the United Front's supply routes are confined to a small area near the north of the country and could be more easily monitored.

Afghanistan's UN ambassador, Ravan Farhadi, devoted most of his speech yesterday (12 July) at the UN small arms conference to criticizing Pakistan for its alleged military support of the Taliban. He called the Taliban the "mercenaries of Pakistan" and expressed hope that the UN conference would result in a ban in the kind of military assistance the Taliban has been receiving.

"We support the idea of considering [as] a crime the act of the export or transfer of arms and ammunition to the groups and authorities other than the governments of United Nations members -- with the exception of those who are fighting for their independence and their right to self-determination."

Earlier in the week, Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi had also expressed support for banning aid to non-government agencies. Addressing conference delegates, he referred repeatedly to the instability caused by the proliferation of small arms in neighboring Afghanistan.

Pakistan's interior minister, Moin-ud-din Haider, expressed some concern about Afghanistan's instability in his speech to the conference Tuesday. But he pointedly repeated Pakistan's objection to the Security Council's anti-Taliban embargo.

"Unfortunately, the Security Council's arms embargo on Afghanistan targets only one group. In the context of the endeavors of this conference to address problems associated with small arms and light weapons proliferation, it must be objectively assessed if such one-sided and selective actions do not in fact aggravate the problems which the international community seeks to resolve."

Almost five years ago (December 1996), the European Union imposed an arms embargo against all parties in the Afghan war, and this week at the UN some EU members were critical of the Security Council unilateral embargo against the Taliban. That resolution was pressed most strongly by the United States and Russia.

The United States continues to seek the extradition of Osama bin Laden from Taliban-ruled territory to face terrorism charges. Both the United States and Russia say the Taliban has permitted terrorist bases to operate on its territory and has promoted instability by backing Islamic insurgents in Central Asia.

(The Human Rights Watch report can be accessed at: http://www.hrw.org)

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