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UN: War, Not Sanctions, Main Cause Of Afghan Suffering

  • Robert McMahon

The latest United Nations report on conditions in Afghanistan provides another disturbing portrait of a country facing famine, continued economic decline and population displacement. The report says UN sanctions are having an adverse effect on beleaguered civilians, but finds that the country's continuing civil war is by far the biggest cause of suffering. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 17 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A new United Nations survey of conditions in Afghanistan finds that the war between ruling Taliban and opposition United Front forces continues to be the main cause of humanitarian suffering in the country.

The report, released yesterday (16 July), says about 850,000 people have been internally displaced since last summer. In addition, about 200,000 Afghans have sought refuge in Iran and 170,000 have fled to Pakistan, bringing the total refugee population in surrounding countries to nearly 3.7 million.

Ongoing conflict through the first six months of this year, the report said, was the main cause for the population displacement. It also attributed suffering to the severe drought and repressive polices of the Taliban leadership.

UN spokesman Fred Eckhard told reporters yesterday that UN Security Council sanctions have caused some additional hardships this year, but on a much smaller scale.

"The effects [of sanctions] have been limited and are greatly exceeded by other factors, including the continuing conflict in Afghanistan and the unprecedented drought."

The Security Council authorized primarily economic sanctions in 1999 to force the Taliban to hand over accused terrorist Osama bin Laden for extradition and to end human rights abuses. The refusal of the Taliban to comply brought another layer of sanctions that took effect in January. This time, the Taliban was subjected to an arms embargo until it hands over bin Laden and ends what UN officials say is support for terrorist bases on its territory.

The report released yesterday by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's office is the second one this year examining the humanitarian impact of the sanctions. It says one of the few areas directly affected by the sanctions is civil aviation.

Annan recommends that the Security Council immediately permit exemptions to sanctions that would allow Ariana Afghan Airlines to address maintenance problems. But in general, his report says, the sanctions do not pose any major obstacles to international humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan.

But the secretary-general also says the new arms embargo has not lessened the intensity of the fighting through the first six months of this year. His report says all regions of the country, with the exception of the southern region, now include active conflict zones.

An expert panel has recommended that the Security Council set up a regional monitoring mechanism in Afghanistan's neighboring countries. But it is not clear when the council will next take up the matter.

The UN humanitarian report follows the release last Friday (13 July) of a survey by the non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch, which also said war was the greatest threat to civilians. Human Rights Watch said Afghanistan's neighbors continued to support the opposing sides in the civil war militarily, and called for an end to military shipments to all sides in the conflict. The organization's arms expert, Joost Hiltermann, told RFE/RL that both sides were committing abuses against civilians.

The Human Rights Watch report said that during fighting in late 1999 and early 2000, internally displaced persons who fled villages in the Sangcharak district recounted summary executions and widespread looting during the four months that the area was held by the United Front. It said those targeted in the attacks were largely ethnic Pashtuns.

Hiltermann says many more allegations have been made against the Taliban recently, in part because they have had more military successes.

"The reality on the battlefield has been such that the Taliban have been in a much better position to commit abuses, and they've certainly taken the opportunity to do so."

The report from the UN secretary-general's office said the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan can be only be properly addressed if there is a change in the two sides' attitude and ability to fight, and if an effective peace process is allowed to proceed.

The Taliban leadership had agreed late last year to begin the process of a dialogue with the United Front through the mediation of UN peace envoy Francesc Vendrell. But that process halted as soon as the new UN sanctions came into force. UN officials say Taliban leaders have retaliated by harassing UN humanitarian workers, by restricting travel by aid workers, and denying permission for aid deliveries to opposition-controlled areas.

The UN report says these difficulties have come at a time when millions of Afghans have grown dependent on international assistance for food and health care. It cites recent crop assessments by two UN food agencies that say there is growing evidence of emerging widespread famine conditions in the country.

(The UN report's full text is available at: