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UN: Humanitarian Group Awards Karzai, Presses U.S. On Refugee Policy

  • Robert McMahon

Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai marked the 13 November anniversary of his country's liberation from Taliban rule by praising the resilience and spirit of the Afghan people. Karzai spoke in New York after receiving the International Rescue Committee's annual "Freedom Award." Meanwhile, two prominent U.S. legislators used the occasion to urge the U.S. government to relax its controls on refugees seeking resettlement in the United States.

New York, 14 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai has paid tribute to Afghanistan's people for helping to pull the country through its first year of reconstruction since the fall of the Taliban regime.

Karzai spoke last night in a ballroom of New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel after receiving the annual "Freedom Award" of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The IRC is a nongovernmental aid group active in Afghanistan and more than 30 other countries.

The IRC said it was honoring Karzai for his leadership in guiding Afghanistan toward peace and democracy through great difficulties. But Karzai said he considered it an award for all Afghans.

He saluted what he called "the common man" for helping to revive Afghanistan through simple hard work: "It's people who have come back to build that country for us. They're rebuilding their homes. They're rebuilding their businesses, working their fields."

Karzai barely mentioned the serious difficulties still facing Afghanistan brought on by 23 years of civil war and natural disasters. Instead, he cited several anecdotes which he said gave him hope for the country's growth.

Afghan officials, he said, have been surprised by the surge in interest in education among Afghan families, with nearly 3 million children signed up for the most recent session of classes. He said he was even approached by a delegation of Afghan nomads seeking a way to bring education services to their families. Karzai said the nomads suggested establishing mobile schools to accommodate their way of life.

In another anecdote, Karzai noted a recent case in which he was able to persuade the family of a murder victim not to seek the death penalty, as allowed by law, and to instead forgive the assailant.

Karzai, addressing an audience that included U.S. State Department officials, said he was committed to meeting a timetable for setting up a representative government that normal Afghans can vote for.

He said his newly appointed human rights commission will have a special focus on protecting the rights of women because they have suffered the most from rights abuses in the country's recent history. He also said he was moving forward on restructuring the country's judicial system.

Karzai thanked a wide coalition of nations, including the United States, Japan, and Muslim states, for their reconstruction assistance. But he also appealed for an end to interference in Afghan affairs by countries in the region: "Having said this, I hope our neighbors will leave us alone. And I hope Osama [bin Laden] will leave us alone. I heard he's alive."

A secondary theme of the evening was to raise awareness about the sharp drop in the levels of refugees allowed to resettle in the United States in recent years. At the end of the latest fiscal year, fewer than 30,000 of the targeted amount of 70,000 refugees were admitted into the United States due to slow implementation of new procedures.

The International Rescue Committee says this was the lowest number in the 22-year history of the U.S. government's refugee resettlement program.

Senator Edward Kennedy, a Democrat, is outgoing chairman of the Senate's immigration subcommittee. He told last night's gathering that the dropping levels undermined a long-standing U.S. policy and the country's global leadership on refugee issues.

Kennedy said there should be better cooperation between U.S. government agencies, like the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. State Department, on sharing information on people seeking to enter the country. He suggested improved technology could help:

"We have 451 million [people] that come in and out of the United States every year. There may be 200 or 300 that may be potentially dangerous. You can't possibly [evaluate this] through human beings. You need biometrics. You need to use new technologies to try to detect them. Otherwise, we're going to go into a 'Fortress America' which is going to have enormous implications in terms of family unifications, in being enormously discriminatory to people."

The incoming chairman of the Senate's immigration subcommittee, Samuel Brownback (Kansas, Republican), told the gathering he is committed to pressing the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush on the issue:

"There are refugees in many places, not just where we've had refugees from before, but we need to get those new refugees -- and there are many there, suffering terrible persecution -- and we need to speak out for them and educate people about them."

Brownback said his committee has met with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and that he was supportive. But the senator said so far there has been little change in the administration's actions on refugee issues.