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(Un)Civil Societies Report: March 13, 2003

13 March 2003, Volume 4, Number 4
AFGHANISTAN'S WOMEN -- PROGRESS AND UNMET PROMISES. The celebration of international women's day on 8 March is a time for reflection on the dramatic improvement of women's rights in Afghanistan, seen by many as among the greatest human-rights success stories of the era. In Kabul, 1,500 women from the capital and provinces attended a public event, a sign of a "a big change in Afghan women's life, as well as a significant sign of their interest in social affairs," Minister of Women's Affairs Habiba Surabi told IRIN, the UN news agency, on 8 March. Yet such celebration is challenged by international advocacy groups who say progress is less than meets the eye and real obstacles persist for women throughout Afghanistan. While acknowledging gains brought on by outside intervention, especially in access to education, their appreciation of the role of U.S.-led military power in defeating the Taliban is decidedly muted. Since the coalition's airstrikes began in October 2001, Western feminists as well as those in the "global South" have agonized over the ramifications of achieving women's rights through war and have been quick to find a lack of commitment among Western leaders to long-term support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Human rights groups have also tended to focus on the unmet promises of the international community. In a December 2002 report (, Human Rights Watch (HRW) cited negative trends like a reconfigured Vice and Virtue Squad (renamed "Islamic Teaching") with a team of some 90 women under the Ministry of Religious Affairs which they said was used by authorities to reprimand women for "un-Islamic behavior" like wearing makeup. HRW said men continue to harass women who have discarded the head-to-toe veil known as the burqua. Most ominously, HRW documents increasingly violent attacks, including rocket firings, at girls' schools.

"All over Afghanistan, especially outside the capital, progress on female education is being compromised by the behavior of ultraconservative local leaders, allies of the U.S.-led coalition in the war against the Taliban. They used their connections to the United States to seize power but then embraced some of the Taliban's most odious restrictions," HRW researchers say in an op-ed article published in the "International Herald Tribune" on 21 January 2003.

Most of the December HRW report focuses on the western province of Herat, "the worse province for women in Afghanistan," in the words of a UN official interviewed, and the north, where HRW reports that three rival forces have committed abuses against Pashtun women and girls, raping entire households. While remaining neutral on the issue of the coalition's war itself, HRW's solution to end such brutalities involves more extensive deployment of international security forces. The watchdog group accuses both the European Union and the UN of "self-reinforcing obstructiveness" on the issue, although no Western nation seems willing to suffer the public outcry over inevitably greater casualties resulting from the deployment of more troops on the ground in Afghanistan against warlords.

Solving security issues alone would only be a start. Even violent attacks by warlords are dwarfed by the number of maternal deaths suffered in everyday life. Physicians for Human Rights, a U.S.-based group, found in a 2002 study of Herat Province (population more than 1 million) that the rate of women dying in childbirth was 593 per 100,000 live births. The tradition of giving birth at home and the requirement that women seek their husbands' permission to get outside medical care, as well as the dearth of health facilities to turn to even with such permission, compound the tragedy. (

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Afghan Ministry of Public Health found even worse conditions for the whole country. An average of 1,600 women die in Afghanistan for every 100,000 live births -- a figure that suggests Afghanistan may be the worst place in the world for a woman to become pregnant. In Badakshan, the rate is an alarming 6,500 deaths per 100,000 live births (see

To reverse such trends, far more investment of time and money will have to be made in Afghanistan's reconstruction. In an advocacy report bluntly titled "Rebuilding Afghanistan: A Little Less Talk, A Lot More Action," CARE, the humanitarian organization, graphically demonstrated international priorities with a pie chart showing $10.2 billion, or 84 percent of international funding, going to the military costs of fighting Al-Qaeda and the Taliban; $540 million (or 4 percent) for international peacekeeping; $1.16 billion (or 9 percent) going to emergency humanitarian aid; and $365.5 million (or 3 percent) going to reconstruction. (See http:/ Their wish list for major donors involves pledging and delivering $10 billion over the next five years to rebuild Afghanistan and to release both emergency and long-term reconstruction funds simultaneously -- goals that are unrealistic with impending war in Iraq.

While outspoken groups abroad have linked their demands for Afghanistan to purse strings controlled by their governments and parliaments, the groups working within Afghanistan have more quietly focused on day-to-day, incremental improvements and making do with the limited funds available. Nasrine Abou-Bakre Gross, leader of Negar-Support of Women of Afghanistan, a Paris-based Afghan women's organization, is an Afghan woman who spent many years in the U.S. and now lives in Kabul. Avoiding what she views as shrill and uninformed Western attacks on Islam, in various essays on her groups' website ( she outlines a vision affirming the equality of rights and dignity found in traditional Muslim beliefs. In a February 2003 report, Gross tabulates the gains of women in ministerial positions in Afghanistan -- three ministers (minister of women's affairs, public health, and minister of state for women's issues), four deputy ministers, five women generals, a dozen division chiefs in ministries, and two out of nine commissioners in the Constitutional Drafting Commission.

Critics have called these positions for women "symbolic," and some radical groups claim some of their occupants represent nondemocratic causes such as the old pro-Soviet or pro-Iranian agendas. Still, Gross writes matter of factly that, once employed, women quietly pursue efforts within these government agencies to provide necessities such as day care as well as form women's councils to look after literacy, computer, human rights, English courses, and even successfully combat sexual harassment. While the violent attacks described in the reports of international human rights groups are not remote to these women, they do not offset the gains they have achieved. Many hundreds of women are now employed in education, public health, communication, agricultural -- although not at the pre-Taliban level. For example, 1,800 women employees out of a total of 75,000 can be found in the Ministry of Interior, and are said to be lobbying President Hamid Karzai to issue a regulation that female employees must wear uniforms and caps rather than headscarves while on duty. Gross cites 1,283 women out of 7,779 in 27 factories around Afghanistan in the Ministry of Light Industries; 442 out of 2,560 in the Ministry of Information and Culture. The Ministry of Education, with 939 out of 4,575 female employees, was the largest employer of women.

Afghanistan ratified on 5 March the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the UN reported in a statement the same day. While its possibilities remain exotic for too many women, there are persistent efforts to realize them. Participants in a conference on Afghan women's issues held in Kabul in February issued a communique demanding the "termination of all forms of discrimination" and "threats and violence against women," the Kabul paper "Sirat" reported on 22 February. They also called for the new Afghan Constitution to include rights for women and urged campaigns to eliminate illiteracy (see RFE/RL "Afghanistan Report," 27 February 2003).

DO GENDER PROGRAMS WORK? The Western democracy assistance programs most criticized and even ridiculed locally -- yet most-promoted internationally --are gender programs to promote women's empowerment and rights. Faced with regional governments increasingly intolerant of reform, international officials reach for gender workshops as a "soft option" involving a seemingly nonchallenging topic, although the governments have no real intention of implementing the Western ideas. Hence the skepticism towards women's programming from nongovernmental activists, especially those from civic and political movements with broader concerns. A growing body of scholars are also now re-examining notions impelling Western aid programs, as the winds of democracy are no longer at the backs of citizens' movements in Eastern Europe, and ominous reversals from the rise of extremism to increasing unemployment have become more visible. They are finding that quantifying the number of dollars spent or NGOs created does not indicate whether a qualitative, effective civil society has been created that will make a lasting difference, especially on a difficult subject like women's equality.

In "Designing Governance: Western Aid and Civic Development in Contemporary Russia," Professor Sarah Henderson, a political scientist at Oregon State University, surveys 200 groups in Russia, many funded by private foundations as well as Western governments. She found half of those surveyed received foreign donors' aid which increased their activism, organizational capacity, and networking among the funding groups -- although the purpose and impact remained elusive and beyond the scope of her work. Most groups were preoccupied with survival, economic dislocation, unemployment, or other issues that don't fall within the Western notion of "women's rights," such as the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers campaigns to protect sons in the military from rampant abuse. Henderson found that older groups, some formed from the remnants of official Soviet-era bodies, "remain isolated from Western assistance" and "younger groups have been more successful" in attracting international aid, especially those willing to focus solely on women's issues as understood in the West. Most groups don't have offices or equipment or the luxury of salaries. More than 60 percent used volunteer labor.

In "The Power and Limits of NGOs: A Critical Look at Building Democracy in Eastern Europe and Eurasia" (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), editors Sarah Mendelson, of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and John Glenn, a visiting scholar at New York University, say foreign donors have had trouble getting beyond a "ghetto" of activists who "interact mainly with their transnational partners." In comparing case studies in Eastern Europe and Eurasia from their own and colleagues' work presented in the volume, they say "Western NGOs have played a large and important role in the 'design' and 'building' of institutions associated with democratic states. These same strategies used by NGOs, however, have had minimal impact on how these new institutions actually 'function.'"

Western NGOs serving as the implementors of private and public donors' projects focus on short-term, identifiable objectives rather than long-term support for infrastructure and overhead, says Patrice McMahon, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nebraska, who studied women's groups in Poland and Hungary. McMahon found a tendency of "Western NGOs to set the agenda in these countries by establishing or funding organizations that may appeal to U.S. or Western European constituencies but not necessarily the home country's population." The "inability of many women's NGOs to attract significant followers suggests that Western NGOs have done a poor job of ensuring that institutions become embedded in domestic society," says McMahon, who contrasts them with the more extensive grassroots efforts of the Network for East-West Women, which unites 2,000 activists in 40 countries by combining both imported and domestic ideas for more successful outreach. McMahon writes of a first-hand experience common to civil-society watchers -- seeing "impressive modern offices equipped with the best technology but...devoid of both staff and agenda;" a function, says McMahon, of some donors' reluctance to dump failing groups in which they have already invested heavily as well as an unwillingness by others to go beyond seed money.

Some of the women interviewed in these studies said that Western attention paid to issues like the trafficking of women tended to serve the interests of international NGOs rather than those of local ones, and that groups desperate for support would contort themselves to adjust to Western-generated issues and even neglect local needs. Infighting and jealousy were also unintended consequences of Western funding strategies that tended to single out certain groups over others, based on donor values and interests. With funding and interest in the region of Central Europe waning and some marginalization of Western-oriented movements, women's groups in Poland and Hungary will be forced to rely more on their own resources and work more with domestic government, political parties, and social groups, says McMahon. To counter public disdain for Western-inspired agendas, McMahon believes NGOs should get involved with local and national politics. Yet the restrictions contained in U.S. tax regulations would limit the ways in which American groups could become identified with any campaign for legislative change or for specific candidates or parties.

In another chapter in "The Power and Limits of NGOs" titled "Evaluating Western Assistance to Russian Women's Organizations," James Richter, associate professor of political science at Bates College, argues that Western assistance has strengthened the nonprofit sector but has not helped civil society -- and may have even hurt it. He acknowledges that donors seem to be responding to some of the criticism of their grantees and scholars, i.e. the Ford Foundation has cut back on grants to identifiably feminist NGOs and switched to finance gender studies in education and microfinancing of women's small businesses as well as legal aid for victims of domestic violence.

Richter does not suggest that borrowed strategies are themselves negative, citing a Russian domestic violence hotline modeled after a Swiss service that saves lives. Ultimately, says Richter, the greatest obstacle to the success of women's programs "remains the profound resistance to feminism in contemporary Russian society." Regrettably, "Western assistance actually has widened the distance between the Russian women's movement and the rest of society by creating a cadre of professional activists involved in their own networks," he says. Campaigns that succeeded in Western democracies to change national legislation on issues like domestic violence have failed in Russia and elsewhere in the region. More limited and successful campaigns of regional movements to gain seats on councils and attention to bread-and-butter issues "depends mostly on the personalities in charge of local government, the personalities in charge of local women's organizations, and the connection between the two" -- an insight that might well apply to most civil-society efforts in the transitional states.

Although not contemplated by scholars as an intended or unintended consequence of gender programs, one of the most tangible boons of Western donor assistance has been to provide employment and resources for women in the nonprofit sector, whether in specifically women's groups or other kinds of civic organizations. Richter argues that despite the drawbacks and lack of depth to these Western-funded movements, support of advocacy for women's rights in a hostile environment and independence from the state gained through affiliation with transnational movements are still worthy goals. Rather than a message to donors to withdraw their support, Richter's and others' research indicate the need for even longer-term support of women with more involvement of grantees in decision-making and more encouragement to reach beyond themselves to broader constituencies.

WAR CRIMES COURT OPENS DESPITE LACK OF PARTICIPATION. A permanent International Criminal Court (ICC) to try war crimes and crimes against humanity held its inaugural session on 11 March in The Hague, with the first 18 judges taking their oaths of office. Advocates of the court call its opening the greatest human rights advance in 50 years, but officials of the court appear preoccupied with the more mundane matters of setting up the court's administrative machinery (see "World: International Criminal court Debuts This Week in the Hague,", 10 March 2003).

International and local nongovernmental organizations who view the court as a significant deterrent to massive human-rights violations have mounted an impressive campaign to get the court ratified by the necessary 60 signatures (a total of 120 have now signed and 89 ratified). They have helped make it possible to get the court up and running faster than anyone dreamed possible in the last century, which saw the worst genocides in history. Throughout the campaign, international NGOs targeted a great deal of their efforts at the United States, which has opposed the ICC, and are now focusing on what they see as U.S. obstruction to the court in not only failing to ratify the statute but announcing the withdrawal of the signature obtained during President Bill Clinton's administration. They have denounced the U.S. effort to prevent frivolous prosecution of U.S. military personnel involved in peacekeeping operations through the ICC, condemning what they deem as "illegal contracts" -- separate bilateral agreements made with 21 countries, some of which are now rethinking their position (see

Such bilateral impunity agreements have been signed by Romania, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, all recipients of large amounts of U.S. aid, strategically important to U.S. interests, and in the case of Romania, a new NATO member.

With attention focused on U.S. maneuvers against the court, awareness has been lost that the ICC will not be able to function on cases in many countries where war crimes persist on a massive scale, not because of the U.S., but due to a lack of those countries' ratification of the statute to participate in the ICC. Of the 19 countries designated as being in the Middle East and North Africa region, for example -- including Iraq and Iran -- only Jordan has signed and ratified the statute, a fact overlooked with the visible presiding over the inauguration event of Jordan's Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Husayn, permanent representative of Jordan to the United Nations and president of the Assembly of States Parties to the statute. China, India, and Turkey are also among the countries that have not ratified the statute and have brutally suppressed massive unrest in breakaway provinces or border areas.

In Eastern and Central Europe and Eurasia, only 12 countries have signed and ratified the ICC statute: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Tajikistan. Some, like the Balkan nations and Tajikistan, have witnessed brutal wars with numerous atrocities in the past but have seemingly turned the corner in establishing the rule of law. They are not only confronting their bloody legacies by making the necessary changes in local legislation necessary to comply with the ICC, but appear unafraid at the prospect of new war crimes potentially being tried in the court -- if they took place after July 2002 when the statute went into effect.

Fifteen countries in Eastern Europe and Eurasia have not ratified the ICC statute and several (like Turkmenistan) have never signed it: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Czech Republic, Georgia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. For some, like the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Latvia, ratification has gotten bogged down in various parliamentary procedures and may soon be obtained, although the ICC does not appear to be a priority, and some of the conservative opposition to the court may mirror U.S. concerns. The human rights records of some of the other countries that have not ratified the statute contrast very unfavorably with those who have ratified it, and they are not willing to incorporate the norms of law and the elements of crimes identified by the court into their own national legislation.

In the case of Russia, numerous allegations have been made by both NGOs and international bodies that war crimes continue to be committed in Chechnya. International campaigners have paid scant attention to the states that are the worst human-rights violators for whom the ICC could presumably be a deterrent, and do not appear to have a strategy to enlist the support of a whole range of countries, from Russia to the failed African states engulfed in civil wars to post-Soviet police states like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, or the dictatorships of the Middle East.

Like the judges and other administrative personnel who are now assembling around the court, NGO activists have studiously avoided predicting what the first case at the ICC could be. A refocusing of the efforts of scholars as well as advocates on the appropriate first cases to bring to the court might help shore up its credibility with skeptical Americans and others. For example, with Afghanistan's ratification of the court and the desire for less costly solutions to the chronic problem of warlordism than the deployment of security troops, the massive and often systematic war crimes allegedly committed by some Afghan warlords might be eligible for trial. Some of these human-rights violators served as allies of the U.S. in the military struggle against the Taliban (and were alleged to be supported by Russia before then) but could conceivably be investigated by the ICC's prosecutor -- still to be appointed -- who would have to first find that national courts could not or would not want to try the suspects.

Radical activists singling out Israeli actions in the occupied territories have also contemplated a strategy to bring allegations before the ICC (a remote possibility given that Israel has not ratified the statute but one that accounts for some U.S. resistance to the court). They face certain complications and the paradox to their own ideology entailed in abandoning efforts to declare Palestine a state. Other observers of the court have contemplated Liberia as a good first case, although it has only signed and not ratified the statute; Sierra Leone has ratified the statute but the kind of appalling atrocities seen in the mutilation attacks of past years are not as evident now, and the court must address only crimes committed after June 2002.

Recently, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) announced that it was considering a proposal to establish a war crimes tribunal for Chechnya during a plenary session scheduled for 31 March. At the session of the PACE Legal Affairs Committee last week, German Rudolf Bindig tabled a motion calling for the creation of a tribunal to investigate war crimes in Chechnya, reported 5 March. Bindig's proposal suggests modeling the tribunal on the UN war crimes court for the former Yugoslavia and mentioned abuses by both Russian soldiers and Chechen fighters amid "a climate of impunity," RFE/RL reported on 5 March. Bindig directly accuses Moscow of denying journalists and human-rights activists access to combat areas, making it impossible to establish what is really going on in Chechnya, reported. Russia's Foreign Ministry dismissed the proposal as "absurd." Although resolutions dealing with Russia's accession to the Council of Europe required that it prosecute crimes from the first Chechen war, its failure to do so for that war or the ongoing second war has never seriously jeopardized its membership in the organization.

BELARUS. Opposition groups originally denied a permit to march under the slogan "For a Better Life" have now obtained a go-ahead from police to assemble on a central Minsk square on 12 March. Human rights groups raising issues like the disappearances of politicians and the jailing of journalists as well as opposition figures denouncing recent unfair local elections, along with a growing market vendors' movement protesting heavy regulation of business have joined forces to kick off the season's protest rallies.

BULGARIA. Ethnic Turks Raise Issue of Forced Assimilation: The Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which is the political party representing large segments of Bulgaria's Turkish minority, the country's largest, held its fifth national congress in Sofia on 16 February and passed a resolution calling for suing the Bulgarian state before an unspecified tribunal for its forceful assimilation of Muslim minorities from 1962-89.

IRAQ. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting has launched a new service on Iraq, saying voices from and in the region have been conspicuously absent from debates about the war. Articles featured include "End of the Party," proposing that a sustained program of de-Ba'athification is essential to rid Iraq of the influence of the ruling party and its functionaries; "The West's Humanitarian Charade," saying Western leaders' claim that the war would be for the Iraqi people is belied by the experience of Afghanistan and elsewhere; and "No Protest in My Name!," where a victim of Saddam Hussein's regime makes her case for war.

RUSSIA. Arjan Erkel was kidnapped on 12 August 2002 while volunteering on a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) medical aid program in Daghestan. More than six months have passed since he was abducted, and neither MSF nor his family have received any information as to his whereabouts or why and by whom he was kidnapped. His colleagues marked his 33rd birthday on 10 March and continued a signature campaign on his behalf to bring world attention to his case.

TAJIKISTAN. Rights Groups Say Executions Increasing: International organizations and human rights groups say the number of people receiving the death penalty has increased in Tajikistan over the past three years. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Dushanbe says some 240 people were sentenced to death in the past year. About 100 executions were carried out. Most of the people put to death were convicted of murder, kidnapping, or drug trafficking.

UKRAINE. Opposition Renews Anti-Kuchma Protests: Tens of thousands of people took part in a rally against Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma at the monument to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in Kyiv on 9 March. The gathering adopted a resolution calling for early presidential elections and reform of the country's political system. It also called on the government to release political prisoners, abolish censorship, provide the opposition with regular airtime on public television, to bring the level of wages, pensions, and scholarships "in line with the norms of the constitution," and to ban increases in the prices for public utilities.