Select Committee on International Development Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 189-199)




  189. Secretary of State, welcome to you and your officials and thank you very much for the briefing. I think you can assume we have all read it, so we need not have a long opening statement, unless there is anything desperate you would like to say in addition.

  (Clare Short) It is not desperate, but I would like to say something, briefly.

  190. Absolutely.
  (Clare Short) I think a lot of the public commentary on the conflict as well as the humanitarian situation has not been well-informed. It has been a mixture of partial information, high emotion—for very understandable reasons—and an exaggeration of the UK role. The UK is trying to play a constructive role, and although both militarily and, of course, in the humanitarian effort, which is a UN-led effort with international support, we have been one player with a lot of influence (because I have such an effective department) but sometimes the talk is as though we are half the military campaign and half the humanitarian effort and that causes commentary to be distorted. After September 11 when all the international staff were withdrawn there were something like 13 days when no food moved. That was the biggest worry to me and my department and our complete focus was on getting the food moving again, both into the country and across the country, in very difficult circumstances with a lot of fear and impossible communications from inside the country because of the Taliban order of no use of telephones. That is the thing we have absolutely focussed on. You have seen the daily figures and they went up consistently. That was the purpose of my visit to Pakistan and to Peshawar, to see all the UN agencies. I have to say the World Food Programme has performed magnificently in some of the most difficult circumstances anyone has seen, in terms of humanitarian crises with military dimensions. While I was in Islamabad I met with representatives of the British NGOs that were operating on the ground, and all but one of them, insofar as they knew what was going on inside the country, thought their distribution systems were holding up. The one which was not was Islamic Relief, which is an enormously impressive organisation based in my constituency, as a matter of coincidence, or maybe not (it has nothing to do with me, but it is the quality of the people who live in my constituency) who were operating around Kandahar. So for understandable reasons they were having difficulties. At the same time as that the UK NGOs issued their appeal for the pause in the bombing. I think they made an error, for, again, understandable emotional reasons. Everyone hates the idea of a country that is hungry being bombed. We already understand the complexity of the situation and why that was happening, but it was based on their hearts and not their information as humanitarians. It was not true that a pause in the bombing was necessary to get more food in, because day by day we were getting more food in. In fact, as I tried to say repeatedly, what we want is limited bombing and the earliest possible end to the conflict, not a pause which would just prolong it. I think that was unprofessional but understandable and not based on real information. By coincidence, I met there the people operating on the ground in those organisations just before they made that call. One other thing I would like to say is that since the military situation has improved and with the collapse of the Taliban, we have had humanitarian trouble because the major route into the country is from Peshawar in Pakistan, with the bulk of the food going in that way. Because, of course, there was a lot of uncertainty and movement in that region of the country the Afghan truckers, who have been the heroes of carrying food in, were unwilling to move. They are the people with the best possible information of what is going on inside the country because they are locals and they have their ways of getting information. For a few days we could live with this because there were stockpiles because the targets for the previous month had been over-fulfilled, but that was getting very worrying. I talked to Catherine Bertini last night, who is in New York. The World Food Programme had used its own trucks and employed commercial truckers to take in some food yesterday to try and explore whether the routes could go open, which again I think is brave and looking ahead. Afghan truckers with their own trucks, who had gone right through the Russian war, know how to cope in Afghanistan. That worked well, and I understand today—because, of course, it is earlier there than here—1,300 tonnes have moved, which is fabulous. I imagine, but do not know, that some Afghan truckers are probably moving too, today, because I do not think the World Food Programme alone could get that much going in a day, but we do not know that for certain. So there we are, we are moving again. The systems are holding. Some parts of the country are becoming more accessible. Kabul seems to be calm, and Mazar is uncertain but people are there (I think some French troops are there now). A prolonged period of instability and uncertainty would create problems for the humanitarian effort, but if things move forward in the way that we would want, most particularly a transitional government being agreed through the UN and troops moving in just to stabilise the situation but then a government that wants to co-operate with the international community, it would become much, much easier to move to humanitarian-plus; get schools reopened, and Food for Work and so on. That is the optimistic scenario but the current situation is very uncertain and troubling, though this reopening of the border with Pakistan is very good news in the last couple of days.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. Together with the briefing that is very helpful. The sort of message we have got from the NGOs on "pause the bombing" is that they were very concerned about winter setting in and whether they could get sufficient food in before that. I think events have overtaken matters.

Ann Clwyd

  191. During the weekend there has been a lot of publicity surrounding the Bagram airfield. I wondered if you could tell us what role is envisaged for that airfield. Is it going to make it easier to bring humanitarian aid into the country, or what? How essential do you think it is that more of the British military are deployed in Afghanistan?
  (Clare Short) I cannot tell you authoritatively. I have not seen any military instructions. I probably could if I asked but I have been at the World Bank meeting in Ottawa as well, although I have tried to brief myself since I returned. My understanding from the special Cabinet meeting was that this is the airport nearest to Kabul, and just returning diplomats to Kabul, including our own (I think the French are there, the Turks and Vendrell, the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General and the UN team have been there) and getting the airport under control, open and operational is part of normalisation, is part of Kabul being able to operate and is part of international efforts being able to come and go. That is all part of creating the conditions in which humanitarian assistance can improve, rather than just the humanitarian operation.

  192. We heard Catherine Bertini talking last week and we were supplied with a UN map which showed various corridors where humanitarian aid could be brought into the country. How were those corridors working at the moment? Are they working? Is this just a map with aspirations?
  (Clare Short) I have not seen Catherine Bertini's map but I have to say she has done an admirable job. They did a very good job in Kosovo but they have excelled themselves. I do think most people in countries like ours have not heard of the World Food Programme and do not know it is a very efficient UN operation that gets food to people who would otherwise go hungry in some of the most difficult situations in the world. I think we should give credit, and people should know that this part of the UN system works enormously well. So I have not seen her particular map, but I presume they are the same corridors that we all talk about. Broadly, they are all working with the newly open one from Tajikistan, which is the one that the UK helped to support the Russian emergency operation to get operating there, and has over-delivered on food targets. The big problem was, as I said in my opening remarks, that the movement from Peshawar in Pakistan, which was the major corridor, was not operational for the last few days and now the very good news is that yesterday and today more food is moving again. So far so good, but, as you will understand, instability and uncertainty creates enormous difficulties for humanitarian operations. We need things to move forward and more stabilisation. If we get that we will be able to do not just as well as we were doing but even better across the parts of the country that are not in Taliban control. I am optimistic but we are not there yet.

  193. During the crisis in the Sudan you repeatedly called for a halt in the bombing but now you seem to have said fairly consistently that you are not calling for a halt in the bombing in order to get humanitarian aid into Afghanistan. What is the difference between the two situations?
  (Clare Short) In the crisis in the Sudan I did not call for a halt in the bombing, I called for an end to the war. What I said was that the food is delivered by plane into the Sudan and one of the appalling realities is that 90 per cent of the humanitarian relief going into southern Sudan is spent on planes and a tiny part of the cost is actually on food for real people. We and others have, over the last ten years or so, spent considerable amounts on humanitarian relief for the Sudan, only a tiny proportion of it having got to the people. There was some evidence that military forces were diverting some of that limited supply and what I said was that to focus simply on the humanitarian and calling for more humanitarian was not good enough; that there was some sense in which you could argue that that was propping up this endless war and we needed a much bigger effort to get the peace process in Sudan. That remains my view. That is what I said, which was thought to be very controversial, and I still think that is astonishing, because I think it is complete good sense. Still, the situation in the Sudan is a little bit more hopeful about getting the peace process moving, but I think it still needs more effort and energy. As I said in my earlier remarks, the call for the pause in the bombing to deliver humanitarian aid took no account of the fact that we were increasing the deliveries day-by-day at the time when the call was made. So it was not based on any objective reality. As I have said repeatedly in the House, we should all hate bombing, we should all want it to be minimised and brought to an end as soon as possible, and I am glad I live in a country where that is the general sentiment of the people, but we have also got to be hard-headed about what we have got to accomplish and accomplish it as quickly as possible, otherwise you prolong the suffering of people. It was not based on an objective reality. If there had been a pause claiming that it was necessary and was not based on the facts of increased delivery day-by-day I think it would have been very likely to make humanitarian supplies and obstructing them part of the conflict, because if you could bring about a pause in the bombing by having difficulties with humanitarian supplies then obstructing the humanitarian supplies would be a way of stopping the bombing—so that was a very great danger. Thirdly, we must act on the basis of reality but what we want, surely, is a success for the purposes of our operation in Afghanistan as rapidly as possible, with bombing used carefully targeted and brought to an end as soon as possible, not a pause that actually prolongs it all. For those three sets of reasons I think it was a mistaken call, but it obviously struck a chord with lots of caring people who hate the idea of hungry people being bombed, and they thought that if organisations as prestigious as Oxfam and Christian Aid were calling for it they must know what they are talking about and it ought to be supported. I think it is extremely unfortunate that they put themselves in that position, but there you are.

Mr Colman

  194. The media have suddenly gone very silent about the potential for a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan. The evidence you have placed before us shows, if you like, a new area of potential internally displaced persons and internally stranded persons going up from 5 million (which was your original figure) to a possible further 2 million on top of that, so 7.5 million people who are internally displaced. Do you think those sorts of figures have credence? You are saying that food is getting in but do you think people are realising how difficult the situation is now and how it has potentially got worse over the last couple of weeks because of the much higher numbers of people who are internally displaced?
  (Clare Short) Firstly, on the silence on the problems of Afghanistan, there was deafening silence before September 11. We had a potential humanitarian catastrophe of very large proportions before September 11 and the media, and most other people, were not in the least bit interested. As Catherine Bertini pointed out, the UN was feeding 5 million people out of a population—I am not sure of the exact number—of about 20 million before September 11. It is very important that everybody remembers that we had a catastrophe brewing in Afghanistan before September 11. September 11 and its consequences complicated that. The UN appeal that was issued shortly thereafter talked about 7.5 million people potentially in need, and that was based on 5 to 6 million in need of food aid inside Afghanistan and the potential for a further 1.5 million people to move as refugees across the borders, on top of course of the 2 million already in Pakistan and approaching that number already in Iran. That was the UN's best prediction. It did not come about. The 1.5 million did not move over the borders, but that is not just because the borders were technically closed; people were getting across the mountains and vulnerable people were being let through. The latest figure I saw of the numbers that have probably moved across the borders was 100,000 or so. So very considerably less than the 1.5 million that was projected in that appeal. There has been internal movement, as you would expect, of people moving from cities to villages nearby. There has been a bit more of that movement near Kandahar recently, but again not the 1.5 million-type numbers, just people moving about as military activity took place. So there has been further movement of internally displaced people around Kandahar currently, but I do not recognise the description you gave of suddenly, massive millions of internally displaced people inside. It is not as dramatic as that. They were internally displaced before because of the drought and the fighting and other troubles. In the military situation we have got success but if we can stabilise it and keep moving forward we will make it possible for us to massively improve humanitarian provision. Up until recently, remarkably, it has kept up, but if we had a long period of instability then we would be in grave difficulty.

  195. How bleak do you think the potential could be for displaced people, particularly in the rural areas this winter?
  (Clare Short) You can imagine all sorts of scenarios. The worst scenario would be what happened to Afghanistan after the Russian withdrawal. I do not think there is any prospect of that happening but if you have got that kind of chaos and factional fighting on top of the potentially enormous humanitarian disaster, it would be a truly appalling situation. That is to be avoided and, I think, will be avoided. I feel in my bones, if you know what I mean, optimistic that the UN will make progress on the transitional government. That will change things remarkably. Then we will have a government that the UN can fully recognise, and UN staff can return in big numbers, with all the legitimacy of that and the legitimacy of some troops from other countries to help stabilise the situation on behalf of the legitimate Afghan government. If that moves fairly rapidly and the continuing collapse of the Taliban goes on, we could be in a very much better situation in a matter of weeks. However, I cannot give you absolute certainty now. As you know, the situation is unfolding as we speak, and I am hopeful that it will improve but if we got more instability then we could get humanitarian troubles. That remains the case.

  196. We did have evidence that people had fled to the cities to avoid the drought and now have fled back to the country to avoid the bombing. Is that your assessment of this sort of movement that has gone on?
  (Clare Short) Yes. There was movement of people, not in the sort of numbers you have been using, from cities at the beginning of the bombing, but not far out. Again, our information is limited. There is some satellite information. Because of the ban on the use of telephones, Afghan staff employed by the UN and everyone have performed heroically through this—keeping everything going with limited information. So there seems to be that kind of movement but not the vast distances and not the sort of massive numbers that you were indicating.
  (Mr Baugh) I think what we saw as well were people leaving cities and moving back to villages where they had friends and family as well. That was a process that we saw at the outset.
  (Clare Short) As you would expect, but we do not know the numbers either. It did not seem to be overwhelming numbers. Of course, the World Food Programme was set up before September 11 because we had a big crisis so they had trucks and routes and warehouses, but as the military campaign started they took off more routes and delivered more directly out to rural areas, which they did very quickly. So they were following where the people went, broadly.

Mr Walter

  197. Secretary of State, you talked about political instability and your concerns about that being prolonged. Is there any evidence so far, either on the question of aid or on the question of the movement of people, that within the vacuum we have got and the various bodies who seem to have moved into that vacuum, as the Taliban has withdrawn, there is any obstruction to aid going in or any obstruction to the movement of people from those people who appear, from the media, to be freelancing, to some extent?
  (Clare Short) Although the Taliban have obstructed by saying "no telephones; women cannot work for the UN; girls cannot go to school" and made all sorts of difficulties for humanitarian efforts, because they knew the people of the country were dependent on the UN they never 100 per cent obstructed. Even now they do not 100 per cent obstruct because it would be lunacy, would it not? How can you obstruct people, of whom you claim to be the government, being able to eat? Similarly, the Northern Alliance, and other groupings, are not obstructing the food. It is the disorder and mess that makes it too dangerous for humanitarians to operate and the Afghan truckers feeling too unsafe to be able to move that is our biggest enemy. Then you get some freelancing, of course; stealing of equipment and supplies. The Taliban did take over the warehouse in Kandahar and the Red Cross warehouse in Kabul was bombed. There is a dispute about why, what could be seen and why it was bombed, but that was a loss of equipment. So we have had those kind of troubles, but it is disorder that is our biggest enemy.

Mr Robathan

  198. Secretary of State, I am rather wary of mutual backslapping, but can I just say it was particularly gratifying last week to hear Catherine Bertini of the World Food Programme and other UN agencies say that the UK and your department had been at the forefront of providing humanitarian assistance. I think we were all pleased to hear that, if I may say so. I would like to ask particularly about the position of the 50 per cent plus of the population of Afghanistan which has had nothing to say about recent political developments and whether it is possible, despite, enormous difficulties, for the delivery of aid to be particularly targeted to women and, indeed, children dependent upon those women in Afghanistan and to give them some greater position within Afghanistan, given the huge cultural difficulties there are there. We hear the Northern Alliance might take a not dissimilar position with regard to the position of women as the Taliban did. Beyond that, I would like to know what you think we could do to encourage development of women and their position within politics in the reconstruction of Afghanistan?
  (Clare Short) Thank you. Compliments to the department are deserved. It is an enormously capable department, respected in the international system, and its competence in humanitarian is one of the fastest and the best quality, and the country should be proud of their civil servants. That is their reputation across the world. This emergency has been more complicated than, say, Kosovo in which, to a certain extent, we had a UK operation. We have had to help an international operation operate better by being there ready with money, people and equipment to get the thing to move, which is more difficult than doing it yourself. They are extremely good and they deserve those compliments. On the position of women in Afghanistan, as you all know, the Taliban's determination to return Afghanistan to medieval conditions gave them these false notions (which are not based on any teachings of Islam, as I think we all understand) that girls should not be able to go to school, women cannot work and women cannot be university lecturers. So there was the closure of girls schools, then the boys schools because the women are the teachers predominantly, and then the universities because there were women lecturers and nearly half the students in Kabul were women. Then women had to wear burkas even in areas where it was not traditional, women could not go out without a male relative, and even the windows of houses that have women in them have to have black put over them so no one might look in and catch a glimpse of a woman. As I understand it, it is all because men are so incapable of controlling themselves that if they saw a woman they might misbehave—which says something about what they think about men. Remarkable and terrible. We have seen lots of situations where women are misused but this is taking it to an evil logic that is difficult to imagine, except that it is not in the real world we are living in now. This had been going on for some time, and the UN has tried to keep humanitarian supplies moving and not collude in any way with the Taliban doing this to women, which has been a very, very difficult operation, over the years. So, for example, they said they did not really want women internationals in the UN operation and obviously the UN could not agree to that, but did agree to bring in more Muslim women. Then they said Muslim women working for the UN had to bring a male relative with them, and difficulties like this. The World Food Programme, had previously had Work for Food Programmes across the country, and as Catherine Bertini said they were probably the biggest employer in Afghanistan: people doing irrigation systems, building schools, fixing roads, in local communities, always employing women—often as leaders—because they are very good in communities, especially when men are off fighting. There are a lot of widows. Similarly, the World Food Programme provided food for schools and kept children going to school and special additional, at the end of the month, oil for families if girls stayed in school (they do this in different parts of the world just to get girls to school) but they had to stop doing it in the end because the Taliban would not allow girls to go to school, and the World Food Programme decided it would be wrong to carry on providing the food to schools; they would be absolutely colluding in the exclusion of girls from schools. I wanted to emphasise that this battle has been going on for a long time and the UN has really tried to resist and find ways through. For example, it was the World Food Programme that negotiated with the Taliban the bakeries in Kabul. When they made the order that women could not work there were many, many widows of men who died in the fighting and because of the fighting and the landmines all over the country there are many families with disabled heads of households, so the order that women could not work would mean many families would simply starve. The World Food Programme negotiated that the widows could run these bakeries in Kabul, and the World Food Programme took in the wheat, the women cooked the Naan bread and kept vast numbers of households, including households headed by disabled men, going. I just want you to know the UN has been really working in an enormously difficult situation trying not to collude, and resisting the oppression of women. What can be done in the future? The UN is brokering the establishment of the transitional government and the UN protects and holds all the conventions we have on the elimination of discrimination against women, the rights of the child—which includes girls as well as boys—and so on. It will not collude in this kind of misbehaviour. The UN has to uphold the norms to which we have all signed up. Participation of women in politics is a chief part of that. I must actually make an effort to communicate with Ambassador Brahimi on this. I feel confident that the issue of women's participation in politics is being taken forward, but I must get myself a report and I will do that and let you know. I do know that the World Food Programme is poised, as soon as there are any areas of the country that are safe, to move beyond the immediate humanitarian back to Food for Work and Food for Schools. Then we will be going to local communities, saying "What is your priority? We will be looking for women's leadership in those communities. We can deliver food to your community, you tell us what projects you are all going to work on." People are paid for their labour, which will be building schools or irrigation systems, many of which have been smashed. Similarly, the World Food Programme is poised to return with Food for Schools and the incentive of the extra oil for girls who attend schools. So I can assure you, insofar as it is possible in this very difficult situation, the UN, in the way in which we operate, will do all in our power to bolster the position of women and to get girls back to school. Let me say this final thing about girls' education: it is not just that it is desirable—which it is, of course, and a basic human right—and it is oppressive and wrong that girls should not be going to school, but the research evidence now is overwhelming that of any single intervention you can make in a poor country (and, of course, you should never only make one) the most powerful is getting a generation of children through even just primary education, including the girls. As they grow up girls who have been to school will transform their country. If you can get a generation of them through they marry slightly later, have less children, who are massively more likely to survive, the household income increases when girls have been to school, they are better at getting their children into school and they are better at getting health care. So we will focus massively on really getting primary education rolling as well as, of course, opening up all the other institutions.

  199. The concern is that whomsoever is winning the war in Afghanistan—be it the various factions of the Northern Alliance or whoever—their attitude towards women is not that much different to the Taliban's, yet back in 1973 in Kabul women used to be as free as men, one is told.
  (Clare Short) Indeed, and in Herat, which is a very, very famous, ancient city, where women were leading academics and all sorts of leaders. Obviously, Afghanistan was very under-developed and there were villages with very little development, but there were very civilised cities and lots of educated women amongst the cities. The Northern Alliance, I think, did not go to quite the mad extremes as the Taliban in terms of closing schools as a matter of absolute policy to prevent girls being at school, but yes, I do not think, they have a record of respect for equality for women. Let us all be clear, they will not be the government of Afghanistan. It is absolutely agreed by the coalition, by all the neighbouring countries, by the UN Security Council, that there has to be a transitional government that is representative of the ethnic groups in proportion to their proportion of the population. That is what the UN is working on. Enormous efforts will go into establishing that government and there will not be a Northern Alliance government. Those parties that are part of the Northern Alliance would have a part in the government, but there will not be a Northern Alliance government. Obviously, at the moment, people try to take Kabul and have ideas of declaring themselves the government, but that will not be recognised by the international community. Getting the transitional government recognised by the UN and then fully co-operating in the international system is the prize to get massive normalisation, and that work is taking place very intensively now and, I hope, will produce results as soon as possible, because it gives us a whole new way of working, as soon as we have got a legitimate government recognised by the UN. It will not be a Northern Alliance government.

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