Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:
Fighting AIDS by Changing Attitudes in Africa
(September 29, 2003)
"Workers in government health agencies, private organizations and churches need every possible kind of logistical support to take the warning message out to people who do not know or do not believe that their own sexual behavior can save or condemn them."
For Countries Big And Small, A Diplomatic Marathon
(September 23, 2003)
"Over the years, autumn at the United Nations has evolved into a huge hive of diplomatic activity, making New York the capital of the world, as Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor, used to say."
German Teacher Provides Much-Needed Guide To The U.N.
(September 15, 2003)
"[For] years, scholars, journalists and interested citizens of all kinds have had to scrounge for an easy-to-understand, jargon-free compendium of information on an organization that seems to revel in making itself hard to penetrate."
Human Rights at U.N. Obscured by the Shadow of Politics
(September 8, 2003)
"Human Rights Watch lists only a handful of countries (among them Canada and Mexico, leaving a big hole in between) that act out of principle and not political expediency."
UNICEF in the Crosshairs (September 2, 2003)
"The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, noting the appearance of frank educational materials about sex in UNICEF-supported programs and a greater emphasis on the education of girls ... worries that 'UNICEF has moved beyond simple, and universally acceptable, programs.'"
More from U.N. Notebook.
U.N. Notebook | October 6, 2003
Testing the U.N. in Afghanistan, With Iraq in Mind
by Barbara Crossette
UNITED NATIONS—The United States has now given the Iraqis six months to conjure up a constitution, and President George W. Bush has admitted that U.N. help will be needed in this formidable task because the organization is good at these things. Ironic that this was being said almost at the same time that the U.N. was announcing a pullout of most of its remaining foreign staff from Baghdad after a second truck bomb.
In Afghanistan, time to write a constitution has run out. Nearly two years after the United States toppled the Taliban, the publication of the promised new charter is behind schedule. Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's interim president, has been telling people in recent weeks that the document will appear momentarily. It has to be approved by December in a grand council of Afghan leaders if there is any hope of holding national elections next June or July.
The United Nations, in particular the U.N. Development Program, has been actively and—to judge from the comments of interested Afghans—very usefully engaged in helping to write the Afghan constitution and create the judicial system to see that laws have meaning in a country where justice has more often been in the hands of local power brokers or religious leaders with no training in law or jurisprudence.
The steadying hand of the United Nations will be needed as Afghanistan moves toward elections. If what carries the day instead is a tendency to cave in to powerful local pressures—as the United Nations regrettably did in accepting a flawed political order in Cambodia a decade ago—the Afghan people face more instability and repression. It would not be an encouraging example for Iraq.
It won't help that the Bush administration apparently plans to put Robert Blackwill in charge of constitution making in Iraq. As ambassador in India, Blackwill failed miserably to denounce in strong terms a massacre of about 1,000 Muslims in Gujarat last year after an attack on Hindu activists.
Arguably no part of the population in Afghanistan has as much to gain, or lose, in this process than the women. This is why a few weeks ago, 45 Afghan women from across the country met in Kandahar—a symbolic setting because it was the spiritual base of the Taliban—to draw up their own bill of rights. They subsequently presented it to Karzai in Kabul.
Mariam Nawabi, an Afghan-American lawyer who helped the New York-based organization Women for Afghan Women organize the meeting in Kandahar, said at a recent news conference that while constitution writing may be on track, more attention needs to be paid urgently to the reform of the judicial system, or the constitution, however protective of everyone's rights, could have less meaning.
"Once the constitution is out, the people may not be ready for it because the judicial system will not be there," she said.
The Afghan Women's Bill of Rights is a short, unambiguous document, carefully written to make the priorities of women clear while avoiding a head-on collision with Muslim leaders. Most Afghan women value their religion and would not readily choose a secular state. This upsets some American and European activists, who want a more radical approach. They, however, don't have to live in Afghanistan.
The women's bill of rights has only 16 short clauses. It asks for mandatory female education through secondary school and opportunities for higher education, an up-to-date health service that meets women's needs and the criminalization of sexual harassment, domestic violence and the use of women as compensation in disputes between families. The women asked for public freedoms recognized in many places, such as freedom of speech, political participation and a role in the judiciary. They want the right to hold and inherit property and the ability to rise to high positions in the country's economic life, along with equal pay for equal work.
In dealing with marriage, there is a blend of old and new. The women are demanding that the female age of marriage be set at 18 instead of 16 or lower in some places, that women and orphans get support and protection and that the lengthy periods before women can remarry, set by traditional authorities after the disappearance of a husband, be shortened.
But the women who met in Kandahar also accepted that their rights in marriage and divorce must be defined "according to Islam." That, lawyers who advised the women say, implies that polygamy is acceptable. In Muslim law a man may have four wives, so long as he treats them equally and can provide well for all of them. This practice is not generally accepted outside Islam, and is illegal in a large number of countries including the United States. At the United Nations, for example, an employee may not seek benefits for more than one spouse.
The Afghan women seemed to recognize that polygamy and other traditions of Afghanistan, often more cultural than Islamic, have to be taken into account. The women who drafted the bill of rights also did not tackle the issue of discriminatory dress codes for women—the burqa, for example. Conservative dress for women, especially in rural areas, has long been a part of national life.
The decision of the women who met in Kandahar not to be unduly provocative should be understood. But it does not guarantee that they will not be pushed aside anyway. Thus the United Nations in Afghanistan can be an effective influence behind the scenes without attempting to interfere directly in the constitutional process.
The new constitution, built in part on a 1964 model promulgated under King Zahir Shah that gave considerable rights to women, is in its final draft. Karzai says that it will protect women's rights. The problem may come when the draft is put to the Loya Jirga, the grand council of Afghan leaders, many of whom are traditionalists with little interest in advancing the place of women.
Karzai exudes confidence. He said recently in New York that when a survey of Afghan opinion was taken recently, people ranked the rights of women high among their priorities—after national unity and the preservation of traditional values, however. He described Afghanistan as "a deeply, fundamentally believing nation" and said that the constitution could not conflict with Islam.
But whose Islam?
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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic
Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and
related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and
appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National
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