Interview with Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan

Co-ordinator United Nations Humanitarian and Economic Assistance Programmes relating to Afghanistan

(Courtesy Refugees-November 1988)

Following the historic agreement signed in Geneva on 14 April 1988 between Afghanistan and Pakistan, on 11 May the UN Secretary General appointed Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan to the position of Co-ordinator for United Nations Humanitarian and Economic Assistance Programmes relating to Afghanistan. Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, who held the post of UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 1966 to the end of 1977, granted this exclusive interview to REFUGEES in September 1988, in which he defined his aims and priorities.

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan: The first priority, as determined by the Secretary-General, was to mobilize the entire UN system in a co-ordinated effort to facilitate the resettlement of fort to facilitate the resettlement of all those displaced by the conflict in Afghanistan-both the refugees outside and those who are now homeless and uprooted within their own country. After this, to build up the basic infrastructure, essential for a return to normal living in a country which has, quite literally, been laid waste, and where the list of needs is endless.

My role, then, is basically to rally all the means at the UN's disposal to develop an inter-agency action plan tailored to the situation and the needs of the Afghan people, and to make sure that fund raising efforts are integrated rather than coming from a number of different sources because this would, of course, create considerable confusion. It is in any event, crucial for projects and programmes on a regional basis to be both unified and autonomous. We must at all costs avoid establishing a kind of dependence on charitable hand outs from outside. This would be totally alien to the nature of the Afghans, who area very dignified and independent people.

Another of my tasks, as I see my role, is to conduct negotiations- of necessity a very delicate matter in such a mercurial political situation-with all the parties concerned: the governments and the Afghan authorities, particularly in those regions where we will be called upon to take action. I also see my role as providing a clearing-house for all information relating to Afghanistan and of possible interest to the UN system: to the donor countries who will want to know how their contributions fro each sector are to be used, and also to all the non-governmental organizations already working in the field, or who will soon be working alongside us.

It is my belief that the elements of the role entrusted to me by the Secretary General have been clearly understood. They have been referred to right from the start in all the analyses of the situation in Afghanistan.

REFUGEES: Can you provide any details about the physical organization of this operation, as you envisage it?

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan: First and foremost, the country must be demined as far as possible. Otherwise these mines - will be continually triggered by people who will lose a hand or a foot in the process. Then there is the enormous problem of an infrastructure where everything has been destroyed: major roads, secondary access roads, bridges and villages. Due to a lack of maintenance, the irrigation network is now virtually non-existent. From years of laying uncultivated and unwatered the land has become rock-hard. It has to be broken up, sown and fertilized. And then the entire school system has been dismantled.

In order to confront all these problems, the Secretary-General of the United Nations has launched a two-part appeal. The first part centres on the emergency situation and rehabilitation. It is anticipated that a sum of US$ 1.66 billion will be made available, mainly to UNHCR and the world Food Programme (WFP), to help the refugees return and enable the creation of a bare minimum in the way of infrastructure to receive them. The second half of the appeal concerns the first steps towards reconstruction - later to be handed over to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and financing institutions such as the World Bank and other agencies whose work will be long term in nature. The first phase of this programme will be spread out over 18 months, representing three Afghan crop season: two winter harvests and one summer harvest. The majority of the displaced persons are farmers whose one desire is to get back to work in their fields and become once again independent of foreign aid and able to meet their own needs.

REFUGEES: In your opinion, when will large-scale repatriation begin?

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan: I believe that everyone agrees with the High Commissioner for Refugees in thinking that a large-scale repatriation is not feasible before next spring. But this depends to a great extent not only on the weather-winter is a difficult time in Afghanistan-but also on political developments inside the country.

REFUGEES: Can you elaborate an little?

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan: I think it all depends on the Afghans themselves. They must find Afghan solutions to their problems, solutions which will I hope avoid a bloodbath and further loss of life. The country has suffered enough. And I believe that Afghan political leaders on all sides are duty bound to assume responsibility for their people in order to avoid renewed turmoil. Too high a price has already been paid for the errors of a political situation which led to Afghanistan into a nine year long war. Civilians, women and children wer certainly not consulted during the course of these events. It is also to be hoped that the people of Afghanistan will allowed to confer and consult amongst themselves, free of any backstage manipulation. There are far too many protagonists on stage already in this conflict.

But these are only a few comments. The future is difficult to predict. What will happen in the field? Diego Cordovez has undertaken long and painstaking negotiations on behalf of the Secretary General, which as you know, led to the Geneva agreement. Since then he has been entrusted with what is perhaps an even more difficult task- that of encouraging intra-Afghan consultations. He has endeavoured to get these talks underway by making a series of proposals which, he feels, offer a possible basis for continuing dialogue.

REFUGEES: While we are on the subject of Mr. Cordovez, you have on a number of occasions, stressed the strictly humanitarian and apolitical nature of your action an the differences between your role and that of the UN mediator. Is this clearly understood by all those concerned?

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan : I believe that opinion, particularly opinion in the region, has grasped the fact that Mr. Cordovez' mission was, in fact, different from mine. His lay within the framework of the political good offices of the Secretary-General and the United Nations. My role, which has indisputably come about as a result of the Geneva agreement, is a task of reconstruction and rehabilitation which strictly humanitarian and apolitical. It would be intolerable if relief and assistance were to become politicized.

REFUGEES:Can you remind us of your contacts so far, and the structures you have established?

Prince Sadurddin Aga Khan: For any large-scale humanitarian operation the UN must, as you know begin with certain adhoc measures, a certain degree of improvisation. This was the case in all the major assistance operations which I directed when I was my self High Commissioner, notably inthe Indo-Pakistan subcontinent after the 1971 war, or in Cyprus following the events that split the communities. Inter-agency co-operation is always confronted with certain problems, certain resistance.

There are always some flies in the ointment, but we must try to be flexible and act pragmatically. I am very grateful to all directors, agency heads and heads of international institutions for the way in which they have responded to the Secretary-General's decision. They were either with me in person, or sent a high level envoy when I undertook my first visit to the region on 27 May, immediately after my appointment. Opinion was greatly struck by this approach, because people are not accustomed to seeing the UN at so promptly and in such a co-ordinated way. I believe this constituted a precedent. We have been critized for being over-enthusiastic, too quick off the mark. I think this is wonderful!

Today, this co-ordination is all settling into place. We are a tiny team of some twenty individuals, trying to organize a vast operation involving considerable funds. Of course, we are very dependent on the goodwill of agencies for the seconding of staff to help us organize this inter-agency task force. Without this we could never make it.

REFUGEES: What has been the response of donors to the appeal for funds? And what, in general, do you expect of the international community?

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan: Since the Secretary-General's appeal on 10 June, we have collected US$100 million in cash and in kind- a remarkable figure for two and a half months. This means that we can already embark on specific projects in the field. But it goes without saying that this is just the beginning. We must strike while the iron is hot. The international community is certainly going to continue to respond to many new requests for aid in rehabilitation, settlement, the reconstruction of a number of other regions which have been appallingly devastate by the war or by other disasters, and this will distract attention from Afghanistan.

People are much more interested in war than in peace. It is always so much easier for the media to focus on conflict, suffering, bombs, mines, struggle and resistance, than on reconstruction and relief. They only highlight these subjects when things go wrong, when food stocks lie rotting in ports, or when they arrive too late. Rarely do we hear about the positive aspects of reconstruction. This is precisely why my job, as I see it, is to keep reminding he international community about the needs of the afghan people, so they are not forgotten.

REFUGEES: And are you optimistic about the future?

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan: I don't think I would have taken on the job if I hadn't been optimistic, because it is an extremely exacting and difficult task. An additional reason for optimism is my unreserved admiration for the Afghan people- for their courage, their dignity and their independent spirit. They are a noble and a hardy people- workers used to hardship and the rigours of their climate and environment. I have every confidence in their ability to rebuild his country. But they need help in order to be able to help themselves.

REFUGEES: You referred earlier to the peace efforts that are taking place at present in the world. What is your view of these developments?

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan: These are certainly some very interesting developments taking place on the international scene. Just the other day, the High Commissioner said to me: "Peace is breaking out all over!" Things are changing, we are witnessing a growing awareness, and even the superpowers are beginning to realize hat we live in a multipolar world and that problems are increasingly taking on a global interdependence. This is true of the environment: the ozone layer and problems concerning pollution and the build -up of toxic waste are front page headlines these days and know no borders. Regional conflicts are also taking on international dimensions: Afghanistan, Southern Africa, the Middle East, Central America...

This does not necessarily mean that there has been an erosion of national sovereignty, and yet inthe field of human rights, which is so much at the heart of UNHCR activities, there is a noticeable opening up, a better understanding of what Bernard Kouchner calls, "the right to intervene," in which humanitarian values and the principles of the International Declaration of Human Rights go some way to offset the dictates of excessive national sovereignty.

So thing are definitely moving in the right direction, and will, I hope, continue to do so, because we have a long road to travel before the degree of awareness will be such that it will put an end to the arms race and the suicidal rush towards self-destruction, either by force of arms or through the break-down of our environment. The world can be divided into a concerned minority and an indifferent majority. The question is : can the concerned minority change the attitude of the indifferent majority in time? and time, unfortunately, is everything.