Friday, October 31, 2014

Remarks by the President on the Middle East and North Africa

In a major speech at the State Department, President Obama laid out his vision for a new chapter in American diplomacy as calls for reform and democracy spread across the Middle East and North Africa.

Source: The White House Blog

Statement

State Department, Washington, DC

12:15 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  Thank you.  (Applause.)  Thank you very much.  Thank you.  Please, have a seat.  Thank you very much.  I want to begin by thanking Hillary Clinton, who has traveled so much these last six months that she is approaching a new landmark — one million frequent flyer miles.  (Laughter.)  I count on Hillary every single day, and I believe that she will go down as one of the finest Secretaries of State in our nation’s history.

The State Department is a fitting venue to mark a new chapter in American diplomacy.  For six months, we have witnessed an extraordinary change taking place in the Middle East and North Africa.  Square by square, town by town, country by country, the people have risen up to demand their basic human rights.  Two leaders have stepped aside.  More may follow.  And though these countries may be a great distance from our shores, we know that our own future is bound to this region by the forces of economics and security, by history and by faith.

Today, I want to talk about this change — the forces that are driving it and how we can respond in a way that advances our values and strengthens our security.

Now, already, we’ve done much to shift our foreign policy following a decade defined by two costly conflicts.  After years of war in Iraq, we’ve removed 100,000 American troops and ended our combat mission there.  In Afghanistan, we’ve broken the Taliban’s momentum, and this July we will begin to bring our troops home and continue a transition to Afghan lead.  And after years of war against al Qaeda and its affiliates, we have dealt al Qaeda a huge blow by killing its leader, Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden was no martyr.  He was a mass murderer who offered a message of hate –- an insistence that Muslims had to take up arms against the West, and that violence against men, women and children was the only path to change.  He rejected democracy and individual rights for Muslims in favor of violent extremism; his agenda focused on what he could destroy -– not what he could build.

Bin Laden and his murderous vision won some adherents.  But even before his death, al Qaeda was losing its struggle for relevance, as the overwhelming majority of people saw that the slaughter of innocents did not answer their cries for a better life.  By the time we found bin Laden, al Qaeda’s agenda had come to be seen by the vast majority of the region as a dead end, and the people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands.

That story of self-determination began six months ago in Tunisia.  On December 17th, a young vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi was devastated when a police officer confiscated his cart.  This was not unique.  It’s the same kind of humiliation that takes place every day in many parts of the world -– the relentless tyranny of governments that deny their citizens dignity.  Only this time, something different happened.  After local officials refused to hear his complaints, this young man, who had never been particularly active in politics, went to the headquarters of the provincial government, doused himself in fuel, and lit himself on fire.

There are times in the course of history when the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has been building up for years.  In America, think of the defiance of those patriots in Boston who refused to pay taxes to a King, or the dignity of Rosa Parks as she sat courageously in her seat.  So it was in Tunisia, as that vendor’s act of desperation tapped into the frustration felt throughout the country.  Hundreds of protesters took to the streets, then thousands.  And in the face of batons and sometimes bullets, they refused to go home –- day after day, week after week — until a dictator of more than two decades finally left power.

The story of this revolution, and the ones that followed, should not have come as a surprise.  The nations of the Middle East and North Africa won their independence long ago, but in too many places their people did not.  In too many countries, power has been concentrated in the hands of a few.  In too many countries, a citizen like that young vendor had nowhere to turn  -– no honest judiciary to hear his case; no independent media to give him voice; no credible political party to represent his views; no free and fair election where he could choose his leader.

And this lack of self-determination –- the chance to make your life what you will –- has applied to the region’s economy as well.  Yes, some nations are blessed with wealth in oil and gas, and that has led to pockets of prosperity.  But in a global economy based on knowledge, based on innovation, no development strategy can be based solely upon what comes out of the ground. Nor can people reach their potential when you cannot start a business without paying a bribe.

In the face of these challenges, too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people’s grievances elsewhere.  The West was blamed as the source of all ills, a half-century after the end of colonialism.  Antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression.  Divisions of tribe, ethnicity and religious sect were manipulated as a means of holding on to power, or taking it away from somebody else.

But the events of the past six months show us that strategies of repression and strategies of diversion will not work anymore.  Satellite television and the Internet provide a window into the wider world -– a world of astonishing progress in places like India and Indonesia and Brazil.  Cell phones and social networks allow young people to connect and organize like never before.  And so a new generation has emerged.  And their voices tell us that change cannot be denied.

In Cairo, we heard the voice of the young mother who said, “It’s like I can finally breathe fresh air for the first time.”

In Sanaa, we heard the students who chanted, “The night must come to an end.”

In Benghazi, we heard the engineer who said, “Our words are free now.  It’s a feeling you can’t explain.”

In Damascus, we heard the young man who said, “After the first yelling, the first shout, you feel dignity.”

Those shouts of human dignity are being heard across the region.  And through the moral force of nonviolence, the people of the region have achieved more change in six months than terrorists have accomplished in decades.

Of course, change of this magnitude does not come easily.  In our day and age -– a time of 24-hour news cycles and constant communication –- people expect the transformation of the region to be resolved in a matter of weeks.  But it will be years before this story reaches its end.  Along the way, there will be good days and there will bad days.  In some places, change will be swift; in others, gradual.  And as we’ve already seen, calls for change may give way, in some cases, to fierce contests for power.

The question before us is what role America will play as this story unfolds.  For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region:  countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.

We will continue to do these things, with the firm belief that America’s interests are not hostile to people’s hopes; they’re essential to them.  We believe that no one benefits from a nuclear arms race in the region, or al Qaeda’s brutal attacks.  We believe people everywhere would see their economies crippled by a cut-off in energy supplies.  As we did in the Gulf War, we will not tolerate aggression across borders, and we will keep our commitments to friends and partners.

Yet we must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind.  Moreover, failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our interests at their expense.  Given that this mistrust runs both ways –- as Americans have been seared by hostage-taking and violent rhetoric and terrorist attacks that have killed thousands of our citizens -– a failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and the Arab world.

And that’s why, two years ago in Cairo, I began to broaden our engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect.  I believed then -– and I believe now -– that we have a stake not just in the stability of nations, but in the self-determination of individuals.  The status quo is not sustainable.  Societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder.

So we face a historic opportunity.  We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator.  There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity.  Yes, there will be perils that accompany this moment of promise.  But after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.

Of course, as we do, we must proceed with a sense of humility.  It’s not America that put people into the streets of Tunis or Cairo -– it was the people themselves who launched these movements, and it’s the people themselves that must ultimately determine their outcome.

Not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy, and there will be times when our short-term interests don’t align perfectly with our long-term vision for the region.  But we can, and we will, speak out for a set of core principles –- principles that have guided our response to the events over the past six months:

The United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region.  (Applause.)

The United States supports a set of universal rights.  And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders  -– whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran.

And we support political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region.

Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest.  Today I want to make it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.

Let me be specific.  First, it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.  That effort begins in Egypt and Tunisia, where the stakes are high -– as Tunisia was at the vanguard of this democratic wave, and Egypt is both a longstanding partner and the Arab world’s largest nation.  Both nations can set a strong example through free and fair elections, a vibrant civil society, accountable and effective democratic institutions, and responsible regional leadership.  But our support must also extend to nations where transitions have yet to take place.

Unfortunately, in too many countries, calls for change have thus far been answered by violence.  The most extreme example is Libya, where Muammar Qaddafi launched a war against his own people, promising to hunt them down like rats.  As I said when the United States joined an international coalition to intervene, we cannot prevent every injustice perpetrated by a regime against its people, and we have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to try to impose regime change by force -– no matter how well-intentioned it may be.

But in Libya, we saw the prospect of imminent massacre, we had a mandate for action, and heard the Libyan people’s call for help.  Had we not acted along with our NATO allies and regional coalition partners, thousands would have been killed.  The message would have been clear:  Keep power by killing as many people as it takes.  Now, time is working against Qaddafi. He does not have control over his country.  The opposition has organized a legitimate and credible Interim Council.  And when Qaddafi inevitably leaves or is forced from power, decades of provocation will come to an end, and the transition to a democratic Libya can proceed.

While Libya has faced violence on the greatest scale, it’s not the only place where leaders have turned to repression to remain in power.  Most recently, the Syrian regime has chosen the path of murder and the mass arrests of its citizens.  The United States has condemned these actions, and working with the international community we have stepped up our sanctions on the Syrian regime –- including sanctions announced yesterday on President Assad and those around him.

The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy.  President Assad now has a choice:  He can lead that transition, or get out of the way.  The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests.  It must release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests.  It must allow human rights monitors to have access to cities like Dara’a; and start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition.  Otherwise, President Assad and his regime will continue to be challenged from within and will continue to be isolated abroad.

So far, Syria has followed its Iranian ally, seeking assistance from Tehran in the tactics of suppression.  And this speaks to the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime, which says it stand for the rights of protesters abroad, yet represses its own people at home.  Let’s remember that the first peaceful protests in the region were in the streets of Tehran, where the government brutalized women and men, and threw innocent people into jail.  We still hear the chants echo from the rooftops of Tehran.  The image of a young woman dying in the streets is still seared in our memory.  And we will continue to insist that the Iranian people deserve their universal rights, and a government that does not smother their aspirations.

Now, our opposition to Iran’s intolerance and Iran’s repressive measures, as well as its illicit nuclear program and its support of terror, is well known.  But if America is to be credible, we must acknowledge that at times our friends in the region have not all reacted to the demands for consistent change — with change that’s consistent with the principles that I’ve outlined today.  That’s true in Yemen, where President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power.  And that’s true today in Bahrain.

Bahrain is a longstanding partner, and we are committed to its security.  We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law.

Nevertheless, we have insisted both publicly and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and we will — and such steps will not make legitimate calls for reform go away.  The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.  (Applause.)  The government must create the conditions for dialogue, and the opposition must participate to forge a just future for all Bahrainis.

Indeed, one of the broader lessons to be drawn from this period is that sectarian divides need not lead to conflict.  In Iraq, we see the promise of a multiethnic, multisectarian democracy.  The Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence in favor of a democratic process, even as they’ve taken full responsibility for their own security.  Of course, like all new democracies, they will face setbacks.  But Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress.  And as they do, we will be proud to stand with them as a steadfast partner.

So in the months ahead, America must use all our influence to encourage reform in the region.  Even as we acknowledge that each country is different, we need to speak honestly about the principles that we believe in, with friend and foe alike.  Our message is simple:  If you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States.

We must also build on our efforts to broaden our engagement beyond elites, so that we reach the people who will shape the future -– particularly young people.  We will continue to make good on the commitments that I made in Cairo -– to build networks of entrepreneurs and expand exchanges in education, to foster cooperation in science and technology, and combat disease.  Across the region, we intend to provide assistance to civil society, including those that may not be officially sanctioned, and who speak uncomfortable truths.  And we will use the technology to connect with -– and listen to –- the voices of the people.

For the fact is, real reform does not come at the ballot box alone.  Through our efforts we must support those basic rights to speak your mind and access information.  We will support open access to the Internet, and the right of journalists to be heard -– whether it’s a big news organization or a lone blogger.  In the 21st century, information is power, the truth cannot be hidden, and the legitimacy of governments will ultimately depend on active and informed citizens.

Such open discourse is important even if what is said does not square with our worldview.  Let me be clear, America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard, even if we disagree with them.  And sometimes we profoundly disagree with them.

We look forward to working with all who embrace genuine and inclusive democracy.  What we will oppose is an attempt by any group to restrict the rights of others, and to hold power through coercion and not consent.  Because democracy depends not only on elections, but also strong and accountable institutions, and the respect for the rights of minorities.

Such tolerance is particularly important when it comes to religion.  In Tahrir Square, we heard Egyptians from all walks of life chant, “Muslims, Christians, we are one.”  America will work to see that this spirit prevails -– that all faiths are respected, and that bridges are built among them.  In a region that was the birthplace of three world religions, intolerance can lead only to suffering and stagnation.  And for this season of change to succeed, Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo, just as Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain.

What is true for religious minorities is also true when it comes to the rights of women.  History shows that countries are more prosperous and more peaceful when women are empowered.  And that’s why we will continue to insist that universal rights apply to women as well as men -– by focusing assistance on child and maternal health; by helping women to teach, or start a business; by standing up for the right of women to have their voices heard, and to run for office.  The region will never reach its full potential when more than half of its population is prevented from achieving their full potential.  (Applause.)

Now, even as we promote political reform, even as we promote human rights in the region, our efforts can’t stop there.  So the second way that we must support positive change in the region is through our efforts to advance economic development for nations that are transitioning to democracy.

After all, politics alone has not put protesters into the streets.  The tipping point for so many people is the more constant concern of putting food on the table and providing for a family.  Too many people in the region wake up with few expectations other than making it through the day, perhaps hoping that their luck will change.  Throughout the region, many young people have a solid education, but closed economies leave them unable to find a job.  Entrepreneurs are brimming with ideas, but corruption leaves them unable to profit from those ideas.

The greatest untapped resource in the Middle East and North Africa is the talent of its people.  In the recent protests, we see that talent on display, as people harness technology to move the world.  It’s no coincidence that one of the leaders of Tahrir Square was an executive for Google.  That energy now needs to be channeled, in country after country, so that economic growth can solidify the accomplishments of the street.  For just as democratic revolutions can be triggered by a lack of individual opportunity, successful democratic transitions depend upon an expansion of growth and broad-based prosperity.

So, drawing from what we’ve learned around the world, we think it’s important to focus on trade, not just aid; on investment, not just assistance.  The goal must be a model in which protectionism gives way to openness, the reigns of commerce pass from the few to the many, and the economy generates jobs for the young.  America’s support for democracy will therefore be based on ensuring financial stability, promoting reform, and integrating competitive markets with each other and the global economy.  And we’re going to start with Tunisia and Egypt.

First, we’ve asked the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to present a plan at next week’s G8 summit for what needs to be done to stabilize and modernize the economies of Tunisia and Egypt.  Together, we must help them recover from the disruptions of their democratic upheaval, and support the governments that will be elected later this year.  And we are urging other countries to help Egypt and Tunisia meet its near-term financial needs.

Second, we do not want a democratic Egypt to be saddled by the debts of its past.  So we will relieve a democratic Egypt of up to $1 billion in debt, and work with our Egyptian partners to invest these resources to foster growth and entrepreneurship.  We will help Egypt regain access to markets by guaranteeing $1 billion in borrowing that is needed to finance infrastructure and job creation.  And we will help newly democratic governments recover assets that were stolen.

Third, we’re working with Congress to create Enterprise Funds to invest in Tunisia and Egypt.  And these will be modeled on funds that supported the transitions in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  OPIC will soon launch a $2 billion facility to support private investment across the region.  And we will work with the allies to refocus the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development so that it provides the same support for democratic transitions and economic modernization in the Middle East and North Africa as it has in Europe.

Fourth, the United States will launch a comprehensive Trade and Investment Partnership Initiative in the Middle East and North Africa.  If you take out oil exports, this entire region of over 400 million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland.  So we will work with the EU to facilitate more trade within the region, build on existing agreements to promote integration with U.S. and European markets, and open the door for those countries who adopt high standards of reform and trade liberalization to construct a regional trade arrangement.  And just as EU membership served as an incentive for reform in Europe, so should the vision of a modern and prosperous economy create a powerful force for reform in the Middle East and North Africa.

Prosperity also requires tearing down walls that stand in the way of progress -– the corruption of elites who steal from their people; the red tape that stops an idea from becoming a business; the patronage that distributes wealth based on tribe or sect.  We will help governments meet international obligations, and invest efforts at anti-corruption — by working with parliamentarians who are developing reforms, and activists who use technology to increase transparency and hold government accountable.  Politics and human rights; economic reform.

Let me conclude by talking about another cornerstone of our approach to the region, and that relates to the pursuit of peace.

For decades, the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region.  For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could be blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them.  For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own.  Moreover, this conflict has come with a larger cost to the Middle East, as it impedes partnerships that could bring greater security and prosperity and empowerment to ordinary people.

For over two years, my administration has worked with the parties and the international community to end this conflict, building on decades of work by previous administrations.  Yet expectations have gone unmet.  Israeli settlement activity continues.  Palestinians have walked away from talks.  The world looks at a conflict that has grinded on and on and on, and sees nothing but stalemate.  Indeed, there are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward now.

I disagree.  At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever.  That’s certainly true for the two parties involved.

For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure.  Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection.  And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.

As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values.  Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable.  And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums.  But precisely because of our friendship, it’s important that we tell the truth:  The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.

The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River.  Technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself.  A region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people -– not just one or two leaders — must believe peace is possible.  The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.

Now, ultimately, it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to take action.  No peace can be imposed upon them — not by the United States; not by anybody else.  But endless delay won’t make the problem go away.  What America and the international community can do is to state frankly what everyone knows — a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples:  Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.

So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear:  a viable Palestine, a secure Israel.  The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine.  We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.  The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.

As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself -– by itself -– against any threat.  Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security.  The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state.  And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.

These principles provide a foundation for negotiations.  Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met.  I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain:  the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.  But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.

Now, let me say this:  Recognizing that negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security does not mean that it will be easy to come back to the table.  In particular, the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel:  How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?  And in the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question.  Meanwhile, the United States, our Quartet partners, and the Arab states will need to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse.

I recognize how hard this will be.  Suspicion and hostility has been passed on for generations, and at times it has hardened. But I’m convinced that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians would rather look to the future than be trapped in the past.  We see that spirit in the Israeli father whose son was killed by Hamas, who helped start an organization that brought together Israelis and Palestinians who had lost loved ones.  That father said, “I gradually realized that the only hope for progress was to recognize the face of the conflict.”  We see it in the actions of a Palestinian who lost three daughters to Israeli shells in Gaza.  “I have the right to feel angry,” he said.  “So many people were expecting me to hate.  My answer to them is I shall not hate.  Let us hope,” he said, “for tomorrow.”

That is the choice that must be made -– not simply in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but across the entire region -– a choice between hate and hope; between the shackles of the past and the promise of the future.  It’s a choice that must be made by leaders and by the people, and it’s a choice that will define the future of a region that served as the cradle of civilization and a crucible of strife.

For all the challenges that lie ahead, we see many reasons to be hopeful.  In Egypt, we see it in the efforts of young people who led protests.  In Syria, we see it in the courage of those who brave bullets while chanting, “peaceful, peaceful.”  In Benghazi, a city threatened with destruction, we see it in the courthouse square where people gather to celebrate the freedoms that they had never known.  Across the region, those rights that we take for granted are being claimed with joy by those who are prying loose the grip of an iron fist.

For the American people, the scenes of upheaval in the region may be unsettling, but the forces driving it are not unfamiliar.  Our own nation was founded through a rebellion against an empire.  Our people fought a painful Civil War that extended freedom and dignity to those who were enslaved.  And I would not be standing here today unless past generations turned to the moral force of nonviolence as a way to perfect our union –- organizing, marching, protesting peacefully together to make real those words that declared our nation:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Those words must guide our response to the change that is transforming the Middle East and North Africa -– words which tell us that repression will fail, and that tyrants will fall, and that every man and woman is endowed with certain inalienable rights.

It will not be easy.  There’s no straight line to progress, and hardship always accompanies a season of hope.  But the United States of America was founded on the belief that people should govern themselves.  And now we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.

Thank you very much, everybody.  (Applause.)  Thank you.

source: The White House website

Video

Obama speech outlines deficit cut policy proposals

President Barack Obama has laid out a fiscal policy “vision” to reduce the US budget deficit while maintaining America’s social safety net.

He offered a package of tax increases and spending cuts aimed at reducing the deficit by $4tn (£2.45tn) by 2023.

And he attacked Republican proposals he said would harm the poor and elderly while cutting taxes on the rich.

Mr Obama’s proposal would raise taxes on the wealthy, a move Republican congressional leaders swiftly rejected.

“We have to live within our means, reduce our deficit, and get back on a path that will allow us to pay down our debt,” Mr Obama said in a speech at George Washington University in Washington DC.

“And we have to do it in a way that protects the recovery, and protects the investments we need to grow, create jobs, and win the future.”

The ballooning US deficit is set to be a top issue in the 2012 election campaign, and in recent weeks, Republicans have laid out their own plan to cut it, based on big reductions in healthcare and social programmes for the poor and elderly and in education spending.

The deficit is forecast to reach $1.5 trillion (£921bn) this year and both Democrats and Republicans have said cutting it is a priority.

Mr Obama on Wednesday unveiled his own proposal – in a speech in which he used the word “vision” more than a dozen times.

The remarks came after Republicans had accused him of failing to exercise leadership, and many US political analysts said the Republican opposition had seized the political momentum.

Republicans on Wednesday attacked Mr Obama’s speech as mere campaign rhetoric, noting he recently launched his re-election bid. Primarily, they firmly rejected his proposal to raise additional tax revenue from the wealthy.

“At a time when millions of our countrymen remain unemployed, the president again proposes tax increases on job creators,” said Jeb Hensarling of Texas, a member of the party’s House leadership team, calling Mr Obama’s speech “class warfare”.

Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House budget committee, said: “Exploiting people’s emotions of fear, envy and anxiety is not hope, it’s not change, it’s partisanship. We don’t need partisanship. We don’t need demagoguery. We need solutions.”

Led by Mr Ryan, Republicans have offered their own proposal that would go further than Mr Obama’s, slashing $6.2 trillion from government spending over the next decade, in large part through cuts to government programmes that serve the elderly and the poor.

The proposal would also drastically reduce taxes for wealthy Americans, a move conservatives say would boost economic growth.

The House is due to vote on Mr Ryan’s proposal on Friday.

In his speech, the president repeatedly drew a contrast with the Republicans’ proposal, insisting that spending cuts should not harm the US social safety net, such as the social security retirement system and healthcare programmes for the poor and elderly.

In particular, he singled out the Republicans’ proposal to cut taxes for the wealthy while making elderly Americans pay more for their healthcare, as analysts say the Republican plan would work out.

“This is not a vision of the America I know,” he said.

“They want to give people like me a $200,000 tax cut that’s paid for by asking 33 seniors to each pay $6,000 more in health costs? That’s not right, and it’s not going to happen as long as I’m president.

“The fact is, their vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America.

“There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires.”

Bruising battle ahead

Buoyed by the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement, Republicans have won a series of policy victories, including forcing $38.5bn in government spending cuts for the remainder of the current fiscal year.

On Wednesday, Mr Obama also sought to brush back liberals in his own party who warn cutting spending now would hinder the nascent economic recovery.

“Doing nothing on the deficit is just not an option,” he said. “Our debt has grown so large that we could do real damage to the economy if we don’t begin a process now to get our fiscal house in order.”

US political observers expect the fight over the government budget for the fiscal year beginning 1 October to be bruising, as Republicans and Democrats push their competing visions.

Last week, the US government came within an hour of shutting down as Republican and Democratic leaders battled to reach an agreement on a budget for the next six months.

The deal reached just before midnight on Friday cut $38.5bn in government spending to 30 September.

source: BBC News

Afghanistan’s Transition to Greater Responsibility for Its Own Destiny Requires Realignment of Aid with Priorities, Security Council Told

Standing on Doesn’t Mean Standing Alone,

Secretary-General’s Special Representative Stresses in Briefing

Afghanistan’s transition to responsibility for its own security, governance and development, put into motion this year, would result in a realignment of aid but not the country’s abandonment, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for that country said today.

The message was to “help the Afghan authorities to stand on their own but not to stand alone”, Staffan de Mistura, Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), said in a briefing, specifying that the realignment was being undertaken to ensure that multilateral and bilateral aid was in alignment with Afghan priorities.

Mr. de Mistura said increasing activities by Afghan forces and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were showing results, although, at the same time, anti-Government elements were carrying out some spectacular attacks.  He warned that the situation would get worse before it got better.  Underlining the importance of political peacemaking, he said everyone, even the Taliban, recognized that there was no military solution.

Welcoming in that context the establishment of the High Peace Council, and the “Salaam Support Group” that the United Nations had placed at its disposal, he said UNAMA would provide logistical support for dialogue, within or outside Afghanistan.  In fact, national dialogue could only be sustained through constructive engagement by all regional actors, he added.

Welcoming the participation of millions of Afghans in the September parliamentary elections, he expressed recognition of the “diligent and intense” work carried out by the two independent electoral commissions, particularly in settling complaints over cases of alleged fraud.  Electoral reform remained necessary, he emphasized.

Turning to the trade in drugs, he said that despite a disease affecting prices, production had increased and continued to affect close and distant neighbours.  In the area of human rights, UNAMA’s priority was to continue issuing frank reports and raising awareness, as well as addressing civilian casualties.  The Mission’s mandate could only be fulfilled if the necessary resources were allocated to its next budget, he stressed.

Following the briefing, Afghanistan’s representative said his country had made momentous strides this year towards defining and strengthening its relationship with its international partners, while seeking to re-engage the Afghan people in all efforts to bring about peace and security, enhance collaboration with regional partners and reach out to the armed opposition.  Improving security remained a top Government priority, he said, maintaining that “despite isolated incidents of attacks and suicide bombings by the Taliban and other extremists, overall security has improved”.  He underlined the need to eliminate sanctuaries for terrorists and extremists in the region, saying that without progress on that front, all other efforts would be in vain.  He also stressed the importance of reducing civilian casualties in all operations.

He went on to say that reintegration and reconciliation would be pursued as a matter of high priority, cautioning, however, that in order for it to work, the Taliban must be ready to engage sincerely in peace talks.  They must put down their arms, renounce violence and choose the path of peace, he stressed, pointing out that the recent elections had reaffirmed the Afghan people’s commitment to democracy.  In the four years ahead, the focus of Afghanistan’s partnership with the international community must be on building the Government’s capacity to take responsibility in security, development and governance.  Unity of understanding, unity of effort and unity of action was required, he emphasized, assuring the Council that the Afghan Government would spare no effort in doing its part.

Following those statements, delegates reaffirmed their support for the Kabul Process and the general international framework for assistance to Afghanistan, which prioritized the transition to Afghan ownership in critical areas.  In that context, speakers welcomed the September elections despite the irregularities, and commended the electoral institutions for their work in addressing complaints, while calling for long-term electoral reform.  France’s representative said it was critical for Afghanistan’s stability that the international community respect the outcome of the elections.

Most speakers also prioritized the fight against corruption and affirmed the necessity for reconciliation efforts, while stressing that there could be no compromises on democratization, human rights and adherence to the Afghan Constitution.  Most delegates welcomed UNAMA’s role in coordinating international assistance, although some, including Germany’s representative, called for a review of the Mission’s role in the context of the transition period.

Many speakers also stressed the importance of regional cooperation, with Iran’s representative underscoring the importance of cooperation in fighting drugs and illegal transit of persons.  Pakistan’s representative, noting that a long-term cooperative partnership was developing between Afghanistan and his own country, pledged its readiness to help build the capacity of the Afghan security forces, noting the two neighbours’ ongoing cooperation on security and intelligence.  “We do not want Afghanistan to become a theatre of proxy wars,” he emphasized.

During today’s meeting, Mr. de Mistura and several delegates paid tribute to Richard Holbrooke, the United States diplomat responsible for policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, who passed away last week.

Also speaking today were the representatives of Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, Japan, China, Nigeria, Uganda, Mexico, Lebanon, Brazil, Austria, Gabon, United States, Italy, India, Canada and Australia.

A representative of the European Union delegation also delivered a statement.

The meeting began at 11:12 a.m. and ended at 2:27 p.m.

Background

The Security Council had before it the report of the Secretary-General on the situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security (document A/65/612–S/2010/630) dated 10 December, which reviews the country’s situation since his report of 14 September.  It also provides an update on the activities of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the rest of the United Nations system.

According to the report, the number of security incidents during the period was 66 per cent higher than those in the same period in 2009, peaking during the 18 September elections for the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the National Assembly.  Despite that violence, as well as threats by the Taliban and other armed groups, approximately 4.3 million Afghans, out of an estimated 12 million eligible voters, turned out to cast their ballots.

It was clear that after the vote that there was widespread fraud and irregularities across the country, sparking numerous complaints and a thorough audit and recount by the Independent Electoral Commission, the report says.  After the recount, UNAMA, the European Union, the United States and other stakeholders welcomed the certification of the final results while acknowledging that the process still requires improvement and calling for accountability in cases in which fraud had been proven.

The election results raised some concerns because of a decrease in Pashtun representation, resulting from insecurity in certain areas, the report says, emphasizing that addressing those concerns is a political task that must not undermine the independence of electoral institutions.  The international community, together with donors and Afghanistan’s partners, need to continue the pursuit of long-term electoral reform.

There is an increasing sense that conditions for reconciliation are becoming more favourable and that there may soon be a real opportunity for political dialogue leading to a settlement, the report states.  However, the attendant challenges should not be underestimated, it cautions, stressing that any political settlement must respect the Constitution and not undermine achievements in the areas of human rights and democratization.

Meanwhile, the report says, the transition to full Afghan leadership and ownership of governance, security and economic development requires a strong but flexible partnership between the Government and the international community.  To support the Kabul process, it was critical that the international community be fully committed to aligning its assistance with the Government’s policies and priorities.

On regional cooperation, the report underscores the need for continued dialogue between Afghanistan and Pakistan in order to deepen political, economic and security relationships.  There is also a need to liberalize trade policy and develop transport infrastructure.  Power-purchasing and trade would give impetus to industrial development and renewable power generation — including hydro and thermal power — should be explored.  There is also scope for enhanced cooperation in the area of counter-narcotics, including increased information-sharing and border control, an area in which the United Nations has been active.

The Secretary-General concludes by noting that the October attack against the United Nations compound in Herat serves as a reminder that the security of the world body’s staff remains a major concern for the Organization.  He expresses gratitude, in that regard, to Kuwait for providing a support office allowing UNAMA to redeploy some of its staff to that country, and to the Netherlands for making available to the United Nations residences in its compound in the centre of Kabul.

Briefing

STAFFAN DE MISTURA, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of UNAMA, paid tribute to the memory of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, saying that the last words uttered by the United States Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan to his Afghan doctor had been: “Please work for the peace in Afghanistan.”

Turning to the security situation, he said the increased combined activities of Afghan forces and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were showing results.  At the same time, however, anti-Government elements were carrying out some spectacular attacks to diminish the feeling of success, he said, warning that the situation would get worse before it got better.  Thanks to strong support by Afghan security forces, an attack on a United Nations centre in Herat had not resulted in the deaths of any of the 22 employees present.

Describing the recent Lisbon Summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as having contributed to a clear perspective on the mutual commitment towards Afghanistan, he said the upcoming transition would allow for a more speedy delegation of responsibility to Afghan authorities.  The message was to “help the Afghan authorities to stand on their own but not to stand alone”.  UNAMA would continue to assist in capacity-building, and a realignment of aid was being undertaken to ensure that multilateral and bilateral assistance was in alignment with Afghan priorities.

In the area of human rights, he said UNAMA’s priority was to continue issuing reports which were objective and frank — sometimes too frank — and to help raise awareness of the importance of human rights.  It was also important to address the issue of civilian casualties — which had risen over the past year — in the best possible way.  Reports had also been issued on violence against women, he said, adding that the election results had been encouraging in relation to the involvement of women in Parliament.

Emphasizing that everyone, even the Taliban, recognized that there was no military solution to the conflict, he underlined the importance of such initiatives as the establishment of the High Peace Council and the “Salaam Support Group”, which the United Nations had placed at the Peace Council’s disposal.  That could lead to an accelerated level of dialogue, he said, adding that UNAMA would provide logistical support for it, within or outside Afghanistan.

However, national dialogue could only be sustained through constructive engagement by all regional actors, he continued, pointing out that many such initiatives were taking place.  President Hamid Karzai was now in Ankara for discussions with the Government of Turkey, he said, adding that the Bonn conference scheduled for the end of 2011 might provide other opportunities for regional cooperation.  As for the question of drugs, he said that despite a disease affecting prices, production had increased and continued to affect close and distant neighbours.

Despite a situation of conflict and Taliban warnings not to participate, millions of Afghan voters had cast their ballots in the 18 September elections, he said.  Recognizing the diligent and intense work carried out by the two independent electoral commissions, he said numerous States had welcomed their announcements certifying the election results.  Regrettably, there had been substantial cases of fraud, but Afghan democracy was young and the security situation was one of concern.  The electoral commissions had worked hard to remove fraudulent cases, thereby sending a signal against impunity.

Welcoming President Karzai’s announcement of his intention to inaugurate the new Parliament by the end of January 2011, he stressed the necessity of electoral reform to avoid future irregularities.  In conclusion, he said UNAMA’s mandate could only be fulfilled if the necessary resources were allocated to its next budget.

Statements

ZAHIR TANIN ( Afghanistan) said his country had made momentous strides this year towards defining and strengthening its relationship with international partners while seeking to re-engage the Afghan people in all efforts to bring about peace and security, enhance collaboration with regional partners and reach out to the armed opposition.  The London Conference and the subsequent Peace Jirga, the Kabul Conference, the second parliamentary elections and the NATO Summit in Lisbon had been important events in that regard.

Improving security remained a top Government priority, he said, maintaining that “despite isolated incidents of attacks and suicide bombings by the Taliban and other extremists, overall security has improved”.  Afghan forces and ISAF had regained the military initiative, particularly in the southern provinces, as well as an expanded zone of security where Afghan security forces were exerting greater control in areas previously held by enemy combatants.  In the south, the rural population acknowledged the progress being made and had begun to engage with local authorities, he said.  Consolidating local support was vital, he commented, going on to underline the need to continue placing emphasis on ensuring basic services for Afghans as well as avoiding civilian casualties.

Regarding the latter, he welcomed measures to increase coordination among international forces as well as a review of tactics.  On a strategic level, he underlined the need to eliminate sanctuaries for terrorists and extremists in the region, underscoring that without progress on that front, all other efforts would be in vain.  As for the recent parliamentary elections, they reaffirmed the Afghan people’s commitment to democracy, he said, noting that millions had braved threats to cast their votes.  “Nobody expected a perfect election process,” he added, pointing out the conditions that had led to irregularities.

He said the Government continued to focus on enhancing relationships with neighbours in the region, maintaining high-level communications with the Government of Pakistan for wider cooperation in the fight against terrorism and in promoting peace, stability and economic development.  Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan and India had signed agreements on a gas pipeline project on 11 December, he noted.  For the “essential political factor” of reintegration and reconciliation to work, however, the Taliban must be ready to engage sincerely in peace talks, he said, emphasizing that they must put down their arms, renounce violence and choose the path of peace.  It was crucial to maintain Afghan leadership and ownership of the reconciliation process, while the international community, the region and the United Nations played an important supporting role.

He said recent progress towards implementing the Government’s security, development and governance goals was outlined in the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board’s progress report on the Afghanistan National Development Strategy, which showed that 95 per cent of planned activities for creating an efficient and effective Government had been completed in the first 100 days following the Kabul Conference.  The Government would continue to pursue effective and timely implementation of all national priority challenges, he pledged, adding that public opinion showed positive assessment of the Government.

In the four years ahead, he said, the measure of success would be determined by the strength of his country’s partnership with the international community.  The focus of that partnership must be on building the Government’s capacity to take responsibility far beyond the training of security forces to include development and governance.  Unity of understanding, unity of effort and unity of action was required, he said, assuring the Council that the Government would spare no effort to do its part.

ERTUĞRUL APAKAN (Turkey), also paying tribute to the late Richard Holbrooke, stressed his strong support for the work of UNAMA, particularly in supporting the elections, while condemning attacks on United Nations facilities in the strongest terms.  Despite continuing difficulties, the Afghan Government and the international community were on the right track for a sustainable transition to Afghan leadership in all areas.  The Government was showing strong political will in that regard, he said, cautioning, however, that the transition should not be seen as an exit.  The international community should be steadfast and flexible in its support.  Afghan institutions needed strengthening and UNAMA needed the resources required to provide support in that area, he said.

Reconciliation should seek to enlist the support of all Afghans for stability, he said, welcoming the peace initiative and the holding of parliamentary elections.  Efforts by the electoral bodies to make the polls credible were also commendable, he said, adding that he looked forward to success in the remainder of the process.  Underlining the importance of regional engagement by Afghanistan, he also outlined some of his own country’s support for multidimensional cooperation in a wide range of areas, stressing that Turkey was ready to do its utmost to continue that support.

MIRSADA ČOLAKOVIĆ (Bosnia and Herzegovina) commended the Afghan people on their participation in elections and the electoral institutions for their integrity and independence.  Due to the difficulties experienced and the importance of credible elections, she agreed fully that the international community and UNAMA needed to continue supporting the pursuit of long-term electoral reform.  Reiterating her country’s support for the Kabul process, she welcomed the Government’s presentation of a monitoring and reporting framework to track the progress of each of its 22 priority programmes.

She said peace and reintegration were priorities, adding that she expected practical steps in that direction to continue to multiply.  Achieving set targets in building the Afghan security forces and combating corruption were other priorities.  She welcomed positive Government steps in the area of access to justice as well as UNAMA’s efforts in supporting the coordination of development activities at the subnational level.  The alignment of provincial development councils with donors to the Government-led process was essential to future development, she said, welcoming also the work of all those who had assisted in creating the conditions for refugees to return, in addition to progress on regional cooperation and mine clearance.  However, she noted with concern that the human rights situation had deteriorated significantly and called on all parties to redouble their efforts to protect civilians.

VITALY CHURKIN (Russian Federation) said that the Kabul process was at a watershed, marked by increasing acts of violence by the Taliban and Al-Qaida.  Afghan and international forces must step up their efforts to control areas, including the north, he said, expressing support for the Government’s national reconciliation policies, while also emphasizing the crucial need for acceptance of the Afghan Constitution and other democratic factors.  Reversing narcotics production trends had not yet been accomplished, he said, underscoring the need for more effective efforts to physically eradicate production, from cultivation to the uppermost levels of distribution.

Pledging his country’s continued cooperation in that area, he said the Russian Federation also supported security efforts through recent transit arrangements, counter-narcotics efforts, helicopter support, bilateral provision of small arms and security training.  It stood ready to rehabilitate facilities it had originally built, he added.  While agreeing in general with the Secretary-General’s report, he called for enhancing the sections relating to the relevance of the Afghan situation to international peace and security.

PHILIP JOHN PARHAM (United Kingdom), describing the progress achieved as Afghan-led and -owned, welcomed the certification of the election results while also applauding the courage displayed by the Afghan people during the voting.  He condemned attempts by insurgents to undermine the electoral process, and said it was important now to focus on longer-term electoral reform.  Afghanistan had been a central topic during the NATO Summit in Lisbon, he noted, adding that his country would work alongside its ISAF partners and the Government to realize the transition towards Afghan responsibility for security.

Welcoming UNAMA’s approach to supporting the civilian aspects of the transition, he said also ISAF’s role would now evolve away from combat towards training and support.  The United Kingdom would continue to press its international partners to ensure that the necessary resources would be provided for the NATO training programme.  As for civilian casualties, he reiterated previous statements that the large majority of those had been a consequence of insurgent action.  He welcomed the inauguration of the High Peace Council and the development of a reintegration programme, stressing that conditions for the reintegration of insurgents should include cutting ties with Al-Qaida, renouncing violence and agreeing to the constitutional framework.

TSUNEO NISHIDA ( Japan) welcomed the certification of the results of elections managed by Afghans, even though there had been fraud and irregularities.  Japan hoped the Government would address longer-term electoral reform in order to develop a more transparent electoral system.  He also welcomed the Lisbon NATO Summit, during which Alliance partners had committed to ensuring that responsibility for security was transferred to the Afghan authorities by 2014.  Japan’s Diet had approved $540 million in assistance and the Government was considering sending self-defence force personnel to Afghanistan for training purposes.  He said it was critical that the Government tackle corruption and implement a reintegration process supported by the international community.

WANG MIN (China) said the holding of parliamentary elections represented another significant step towards effective Afghan governance, and he urged Afghans to build on that accomplishment.  The peace and reconstruction process must be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led, he said, adding that Government authority must be extended over the entire country.  He called for the Government to build up its capacity and take measures on development and security, adding that China supported the peace and reconciliation programme.  Afghanistan still needed the support of the international community, which must, in turn, respect Afghan ownership of security, governance and development efforts, he said.  China affirmed the leading role of the United Nations in all areas of international support and expressed hope that UNAMA would strengthen its coordinating role in that regard.

RAFF BUKUN-0LU WOLE ONEMOLA ( Nigeria) welcomed the successful holding of parliamentary elections, commending the electoral commissions and UNAMA for the part they had played.  All electoral complaints must be dealt with, he stressed.  He also expressed support for efforts to promote reconciliation, particularly with groups that had renounced violence.  On the other hand, insurgent attacks, particularly those on civilians and the United Nations, deserved the strongest condemnation, he stressed, adding that support for building the Afghan security forces was crucial in that regard.  The international community must also continue to support Afghan institutions, he said, welcoming, in addition, Afghanistan’s cooperation with other countries in its region and UNAMA’s fulfilment of its development-coordination mandate.  Nigeria also welcomed the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) facilitation of the return of refugees.

RUHAKANA RUGUNDA (Uganda) congratulated the Afghan people on completing the elections in spite of reported irregularities, saying the polls were an important step in the healing process.  Uganda encouraged the Government to reach out to all Afghans in the quest for peace, he said, adding that all sides must make compromises for a just and durable political settlement.  Concerned that the security situation in some parts of the country continued to deteriorate, he condemned terrorist attacks aimed at disrupting peace and security, and supported Government efforts to forge ahead with security, reintegration and development programmes in order to take over responsibility for security by 2014.

Emphasizing that Afghanistan’s stability and prosperity were inextricably linked to those its neighbours, he welcomed the improvement in regional relations.  The Government and people were increasingly taking responsibility for development, a requirement for building sustainable peace, he said, adding that Afghanistan would continue to require international support and partnership in that regard.  He called on international partners to align their support with the priorities set by the Afghan Government at the Kabul Conference.

CLAUDE HELLER (Mexico) said stability depended not only on the success of military operations, but also on genuine reconciliation and on addressing the root causes of violence by giving impetus to development, respect for human rights and the strengthening of the rule of law.  The 2014 transition strategy should be guided by progress on the ground and not be subjected to a rigid timeline, he emphasized, expressing concern at the increased number of civilians killed and injured.  Rejecting the recruitment of children by Taliban forces and the group’s violence directed at girls, he said he hoped enhanced communication and coordination between Afghan forces and ISAF would include efforts to minimize civilian casualties.

The fact that a high number of irregularities and complaints had been seen during the election was a reflection of the challenges still facing institutional capacity-building.  It was now important to undertake long-term electoral reform, led by the Government with support from UNAMA and the international community, in order to consolidate the capacities of the electoral authorities.  It was also necessary to combat corruption and organized crime in order to enhance the rule of law and accountability.  Mexico welcomed regional initiatives to combat drug trafficking and production, he added.

MARTIN BRIENS (France), associating himself with the statement to be delivered by the European Union and with tributes to Richard Holbrooke, said the election results must be respected despite the difficulties encountered.  At the same time, reform of the electoral process was very much needed.  There was also a need for reconciliation, without which no peace would be achieved.  However, the preconditions for reconciliation spelled out by the Kabul process must be respected, he said, suggesting that the 1267 sanctions regime could be used as an effective lever to support reconciliation efforts.  Little by little, the Afghan security forces were becoming stronger, including in areas where French forces had been deployed, he said, describing that progress as an essential component of the transition to Afghan responsibility in security, governance and development.

IBRAHIM ASSAF ( Lebanon) welcomed the wide participation in the elections, but noted that the widespread fraud and deteriorating security had not allowed the full exercise of democracy.  Fraud should be prosecuted in the future, he stressed, adding that security, of course, was required for all other progress.  The Council should therefore seriously heed the assessment that the security situation was worse than ever, he said.  Welcoming the reconciliation and reintegration process and the provisions of the Kabul Agreement under implementation, he said his country also welcomed the decision by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to appoint a representative for Afghanistan.  Lebanon also welcomed the decisions by Kuwait and the Netherlands to provide facilities for UNAMA operations.  He pointed out the importance of regional cooperation in improving the situation in Afghanistan, particularly in the area of drug control.

MARIA LUIZA RIBEIRO VIOTTI (Brazil) said the November Summit between NATO and the Government of Afghanistan had completed the framework for the transition to greater Afghan responsibility for security.  The fact that Afghanistan had been exceeding force-generation targets for its army and police was encouraging, she said, adding that Afghans deserved continuing international support for such efforts, including through the provision of necessary equipment and capabilities.  However, although important progress had been made in the protection of civilians, more should be done, she said, stressing that a redoubling of efforts towards peace and reintegration was vital in that regard.  Brazil was encouraged that a number of alleged combatants had already approached Afghan authorities expressing their intention to lay down arms, she added.

She said the parliamentary elections had shown that despite allegations of fraud and security, as well as logistical and political challenges, the electoral institutions had been able to investigate and address complaints effectively.  The will of the people and the decisions of the independent electoral institutions must be respected by all, without undue interference.  She welcomed the progress made by the Government on its Kabul process commitments, in particular the establishment of a monitoring and reporting framework.  Since there was an information gap regarding progress on international commitments, she suggested a monitoring and reporting mechanism for that process as well.  The response to the attack against the United Nations compound in Herat had demonstrated the Organization’s ability to learn from past misfortunes, she said, praising the enhanced security arrangements and the increase in secure accommodation.

THOMAS MAYR-HARTING (Austria), welcoming the Government’s progress on implementation of the London and Kabul commitments, as well as the strengthening of the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board, said the resulting enhanced accountability and transparency would benefit the Afghan people and facilitate cooperation with the international community.  The Kabul process should include all segments of society, since maximum ownership by the Afghan people would be critical for the country’s long-term stability.  He welcomed the inauguration of the High Peace Council and the establishment of the “Salaam Support Group”, and urged the Government to consider the recommendations made by civil society groups regarding the peace process.  He also acknowledged UNAMA’s important human rights work.

Commending the Afghan electoral institutions for their work under challenging circumstances, he expressed hope that the newly elected lower house would be convened in a speedy manner, and called for comprehensive and long-term electoral reform as a matter of priority.  The difficult security situation continued to be of great concern, in particular the increase in the number of civilian casualties, the majority of which were linked to anti-Government elements.  Direct targeting of the civilian population, including public officials and international staff, was in violation of the most basic principles of international humanitarian law, he said.  He also expressed concern at the continued cultivation and production of narcotic drugs, noting that those activities were concentrated mainly in areas where the Taliban and Al-Qaida were active.

ALFRED MOUNGARA MOUSSOTSI (Gabon) said there had been a positive evolution in the situation in Afghanistan, although challenges remained that could affect the transition.  He welcomed the excellent work of the electoral institutions, saying that despite some shortcomings, the elections had demonstrated the Afghan people’s willingness to “take the reins” of their own destiny.  The new Parliament must soon start its work in order to continue along the path to democracy, peace and stability, he said.  The security situation remained a source of concern, as did the “raging corruption” caused by drug trafficking and impunity, he said, calling on the Government to do everything possible to combat those threats to peace and stability.  Regional cooperation was an important link in the political and development processes, he emphasized, welcoming Afghanistan’s closer diplomatic and trade cooperation with Pakistan and Tajikistan.  That cooperation could also boost the fight against drug trafficking, he added.

Council President ROSEMARY DI CARLO ( United States), speaking in her national capacity, thanked delegates for their expressions of sympathy over the passing of Ambassador Holbrooke.

She recalled that during the NATO Summit in Lisbon, the Government of Afghanistan and international partners had agreed that early 2011 would mark the beginning of a transition towards Afghan responsibility for security by 2014.  The transition and the international community’s enduring commitment to Afghanistan beyond 2014 were key to long-term success, she stressed, adding that training was critical in that regard.  UNAMA would play an important and growing role in supporting the Government, including in its reintegration efforts.

Welcoming the certification of the final election results, she said that the ballot, held under challenging circumstances, had been the first since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.  Looking beyond elections, it was important that UNAMA remain engaged with the electoral institutions in order to press forward with electoral reform.  In that regard, she underscored the importance of meeting the Mission’s resource requirements and urged all Member States to consider carefully and support UNAMA’s recent budget request.  Although real progress had been made, the gains remained fragile and reversible, she cautioned.  However, more and more Afghans were reclaiming their own communities from Taliban control.  To sustain those gains, political and economic progress were urgently needed, as were transparency and accountability.

CESARE MARIA RAGAGLINI (Italy) said the Government and the international community must make a concerted and sustained effort to address obstacles to a sustainable and irreversible transition to Afghan responsibility for security, governance and development.  Political reconciliation must be an Afghan-led process, compliant with national laws and fundamental rights, and supported by regional partners.  A successful reintegration process would contribute to reconciliation by building mutual confidence and curbing the influence of insurgency, he said, welcoming in that regard the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Programme, which should remain within the agreed “red lines” and be tied closely to the security agenda.  It should follow a community-centred approach, he added.

Improving living conditions, creating job opportunities and harmonizing traditional decision-making mechanisms with a modern decentralized administration were fundamental to the success of the reintegration efforts, he said, going on to emphasize that ensuring that the Kabul process did not lose momentum was a priority for his country.  While security was gradually improving — thanks to better training of Afghan forces — Italy’s actions were shifting towards “civilianization”, with a focus on capacity- and institution-building.  Italy was also committed to fostering a balanced relationship among different levels of Government through enhanced coordination, increased administrative capacities and a predictable flow of resources from the centre to the periphery.  Justice and the rule of law deserved more attention and international support, he added.

HARDEEP SINGH PURI (India) agreed that the international community’s overarching objective in Afghanistan was to create an enabling environment for the Afghan Government eventually to assume full responsibility for its own destiny.  The holding of national assembly elections, despite violence and threats, had been an important step in the consolidation of democratic governance towards that end.  He emphasized that, in the support efforts of the international community, unity of purpose and overall coordination was imperative.  India was pleased to note that UNAMA was assuming a greater role in that regard.

However, it was crucial to guard against the impulse to consider the peace process as a shortcut to the transition since that would risk a slide back to becoming a safe haven for terrorists and extremists, he warned, adding that lessons learned from past experiences with such groups must be borne in mind.  India supported efforts to reintegrate individuals who abjured violence and were willing to abide by values enshrined in the Afghan Constitution, he said.  Strengthening the security forces was critical, as was rooting out the “syndicate of terrorism” operating within and outside the country’s borders.  While appreciating the gains made in the southern provinces, he expressed concern about the deterioration of security in the north and elsewhere.

Expressing support for the wishes of the Afghan Government to take the lead in promoting greater regional cooperation, he said his own country’s efforts in Afghanistan had focused on developmental and humanitarian work.  India’s $1.3 billion assistance programme had contributed to help Afghans build a peaceful, stable, democratic and pluralistic nation.  In the coming year, India hoped the international community would remain steadfast in its commitments to support Afghanistan through enhanced synergy and coherence, he said, expressing support for UNAMA’s work in that regard.

ESHAG ALHABIB ( Iran) welcomed the country’s recent political progress, including the September elections, in the context of the Afghan people’s desire to take their destiny into their own capable hands and to end the sombre presence of foreign forces in their homeland.  It was hard to assess the achievements of the current military excursion, but it was clear that the suffering of Afghan civilians was on the rise.  In particular, the lives of innocent people had been placed at the mercy of drone attacks, he noted, asking how such “wild and indiscriminate” attacks could be justified in the context of counter-terrorism.  As a result of foreign military operations in Afghanistan, not only had the threat of terrorism not been curbed, it had spread its evil effects to other parts of the region, including Iran, he said, recalling that the 15 December suicide bombing at a mosque in Chabahar had left scores of people dead and many more injured.  Emphasizing that the hearts and minds of the Afghan people could not be won by more troops and private contractors, he said foreign forces must instead leave the country.  At the same time, there was a need to strengthen the capacity of the Afghan forces and to hand over the control and management of Afghan affairs to the people and Government.

Turning to the menace of narcotics, he said his country had been at the forefront of a full-scale war against smuggling, with thousands of Iranian law-enforcement personnel having lost their lives, or suffered injuries, and billions of dollars having been spent.  Iran strongly called for firm and measurable international steps to curb the threat as soon as possible.  He welcomed greater engagement by regional countries in promoting Afghanistan’s socio-economic development, noting that his own country had undertaken a number of developmental projects aimed at rebuilding infrastructure, including road and rail development.  Iran was willing to continue holding joint meetings with the representatives of countries neighbouring Afghanistan to elaborate more concrete measures needed to strengthen the regional framework to help the country on development and security.  The international community should help strengthen that approach, he said, welcoming UNAMA’s efforts to encourage regional cooperation on the drug trade and the illegal movement of people, as well as its general support for Afghanistan.

ABDULLAH HUSSAIN HAROON (Pakistan) said the Secretary-General’s report had underscored the importance of effective follow-up to the Kabul conference in terms of transition to full Afghan leadership.  Strong partnership between the Government and the international community was key for a successful transition that must have tangible benefits for the Afghan people.  Support for the country must be tailored to Afghans needs.  The report had also documented a 66 per cent increase security-related incidents during the reporting period, compared to the same period in 2009, which required a dispassionate, political analysis.  Noting the importance of the Peace and Reintegration Programme, he said a reconciled Afghanistan, at peace with itself, was the best guarantor of its security.  Noting some “strange results” in the electoral process, he said correct democracy would bring people forward who would take the defence of their country into their own hands.

He said his country supported an Afghan-led and inclusive reconciliation process, with a view to bringing the opposition groups into the political mainstream.  Welcoming the establishment of the High Peace Council, he underlined the importance of its sustained engagement with the United Nations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.  “Pakistan wants durable peace and stability in Afghanistan.  Stability and development in Afghanistan is in our national interest,” he said, adding that the safe return of more than 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees living in Pakistan was only possible in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan.  Stability and security of Afghanistan was also indispensable for the recently concluded Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit and Trade Agreement and could guarantee successful completion of important energy projects.

The quest for peace and stability in Afghanistan was driving bilateral relations into long-term cooperative partnership, he said.  Pakistan was ready to assist, among other things, in capacity-building of Afghan security forces.  His country was also engaged in security and intelligence cooperation, including through the Tripartite Commission, which also included the United States and ISAF.  “We do not want Afghanistan to become a theatre of proxy wars,” he said.

MIGUEL BERGER ( Germany) said his country was a major contributor to ISAF and a major donor of development aid to Afghanistan.  From the perspective of the upcoming transition, it had increased its civilian engagement to $540 million per annum.  2010 had been a turning point since the beginning of the international community’s engagement in 2001, but many challenges remained.  Noting that training of Afghan security forces was progressing at a higher speed than expected and that infrastructure development projects were starting to make a positive difference in the lives of the local population, he said his country would strengthen its civilian efforts and was willing to assist, upon request, in the search for a political settlement.

He said the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Programme would need skilful diplomatic handling, patience and time, and the international community must continue to financially support the Government in reintegrating those who renounced violence, had distanced themselves from terrorist groups, respected the Afghan Constitution and were willing to work constructively for rebuilding a democratic and stable Afghanistan.  The principle of Afghan ownership and the framework for transition had been put in place.  With the transition of security responsibility progressing, the Security Council should reconsider UNAMA’s priorities, competences and resources, and provide clear guidance for the Mission’s role within the international network of mutually reinforcing civilian institutions assisting Afghanistan.  The United Nations should provide the necessary resources for UNAMA to fulfil its mandate.

JOHN MCNEE (Canada) said there had been mixed results in Afghanistan in the past year, with an increased level of civilian casualties and deterioration of the humanitarian situation.  He expressed particular concern over the increased number of internally displaced persons and over the potential effect of volatile grain markets on the food security of the populace.  All such issues were clear obstacles to a stable Afghanistan.  He added that the Government’s credibility in facing them and providing basic services was impeded by persistent corruption.  A legal committee was needed to counter that situation, as well as the adoption of an audit law and the provision of a statutory basis for the Major Crimes Task Force and the Anti-Corruption Tribunal.

He was pleased, however, with the work of the electoral commissions and he encouraged all parties to move forward in a collaborative manner to ensure a parliament that reflected the will of the Afghan people.  An early date for the inauguration was critical.  The Kabul process had thus far been positive, although much work remained to finalize plans so that they addressed the country’s most pressing needs.  The outcome of the NATO Summit had also been positive in reaffirming long-term partnerships.  It was essential to provide UNAMA with the necessary resources to fulfil its mandate.

Encouraged by progress, he said, Canada’s continued engagement was important and worthwhile.  As Canada’s combat mission ended in 2011, a new, country-wide engagement based out of Kabul from 2011 to 2014 would focus on the future of Afghan youth, particularly girls, in the areas of education and health, as well as on security, the rule of law, human rights, regional diplomacy and humanitarian assistance.  An important part of Canada’s engagement would be a Canadian Forces training mission of up to 950 members, in addition to a substantial police-training component.  The overall objective remained the same: to help build a more secure and stable Afghanistan that was no longer a safe haven for terrorists.

ANDREW GOLEDZINOWSKI ( Australia) strongly supported the key themes of the recent United States strategy review, with an emphasis on ensuring that the gains of stabilization were irreversible.  Australia’s recent parliamentary debate supported the country’s continued civil and military contributions to the international effort, after an increase in civilian commitment by 50 per cent in the past 18 months.  Total assistance for 2010 to 2011 was expected to reach $106 million.  The country was committed to channelling at least 50 per cent of development assistance through the Afghan Government, in addition to the military contribution of approximately 1,550 personnel.

He said transition would not be an easy task, and it would be gradual, to be achieved when conditions were right on a district-by-district basis.  He recognized that the country, in addition, would continue to require support beyond the transition.  His country had made clear its commitment to helping provide that.  He welcomed the Afghan-led process on reconciliation and reintegration, noting that his country had committed funds to the Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund and was considering additional support.  He recognized that the elections were not perfect, but maintained it was important to keep the positive outcome in mind and focus on long-term electoral reform.

He affirmed that sustained progress in Afghanistan required the engagement of its neighbours.  UNAMA’s efforts in halting the illegal drug trade and movement of people in that regard, among others, were welcome.  In conclusion, he paid tribute to all those who were involved in assisting Afghanistan, including all those who had lost their lives or were wounded.  He also paid tribute to Richard Holbrooke.

PETER SCHWAIGER, Deputy Head of the Delegation of the European Union, said the Afghan Government, supported by the international community, was embarking on a crucial period of transition in which strong leadership would be essential to make the necessary, tangible progress in the fields of security, governance, justice and reconciliation, and socio-economic development.  Hoping for new political momentum for electoral reform, he said more checks and balances were needed in the political system in order to enhance credibility, legitimacy, inclusiveness, efficiency and accountability.  The continuing deterioration of the security situation and the high number of civilian casualties caused by anti-Government elements were of utmost concern.  He welcomed progress made, however, in the build-up of the Afghan National Army and Police and the mitigating measures taken to prevent casualties among United Nations staff.

He said there could be no sustainable transition of security responsibility without a civilian framework for stability.  Better governance, access to basic services, justice, rule of law and human rights were just as important as “hard security”.  The European Union, therefore, would reinforce its efforts in strengthening Afghan capacity to foster effective and accountable State institutions, especially at the subnational level.  Welcoming increased momentum in implementing the Kabul process, he emphasized that tangible development gains were necessary on provincial, district and local levels.  He urged for progress in combating corruption and improving financial management, welcoming the strengthening of the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board.

Commending the Government for its work in the area of peace and reconciliation, including the establishment of the High Peace Council, he said a greater scope was possible for the participation of women and minorities, inclusion of civil society and the integration of human rights, truth and justice considerations into the process.  He urged for more progress in setting up provincial peace and reconciliation councils.  Any political settlement must respect the Afghan Constitution and Afghanistan’s international commitments, including to human rights.  It must not undermine recent achievements, in particular regarding the protection of women and children, human rights and democratization.

Speaking again in her national capacity, Ms. DI CARLO (United States) said that the representative of Iran’s assertion that the 15 December suicide bombing at a mosque in Chabahar had been the result of the wrong policy of deployment of military foreign forces in the region was totally without foundation.  United States President Barack Obama had condemned the attack.

In concluding remarks, Mr. DE MISTURA expressed his and his colleagues’ deep appreciation for the strong and clear support heard today for UNAMA’s work and the joint venture of UNAMA and the Government to improve the situation in Afghanistan.  As 2011 was going to be a challenging year, the united support of the Council would provide UNAMA with a lot of strength.