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Conversation: Ruud Lubbers

March 27, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Maybe we could begin by getting your overview of the conditions currently inside Afghanistan. How would, as a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, would you describe it?

RUUD LUBBERS: They are dramatic because we have already many years, big numbers of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Milan. Most of them are in Pakistan. But the conditions have worsened. We have the camps with miserable conditions. In the last six months, particularly the last three months, the Pakistan government itself has become more harsh, tough. They simply say these people here are not any longer refugees. They should go back. And we are fighting hard with them to get new sites, to find better solutions for shelter, and food, and medical care for the refugees. So the situation is really difficult. So this is the situation as it is now.

And secondly, we saw the last months even coming new numbers of Afghan refugees, partly because of the drought, partly because of the boycott measures, partly because of the regime there – the Taliban – prohibited cultivating crops for narcotics.

RAY SUAREZ: Opium poppies.

RUUD LUBBERS: Opium, etc., exactly. And that meant that substantial numbers of farmers had no income anymore, so we thought mixed groups of refugees. So if you ask me the situation, it’s a terrible situation and we have to come in and do something in a humanitarian sense as well in Pakistan. But I think beyond that also in Afghanistan.

A fact of life is that the Taliban regime now controls more than 90 percent of the country, and really dominates and controls it. But in any case, it has become a government in command, dominating the country. Therefore I do think it is inevitable that we find a policy at which substantial numbers of refugees will go back to Afghanistan itself, and that the Taliban regime takes care of them.

When we can do that, then there will be somewhat less pressure on Pakistan and get permission [from] them to do our job looking after the refugees as well in Pakistan. So in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. What we need as well, I think, is a more ambitious resettlement program. For a number of women, for example, in Afghanistan, it’s not doable to start a new life having gone back after being a refugee in Pakistan in Afghanistan. So we have to figure out how we can find a number of countries who are prepared to take people who really cannot go back in resettlement programs.

So I think this three-pronged approach will have to be put in place [in] the coming months, and the time has come to take the consequences of the new situation. One could complain, of course, about the miserable situation, but it doesn’t help to complain only. It’s a tragedy, but we have to do something with the tragedy. And therefore, I was a UNHCR person, I intend to take initiatives in the rich countries including the United States, but certainly also the European countries and say “Listen, we might be here furious about what’s happening there, but we have also to do with innocent children and innocent mothers, people in difficult and miserable situations. We simply have to improve their conditions to minimum acceptable levels, and that’s what we have to do.”RAY SUAREZ: But is that a difficult case to make to member states, to say look, we recognize that you have problems with this government, that you have problems with its belief, with its internal policies, with the way it came to power, but give money anyway to help the people of this country.

RUUD LUBBERS: It’s difficult, but I have to do it. It’s about human beings. If you have seen the misery of people there – there are a few who came out. Last Saturday I sat together in Cambridge near Boston, we have an Afghan couple with young children. They are privileged because they had a chance to get out. And if you hear these people, how motivated they are for their compatriots who are in difficult situations, it is really up to the rich countries then to do something, and we simply cannot say, but we don’t like the regime and therefore we let starve the people. This is impossible.

So we have to do something, and Pakistan, we must say very clearly, was generous for many years in giving assistance and helping us. But they are overburdened now, so we have to assist them as well doing this, then bring people back in Afghanistan, and I’m in the business of humanitarian. I’m not in the business of politics. And I say one thing, if they have got a bit of decency that they at least look after their own people in miserable conditions, this can be the beginning of something, a more positive attitude towards life and citizens, and that is really what we want. So I don’t think it’s negative at the end of the day. It’s not only giving in to their pressure, it’s also focusing now on the humanitarian needs first, assistance to the people, trying to find new life for children who grow up, for young boys, young girls, and if we can do that, maybe there is again a beginning of new life and new possibilities if you can empower a number of Afghans to do something there. This may be a more powerful instrument to add a somewhat different course there because it is spiraling down now all the time. We cannot afford it. Let it go.

RAY SUAREZ: But maybe we can talk a little bit about what makes this situation difficult for you in HCR. The Taliban is a religious militia that now must become a government, not people who are expert in building or maintaining roads, or waterworks, or an electrical grid, or any of those things. What makes the situation complex in trying to put together a plan to help this country back to some kind of normal life?

RUUD LUBBERS: The complexity is a double one. It’s the complexity what you see in more situations in the world when, let’s say, revolutionaries, people who resist the system and make a civil war are so trained to destruct because they are opposing the old regime, that they have to learn to reconstruct the country. That’s the first problem.

The second here, it’s indeed a fundamentalist movement, so they have used religion to get rid of an old regime, and doing that they are very strict, rigid – if you like, fundamentalistic. But there must come a time that they see also the values in their own religion, in the Koran itself. I’ve read the Koran. I’ve read the Koran myself. I often find it difficult to sit down and to talk about the future of their own children, of their own kinship, their own people in a positive way.

One cannot say that the Koran invites to destruction. It’s not true. The Koran invites to a way of life which can be very positive, but there is enormous difficulty after time that you go for violence and destruction to invite people to go for reconstruction for the future. So this is a long way, but I do think my obligation as a UNHCR person, is to convince them to look in these basic humanitarian needs, and even when they were in their own perception successful in dominating the country, the time has come to look after their own people, and that’s what I’m going to do.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there difficulties that involve the U.N.’s own standards and its own beliefs in what human rights are? Your organization is on record for many years believing in the education of women and the training of women for useful roles in society. Certain standards of freedom of speech and freedom of conscience and so on. Is it difficult to have as a partner a regime that if you transfer monies to them, will not use it in the way that comports with U.N. standards on these things?

RUUD LUBBERS: It’s difficult because in – you gave the examples already, we’ll certainly have situations where we fully disapprove. This is one. Secondly, for a number of individual Afghans, especially people who are maybe traumatized by the experience in the past, there is no future anymore in Afghanistan.

So I have to say that we find solutions outside Afghanistan. What I said earlier about resettlement, going to other countries. But having said that, I do think, speaking about human rights and the problems there, that we have to be honest and frank. There is a lot of drama going on in the world. If you see what is happening in Africa, the killings, the murders, the violence, what we have seen in Latin America, what we have seen in other places. One should be cautious to say just the Taliban regime only, and certainly what we cannot afford ourselves to say, they have wrong habits, or they do things wrong which we cannot accept and therefore, we let them starve. I don’t believe that is human.

If we really want to appeal to them on human values, we better start to be ourselves human and humanize the situation, and there we take certain risks, of course. But I don’t have the feeling that if I would stay out of UNHCR that this would bring this regime down. No, I don’t think so.

What I do believe is that it must be possible after all what happened to call now upon them at least to take care of their own people, to see the vulnerability of them, to go there, and I agree with you, that’s difficult for me personally. It’s difficult, too, but still I go because I think it’s about human people. I simply have to do that.


RAY SUAREZ: How have the recently voted upon sanctions made that task more difficult? What do the sanctions provide for? What do they prevent you from doing?

RUUD LUBBERS: I think that the sanctions are very understandable. I was myself long in politics. I was . . . prime minister in the Netherlands, and probably I would have voted for the sanctions when I was there in the U.N. system. So I’m not criticizing the people about the sanctions. It’s true, of course, that the sanctions themselves did not create the solution. In a way they created as well more problems. They very obviously are an inevitable signal to the regime that the international community disagreed.

Okay, they are still in place. I am not any longer in the world of politics. I’m not a politician. I’m in the world of humanitarian assistance, and I do think even with the work of measures in place, the best I can do for the people itself is to go there, to talk about better possibilities, to assist refugees, to bring them home, find new life there in Afghanistan, eventually in the villages they come from, and start a new process. But if you ask me, do the boycott measures help you, of course not.

RAY SUAREZ: But what do they specifically call upon the U.N. not to do any longer? How do they tie your hands? What is specified in the sanctions regime?

RUUD LUBBERS: I don’t think that the boycott measures tie me in the regime. One could say that a person which is related to the U.N. system then cannot go there. I asked to put it that way, permission of the secretary general of the U.N., and I was this morning with the Secretary of State [Colin] Powell, United States, and I said do you please understand that I have to invest in the humanitarian and it’s about people. And I added to that, I don’t exclude that at the end of the day it will have also in political terms a more positive outcome. And the moment that people see that there is future for Afghanistan, I mean in Afghanistan itself, maybe they will become a little bit more sensible about not only the destruction part, but the reconstruction part.


RAY SUAREZ: Repatriating people back to one of the countries in the world with the lowest life expectancy, the highest infant mortality rate, a high rate of violence, a very low rate of the availability of food, is that something that sometimes is difficult for someone from an international organization? You’re sending somebody back to one of the worst countries in the world in which to live today.

RUUD LUBBERS: It is, and that makes the situation even more a tragedy. We have the burden of Pakistan, which is not a rich country, either, overburdened. Then we say let’s try to improve the situation in Afghanistan itself. But it is so poor, as you said, with such miserable conditions, that you ask practically an impossible of people. But one thing – even very poor refugees and very poor people are human beings. If you want to improve situations in the world, we have to try to empower people, yes, to assist them. But it’s also capitalizing on their own wish to do something positive with their country. But you’re quite right, it’s for me a difficult choice. It’s so much easier, yes, to invite them to come to other countries where life is better. But what – we cannot invite all the Afghans into other countries.

So we have maybe numbers which are already gone. We have maybe other numbers who are traumatized and especially a number of women I could imagine that we have to offer them resettlement in richer economies, in liberal economies.

The decor of the Afghans, we need to create a future for them in Afghanistan. We are quite right, it’s a terrible thing to make the choice because they are going through poverty. It will be still difficult. Now you have to build up again agriculture. They have to earn their own income. It’s going to be a long road. But I simply cannot afford to give in. I have to assist these people, and I have to be a little bit optimistic. I have to say to myself, Afghan people are people to respect. Afghan people are people who can achieve themselves. They have gone through it in enormous difficult time. But now we have to grasp new opportunity, so that’s the way I see it.

RAY SUAREZ: The severe drought in much of the country hasn’t made your work any easier. Does this mean that you’ll have to give extensive, now multi-year food support in order to resettle people because they just can’t put a crop in the ground?

RUUD LUBBERS: I fear it is this case, you are right. We need substantial support. We need that sort of thing to do, and I will call in due time on the international community to do that. I will be critical when it comes to certain aspects of the Taliban regime, their behavior. But I make my choice, let’s talk with them at the table. It’s important for them, and to be fair and honest, it’s also very important for Pakistan because we cannot ask the Pakistan neighboring people to go on with this enormous burden themselves alone.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you think the world community will respond when there are so many needs in so many other places, to the cry of a country that is right now so unpopular?

RUUD LUBBERS: I’m not sure, but I have to try it at least, and I’m not pessimistic. Let’s be honest with ourselves. We are still living in a very booming economy. The world is so rich. Yes, there are many needs, but we are really rich, and if you can see what with limited amounts of money you can do in that sort of situations, it’s in a way fantastic. It’s fantastic what we can do if you see in this country, the United States of America, where we are talking tax cuts these days, how much less, how will we give back to the citizens. It would give a little bit back to the global community if you would realize that we have to be ashamed about the miserable conditions there. If we would translate that in a little bit of support it would convince the Europeans to do the same. It’s fair to do that. The Japanese – I think those rich countries have the capacity to fight misery and to diminish poverty there to an extent that it adds to our own well feeling and well being. So I think it is doable.