New Afghanistan Law Rapes Women's Rights

FEMINISM/POLITICS - An effort by ministers from the United States, Canada and other members of the 42-nation coalition fighting in Afghanistan to put an optimistic face on the war's progress came close to collapse yesterday when Afghan President Hamid Karzai was publicly accused of supporting a law that dramatically limits the rights of women.

Attended in total by 72 countries and organizations interested in rebuilding the country, The Hague summit was meant to be a "big tent" show of support for U.S. President Barack Obama's new Afghanistan war plans. But by day's end the participants had been forced to confront the reality of a government riddled with corruption and committed to legislating sexual inequality.

According to United Nations organizations that have seen it, a law backed by the Karzai government would legalize rape within marriage and would forbid women from going to the doctor or leaving their home without their husband's protection.

It also reportedly grants custody of children only to fathers or grandfathers.

When the law was brought to the attention of the summit by the Finnish Foreign Minister yesterday afternoon, forcing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to back away from her optimistic message, it marked the culmination of a day in which public statements of progress in Afghanistan were contradicted by private expressions of deep concern.

"Things are going worse for us than they have during the past four or five years - the Taliban controls more of our territory than before, and we have made no progress at all on corruption," a Canadian official said moments before Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon told the summit that he was "immediately able to see the results and impacts of our efforts" in Afghanistan.

The rape-law allegations were an especially severe blow to a conference meant to be what Ms. Clinton called a "blank slate," in which the 42 countries in the coalition would commit themselves with renewed vigour to the eight-year-old UN-mandated campaign, with support from 4,000 additional U.S. troops and a long-term commitment from Mr. Obama.

Faced with questions about the law yesterday afternoon, Ms. Clinton expressed dismay. She is said to have upbraided Mr. Karzai, whose presidency has been backed and promoted by the United States for years, in a private meeting.

"This is an area of absolute concern for the United States," she told reporters. "My message is very clear. Women's rights are a central part of the foreign policy of the Obama administration."

Officials from other countries had even more trouble hiding their disappointment with a government that was meant to signal a turn away from the sexual oppression of the ousted Taliban regime.

In Ottawa, Trade Minister Stockwell Day, chairman of the cabinet committee on Afghanistan, suggested that if the reports are true, Canada's support for the Afghan government will be affected.

"If these prove to be true, this will create serious problems for the government of Canada, for the people of Canada," Mr. Day said. "The onus is upon the government of Afghanistan to live up to its human-rights responsibilities, absolutely including the rights of women. If there is any wavering on this point ... this will create serious difficulties, serious problems for the government of Canada."

Spousal sexual assault is an offence in most parts of the Western world, and became a crime in Canada in 1983. In its 1993 declaration on the elimination of violence against women, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights established marital rape as a human-rights violation.

For many officials, the reports of Mr. Karzai's support for the law making rape exclusively an extramarital crime mark the culmination of years of frustration with the corruption, inertia and culture of impunity for which his government is known. One Canadian official said that Mr. Karzai no longer has the support of any country fighting in Afghanistan, but nothing can be said in public because he is likely to win the presidential election scheduled for this summer.

A British cabinet minister was more explicit. "We are caught in the Catch-22 that the Afghans obviously have the right to write their own laws," Lord Malloch Brown, the foreign secretary for Africa and Asia, told the Guardian newspaper yesterday. "But there is dismay. The rights of women was one of the reasons the U.K. and many in the West threw ourselves into the struggle in Afghanistan. It matters greatly to us and our public opinion."

With 2,800 soldiers fighting in the most dangerous part of Afghanistan, Canada has suffered the highest casualty rate of any coalition member, and has an important leadership role in the country's troubled south. Mr. Cannon was able to proclaim a Canadian victory in having built a new agreement between Pakistani and Afghan border officials, after talks organized by Canada. But there was a distinct sense that Canada is no longer being treated as a major coalition partner now that both the governing Conservatives and the opposition Liberals have made it clear that they will withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2011.

Canada did not share in the major international development of the day, a public diplomatic contact between the United States and Iran for the first time in 30 years. Signalling a possible rapprochement between Iran and the West, Iran sent a mid-level official to the meeting and held talks in which Tehran agreed to co-operate with drug-eradication schemes in Afghanistan and allow non-military supplies to be sent across its borders - in both cases solving difficult logistical problems for the coalition.

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