Let the UN take the lead on Afghanistan and Syria

The UN must play a part in resolving conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan but only if there is a shared desire for peace.

    Overview of the Syria peace talks at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland [AP]
    Overview of the Syria peace talks at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland [AP]

    Tajikistan, Central Asia's poorest state and Afghanistan's northern neighbour, is under dangerous pressure both internally and externally, according to an early warning report by International Crisis Group.

    The peace and security that has lasted for almost 20 years in Tajikistan is now facing serious threats. Nevertheless, it could be argued that the fact that peace has lasted for two decades is in itself significant. It is indicative of the relative success of the architecture of the Tajik peace accord of June 1997, which may have lessons for the diplomatic efforts under way for peace in both Afghanistan and Syria.

    Clearly the scale and details of these wars vary considerably but the essential elements that make up a successful peace process are relevant.

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    First, unlike the present examples of Afghanistan and Syria, the Tajik peace process was from the outset designed and implemented by the United Nations in cooperation with key regional powers.

    Desire for peace

    Secondly, for about one year before signing, the process benefited from a strong shared desire for peace by the warring sides. This key element made compromise possible.

    The peace accord was the culmination of a hard-fought, three-year-long negotiation process; a process characterised by extended periods of deadlock, often interrupted by spasms of violence between the warring parties.

    READ MORE: Why the Syria talks remind me of the Oslo process

    It followed five years of fighting at the cost of up to 100,000 lives, devastating the economy and with dire humanitarian consequences.

    The peace process must be mutually acceptable, both sides must be prepared to give concessions, leaders must agree on the accord, and, most importantly, all parties must have shared perceptions on the desirability of an accord.


    An important element was the persistent demand of the people of Tajikistan for peace. Earlier, they had staged a 59-day, non-stop demonstration in the capital, Dushanbe, demanding a change of government in scenes not dissimilar to Syrian demonstrations at the outset of its troubles. Although this did not happen immediately, it was a powerful driving force in the Tajik negotiations.

    Perhaps it is based on such experiences that before the peace talks in Geneva, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, appealed to the Syrian people: "We count on you to raise your voice, to say khalas, it is enough," he said in a video message to Syrians. "Enough killing, murdering, torturing, prisons."

    Richard Haass, who was involved in the Northern Ireland multi-party negotiations, argues that for diplomacy to succeed four conditions must be considered ripe.

    All four conditions in his model are necessary, and the absence of any one is sufficient to preclude agreement: The peace process must be mutually acceptable, both sides must be prepared to give concessions, leaders must agree on the accord, and, most importantly, all parties must have shared perceptions on the desirability of an accord.

    Objective mediator

    In the case of Tajikistan, all these conditions came together and the UN was trusted as the objective mediator and allowed to play its part. This was unlike in Afghanistan, where the government has repeatedly insisted on an "Afghan-led and Afghan-owned" process, discouraging the UN from participation.

    UN mediator for Syria Staffan de Mistura [Reuters]

    Likewise in Syria, the UN itself turned into the main battlefield between the permanent members of the Security Council with veto powers. 

    Moreover, in the case of Tajikistan, through UN diplomacy the key neighbouring countries were encouraged to play their part. Iran and Russia, which were the primary rivals in the conflict, eventually found mutually acceptable terms. That cooperation continues today on the world stage. Other regional players were brought in to act as observers to the peace process.

    Some figures with moral authority such as Prince Karim Aga Khan, leader of the Ismaili population (a sizeable community of Ismailis reside in Tajikistan) or the commander of Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Massoud, who did not live to see peace in his own country, were among the main peace brokers.

    READ MORE: Has the West betrayed the Syrian people?

    Twenty years ago this year, on December 11, 1996, Massoud, with the then Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, mediated the initial agreement which in turn demarcated the overall shape of the final Tajik peace accord.

    So far attempts at holding peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have been mismanaged by constant secrecy and confusion from a lack of objective, well-meaning diplomacy and dialogue.

    In the case of Syria, it has taken five years and hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced for the UN to be given a mandate in December 2015 by the Security Council to act. Even as talks begin, the shadow of boycotts threatens the atmosphere and it is not clear whether there is that mutual consensus to give peace a chance.

    The UN is often accused of being ineffective, and in many instances its gigantic administrative machinery causes delays. However, it remains the most qualified organisation to design and implement peace. The UN cannot, however, operate if it is not given a mandate at the outset of a conflict; if its envoys are not supported by powerful members of the Security Council; and if it does not have the power to hold to account those responsible for the continuation of bloodshed and contravention of international law.

    ICG is right to warn that Tajikistan's peace must be safeguarded by the international community because as we see all around us, reaching peace is never easy.

    Dr Massoumeh Torfeh is the former director of strategic communication at the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan and is currently a research associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, specialising in Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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