“I don’t fear death – I fear political silence”

An interview with Malalai Joya, Afghani activist and former politician.

The young man from the German Left Party is apologetic. "Malalai won't be able to meet you at 11. Her symbolic presence is needed on the boat," he explains. The boat turns out to be a small, two-storey river vessel decked out in peace flags and anti-war slogans. Bonn is once again playing host to an international conference on Afghanistan - ten years to the day since the first - and the nearest protesters have been able to come is a boat in the middle of the Rhine. I find Malalai Joya sipping herbal tea on the second deck. She looks tired. "I'm not tired. I am strong and fearless," she jokes.

The role of "symbolic presence" is not new to Joya. This slight, earnest-looking woman from Farah Province first came to international attention in
2003, when she stood up in Afghanistan's constitutional assembly to denounce the presence of "criminals" on its benches. In 2005, she became
the country's youngest ever parliamentarian, only to be dismissed two years later for criticising the corruption of her colleagues. Despite repeated death threats, Joya has continued to speak out against what she calls Afghanistan's "corrupt, puppet-mafia regime". She is, she says, "surprised to be alive".

Like so many of the country's activists, Joya lives underground, moving from safe house to safe house, never staying in the same place for more than a few nights. Despite the peril of her situation, she has become a point of contact for women fleeing domestic violence, rape or forced marriage. "I try to help them," she says, “but it's a drop in the ocean." When Joya talks about the young women who seek her out, her voice softens and her eyes light up. It is, she says, people, not ideology, who give her the strength to carry on. Ideology is suspect in Afghanistan. "They occupied my country under the banner of democracy, human rights and women's rights," she explains. "They misuse the stories of the women in my country to justify their warmongering."

Sick man of Asia

The boat judders to a crawl. Through the windows, we can make out the white outline of the Hotel Petersberg, where the future of Afghanistan is being debated. "It's a conference of propaganda and lies," Joya says bitterly. “It's as though my country were a sick body, with everyone fighting over the pieces."

In December 2001, the hilltop hotel hosted the first international conference on Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai was installed as leader of an interim government and Germany's then chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, promised the country "peace and prosperity" after "all the years of war . . . and humiliation". In the intervening decade, there have been many more conferences and Joya has repeatedly campaigned to be admitted as a delegate. “Not this time," she says emphatically. "I wouldn't have gone to this conference even if they'd invited me."

The boat completes its turn and we start back the way we came. "When I look back at those ten years," she says, "the consequences were bloodshed and human rights violations. Now, they are going to start a new page of tragedy for my country."

Up on the hill, the discussion is about the 2014 deadline for international troop withdrawal. "They say they are leaving," she snorts derisively, "but they will continue to control Afghanistan through their puppets. Did you know that, in my country, we call Hamid Karzai the third Shah Shuja?" She giggles, then she is serious again. "Over here," she says, indicating the west with a slight shrug of her arm, “I keep hearing about civil war." We are interrupted by a stocky American woman who wants to know whether Joya has "a message for Veterans for Peace". She smiles and shakes the woman's hand. She is grateful for their support, she says.

The veteran moves off and our conversation resumes. "I keep hearing that if there's not an international presence in Afghanistan, then the country will fall into civil war," she says in frustration. "But there already is a civil war in Afghanistan. We used to have one enemy but, now, we have three: occupation, Taliban and warlords. At least if the troops leave, we will have one less problem to fight." "Who is 'we'?" I wonder. "The democratically minded people of our country," Joya says proudly. "There are many of us and many more in the younger generation. The young people give me so much hope. They have been inspired by the glorious revolutions in the Arab countries and they are organising demonstrations and uprisings."
“It will take time," she concedes. "Illiteracy and poverty make it difficult and fewer people have access to the internet. But, one day, I hope to see it in my country, too. The younger generation are brave and they don't have blood on their hands."

At 33, I realise, Joya already considers herself an old woman. In a country where the average life expectancy is 45, she probably is. "I don't fear death," she says. "I fear political silence."

A year on from the Spending Review, the coalition's soothsayer has emerged to offer another gloomy economic prognosis. Asked by ITV News whether he could promise that there wouldn't be a double-dip recession, Vince Cable replied: "I can't do that.

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...

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Why did the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet win this year's Nobel Peace Prize?

Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

It is a fitting that in a tumultuous year for global peacemaking, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the little-known Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a coalition made up of the union federation UGTT, the employers’ institute, the Tunisian human rights league and the order of lawyers . Over the past few years, the Quartet has been quietly shepherded in democracy to the country that lit the fuse of the Arab Spring. In part thanks to the efforts of this broad cross-section of civil society, Tunisia has stayed the course in transitioning from an authoritarian past to a democratic future, even in the face of terrorist violence and as other revolutions in the region have faltered.

The award comes at a time of escalating sectarian conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Islamic State’s campaign of terror has uprooted Iraqis and Syrians alike, driving desperate refugees into small boats to battle the waves of the Mediterranean. They join others fleeing to Europe from political and economic crises in Africa and Asia, forming a stream of humanity symbolising failures in leadership in three continents.

Among all this, it is not hard to identify why the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the world’s most coveted peace prize to the Tunisian Quartet.

First,Tunisia deserves to be celebrated for its momentous achievements in consolidating democracy. Unlike other countries in the region, it has trodden a path that is slow but solid, adopting a comprehensive and consensus-building approach to decision-making.

In this it provides a rare and extremely important example, not only for the region but also for the world. Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

Civil society steps up

Second, the role of civil society is fundamental for bringing about sustainable peace. Political leadership is important, but the scale of the challenge in transitional societies means that we cannot simply leave things to political leaders to sort out.

At local level especially, peace feels a lot more real when it comes with tangible improvements to quality of life. Citizens want to see the economy motoring again and to have confidence in the state’s institutions. They want to know that they can sleep soundly and safely, without fear of violence, persecution or poverty. Governments often lack the capacity and credibility to deliver these dividends alone. Civil society must step up to the plate – particularly the associations of trade, justice and human rights of which the Quartet is formed.

And third, the Quartet’s work relies heavily on forming constructive relationships across the political spectrum – from secularists to fundamentalists. It has walked a fine line, keeping disparate groups with diverging interests invested in an inclusive national process of dialogue. It has, in the words of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, laid the “groundwork for a national fraternity”.

Politicians are often the most cynical of creatures, yet the Quartet has managed to build a sense of collective endeavour among them. It has encouraged them to put the country’s best interest ahead of personal or sectarian interests, making this the guiding principle for decision-making.

Other bright spots

The transition in Tunisia is a work in progress and there will be more setbacks and successes. The country was left reeling from two terrorist attacks earlier this year, when 22 people were killed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and another 39 people died during an attack on a tourist resort in Sousse. But the message today is clear – Tunisia has made remarkable progress since 2010, despite the odds. This is in large part due to a credible and engaged civil society, a remarkable achievement in a new democracy. The country has forged a path of inclusive national dialogue from which many lessons can be learned.

Elsewhere this year, Myanmar goes to the polls in November – the country’s first free national ballot since 1990. Colombia is closer to lasting peace than ever, ending half a century of war that has taken 220,00 lives and uprooted six million people.

The US restored diplomatic relationships with Cuba, and also struck a landmark agreement with Iran over its nuclear programmes. And the UN has adopted the sustainable development goals, explicitly recognising peaceful and inclusive societies as a development priority for the first time. Behind every step forward there is an individual or institution worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, but only one can win and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet is a worthy laureate.

Laura Payne is a Research Fellow and Director of RISING Global Peace Forum, Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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