After a protracted and painful labor, Afghanistan’s loya jirga gave birth on Sunday to a democratic constitution, the country’s first. Given Afghanistan’s history of violent civil strife, the mere fact that the 502-member council of elders and local dignitaries managed to agree on a final draft is extraordinary, and was hailed as such by many Afghan and international leaders, who welcomed the news as clear progress towards a democratic government in Afghanistan. The big question now is whether the constitution, so impressive on paper, can be implemented in practice.
The constitution sets the framework for the first democratic government in the history of the country, now to be named “The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.” The key points of the document provide for a strong president, two vice-presidents, a cabinet, and a parliament, with presidential elections to be held in June. The country will have an official civil law system, with the caveat that no civil law may contradict the laws of Islam. Women, strictly repressed under Taliban rule, are officially recognized as equal to men and allocated 25 percent of seats in the lower house of the parliament. The controversy over the nation’s official language, which almost derailed the entire process, was resolved with Pashto and Dari, the languages spoken by the biggest ethnic groups, as the primary languages, with minority languages to be recognized in specific regions.
The constitution was met with approval by everyone from human rights leaders and U.S. president George Bush and to the secretary of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. In Washington Bush issued a statement congratulating the loya jirga for creating a country that will, “help ensure that terror finds no further refuge.”
Afghanistan’s interim leader, Hamid Karzai, who lobbied for increased presidential powers, welcomed of the document, which greatly increased the power of any future president, as “a success for us all, for all the people of Afghanistan.”
The government funded paper, Anis also welcomed the document, praising the delegates for having put their differences aside for the sake of the national interest.
However good the constitution looks in theory, it’s far from clear that the new government will have to power actually to implement its provisions, as Mohammed Alam, a delegate to the loya jirga from the Farah Province, told Agence France Presse:
“This constitution reflects the views of all Afghans including minorities. It is a well-balanced constitution, but it is only on paper…. There is no guarantee of its implementation. There are weapons everywhere in the country. The government has to disarm militias and gather the weapons, then it will be possible to think about implementation of the constitution and other laws in Afghanistan.”
As London’s Independent reports Afghanistan’s warlords hold the real power on the ground, and are unlikely to cede it willingly to a central government.
“Afghanistan, which is the world’s largest opium producer and has a plethora of warlords and militias, have anything approaching a national judicial or law enforcement system capable of enforcing the terms of a new constitution. Corruption abounds, large areas of the country, which is awash with arms, are lawless.”
Groups representing ethnic minorities and women fear that without provisions to de-militarize warlords, women and minorities, traditionally hard done by in Afghanistan, will continue to suffer. Women’s rights in particular has been controversial throughout the constitutional process. Frustration with the proceedings led Malalai Joya, 26-year old Afghan social worker, to interrupt the constitutional proceedings to condemn what she saw as a convention full of criminals. Her testimony, brought attention to the country’s mujahideen leaders who had taken part in the country’s civil war of the 1990s, in which they killed and raped civilians. Joya’s outburst was heralded by feminists — and landed her under the protection of the United Nations.
Meena Nanji, a filmmaker who has been working on a film about Afghan women, writes in the San Jose Mercury News that mujahideen leaders won’t support women’s rights.
“The mujahedeen do not approve of women leading any part of their lives in public, and harshly intimidate those who think differently…The litany of laws passed this year to govern women’s conduct reads like a page out of the Taliban handbook. They include the banning of coeducational classes; restrictions on a woman’s ability to travel by limiting the time she can be without a ‘mahram,’ a male relative or husband; and forbidding women to sing in public. The biggest blow to women’s rights was dealt in November when a 1970s law prohibiting married women from attending high school classes was upheld.”
The new constitution officially recognizes men and women as equal before the law, but many fear that intimidation and harassment of women will continue. The independent Afghan weekly, Farda expressed concern over threats against female delegates to the convention. Some women who are running for office under the new constitution have reported having been threatened by armed men.
Still, the constitution is a huge step for Afghanistan and represents a break with the past, explains Nader Naderi, a spokesperson for the Independent Afghan Human Rights Commission.
“There are still some problems with the constitution, but the process was very positive, because people came together despite their differences and came to an agreement without violence…. This is a major change in the traditional way of doing politics in Afghanistan.”