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Upcoming elections must be safe and free, Annan tells Afghanistan conference

31 March 2004 United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared to the opening of an international conference on Afghanistan today that this year's presidential and parliamentary elections will only advance national reconciliation if political parties and candidates can campaign openly and polling can take place safely.

In a message delivered by Lakhdar Brahimi, his Special Adviser and former envoy for Afghanistan, the Secretary-General said "the magnitude of the election task is enormous," but added that a successful election held the promise of a fully representative government - "a decisive step in the democratic transition."

To achieve this, Afghan political parties and candidates deserve more political freedoms, he said, such as the ability to campaign openly and safely, and the right to communicate through the media.

Mr. Annan told the conference, being held in Berlin, that improved security is also vital to ensure that both polling - scheduled now for September - and voter registration can occur in a safe and balanced way.

He said Afghans, regardless of their ethnic or political background, want all factions to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate. "This will be essential in order to clear the political arena of all factional militaries and to allow for political party activity to be carried out in accordance with the new constitution."

The Secretary-General's speech was one of several key addresses to the two-day summit, where Afghanistan's leaders, including President Hamid Karzai, are holding talks with the international community and seeking nearly $28 billions in financial support to help with the country's reconstruction.

In December 2001, shortly after the fall of the Taliban regime, a similar conference in Bonn mapped out the timetable for Afghanistan's transition to a stable, functioning democracy.

Today, the Secretary-General's Special Representative (SRSG) for Afghanistan, Jean Arnault, told the conference that the increasing numbers of Afghans who have registered to vote in this year's elections shows there is a tangible momentum away from scepticism and towards political participation.

Mr. Arnault said he was also heartened that the percentage of voters who are women has risen from 14 per cent three months ago to 28 per cent today, and that registration is taking place - so far confined to major cities only - across the large and ethnically diverse country.

The SRSG said the UN welcomed recent moves towards granting Afghans greater political freedoms, including the right of freedom of organization and expression, and instructing civil servants and military personnel to remain politically impartial.

But Mr. Arnault warned that the recent outbreak of deadly violence in the western city of Herat, once considered relatively stable, highlighted how important it is that rival factions are disarmed. The vast majority of Afghans no there can be no election without disarmament, he said.

"Afghans are determined not to maintain the status quo, but to put the past, the decades of war, lawlessness and the rule of the gun, behind them," Mr. Arnault said. "And they would resent nothing more than the prospect of an election tainted by interference, intimidation, corruption or violence."

Mark Malloch Brown, Administrator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), told the conference that already about $4.7 billion has been disbursed by international donors since a previous conference in Tokyo just over two years ago.

He said money is flowing into Afghanistan through government institutions and multilateral organizations, and trust is developing between them so that valuable long-standing relationships are being formed.

But Mr. Malloch Brown said there was still a lot of scope for greater involvement in UN or Afghan Government projects in education, health, refugee resettlement, security, community development and rural improvements.

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