Acceptance Speech

Caroline Kennedy, Senator Kennedy, members of the Selection Committee, Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Library, family and friends.

A journalist this winter asked me what do I consider to be my biggest success - of what achievement am I most proud? My answer is that my greatest success is that I am still alive, that I am still in Afghanistan and that I am still imposing myself on the men in power.

I am proud to accept this very prestigious award from the Kennedy family. It is an honor to be with members of a family who have dedicated their lives to social justice and with all of you who are committed to keeping this legacy alive. I accept this award on behalf of the women of Afghanistan who cannot be here to speak for themselves - women who have had the courage to survive war, the death of loved ones, destruction of their homes, persecution as members of ethnic minority groups, and oppression because they are women.

No environment has been more hostile to women's rights than Afghanistan. Afghanistan has always been a patriarchal society, but 23 years of war destroyed the progress that women had begun to make in the 1960s and 1970s. Fundamentalism was built and supported by outside countries as the strategy to fight the communists. This strategy had horrible consequences for women in our country. With the claim of upholding Afghan culture and observing Islamic values, men victimized women more with impunity.

Throughout my life, I have had to struggle against Afghanistan's patriarchal society and against the fundamentalist forces that have held power in this country, within my own family and with the society.

I have faced death threats throughout my life, for trying to live my life as a woman and for helping other women try to live theirs.

From my family - because I was not obedient to the culture. From the fundamentalists in Pakistan and Afghanistan - when I would not cease my advocacy for women's rights. From the Taliban - when I defied their decrees, continued to keep my girls' schools open and to provide health care to women, and spoke out against their atrocities. From some within the post-Taliban interim Afghan administration - when I advocated for the rights of women as Minister of Women's Affairs and when I defeated other candidates to become Deputy Chair of the Emergency Loya Jirga even after the fundamentalists had slandered me for being "un-Islamic."

But I am still here today and am still working to secure women's rights, human rights, and justice in Afghanistan.

I come before you today to express my appreciation for this great honor. But also I come to share with you my very deep concerns about the future of Afghanistan. Without more support from the international community, I am not sure that women's rights, human rights, and justice will be possible in Afghanistan.

Sometimes the impression is given that with the fall of the Taliban, Afghan women are now "liberated" or "free." I wish that this would be the case, but so far women's rights in reality and peace are still dreams in our country.

Afghanistan is a country where using the words "women's rights" and "human rights" was a crime not long ago. It is a country where the gun still rules. Violations of women's rights and human rights are constant.

Girls' schools are set on fire by fundamentalists who seek to stop parents from sending girls to school and teachers from teaching them.

Aid workers are being murdered for helping with reconstruction.

Trafficking of women and children continues.

Tactics of intimidation are used to stop people and especially women from exercising their human rights.

Prisons - many of which are not authorized - detain women and men illegally.

Our courts are markets, where so-called justice can be bought.

In the face of forced marriages and hopelessness about their lives, young women are committing suicide by self-immolation.

And these horrible violations of human rights continue with almost absolute impunity.

There can be no peace without justice in Afghanistan. There must be accountability for the human rights violations of the past and the present. Without accountability and without justice, the culture of impunity will continue.

Some people think that our silence about the past violations is necessary for the stability of the government and for security. But, as we saw under the Taliban, security based on human rights violations is not security for the people at all. It is only security for those in power and for those who hold the guns.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, which I chair, is leading a national consultation process that will recommend to the President a mechanism to deal with the human rights violations of the past and to stop the culture of impunity.

Tonight I would like to take the opportunity to appeal for more courage from world leaders to help us to achieve justice in Afghanistan. If leaders within the international community will not use the word "justice" and if they allow this culture of impunity to continue, what chance do we have of securing justice and human rights in Afghanistan?

We cannot forget that many of the human rights violations were caused by people from outside of our country, which is why the international community has an obligation to take some of the responsibility and assume some of the risk of holding violators accountable for their actions. The international community itself cannot afford to turn its back on Afghanistan again, as they did when the Soviets withdrew.

One of the main reasons advances for women's rights and human rights in our country are so fragile is the lack of security. Demobilization, Disarmament, and Rehabilitation, known as DDR, has to be accelerated and the rule of law promoted to ensure respect for human rights and women's rights. Right now, DDR is more hope than reality. Last fall, Afghanistan was again promised an expansion of peace keeping forces. But few new peace troops have been deployed. We really need help from the international community to send more peace troops to different parts of the country who can start disarming the political parties.

We also need a lot more money for reconstruction if we really want to bring democracy and peace to the country and give women and girls rights - at least the basic human rights such as access to education and health care. We must construct and repair schools across the country so girls finally have a chance to learn and so that madrassas are not the only "educational" options for boys. We also need job opportunities for men so they will put down their kaliznokovs and for women so they can help feed themselves and their children.

Despite the threats, we have continued to stand up for ourselves, for women's rights, and for a peaceful and democratic Afghanistan. Someone has to take the risk in our country if women and girls are to have freedom in the future. We need the solidarity of women's rights and human rights advocates such as yourselves to wage this struggle. I hope for peace, equality, justice, and a non-violent world. Thank you for the honor of this award and of being with you today.

Remarks delivered by Dr. Sima Samar
Chair, Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, on May 24, 2004 at the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award Ceremony.