Deborah Lyons, who joined as Canada’s Ambassador to Afghanistan in October 2013, speaks to Afghan Zariza about growing Afghan-Canadian ties, her country’s engagement in Afghanistan and her personal experience of serving in this country
Q. In your dispatch from Kabul in October 2013, you say when you were asked to be posted as Canada’s representative in Afghanistan, you knew the job would be both fulfilling and challenging. You accepted this job to “continue the legacy of Canadians who came before me and most notably those who have lost their lives.” How does it feel to represent your country in Afghanistan?
A. I am more than happy to represent my country here. Afghanistan and Canada have strong ties. Most children in Canada know about Afghanistan; they know Kandahar and other regions of Afghanistan as much as they know regions of Canada. We came here in early 2001. Our military came to support the process at that time and we have been here since then in a military mission, initially in a combat mission in southern Afghanistan, and also in Kabul working with international forces. After the combat mission was over, we moved to training mission. So we have had both involvement in combat operations and working with Afghan security forces to help them develop their own capability. That aspect has been very important to us and to our military. They have learnt a lot alongside Afghans. We are proud of the role we have played in training both Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP).
We have had many active development programs here. We have worked with Ministry of Public Health on healthcare services; we have done work in education, developing schools for both boys and girls and we have also worked with civil society here. So there are many aspects to the Canadian partnership with Afghanistan over the last 12 years and I consider myself lucky to have been chosen as ambassador at a time when we are going through a big transition. The legacy is deep, but it is also important to me that Canadians continue to care about Afghanistan, and continue to be involved here. So I also want to give feedback to my country about all the good things happening in Afghanistan and why it is important that we continue this partnership and the legacy.
Q. Can you elaborate on what is this ‘Canadian legacy’? How is this job ‘fulfilling and challenging’ at the same time?
A. It is very fulfilling. I have asked my government to extend my stay here for another year at least because this job has been most fulfilling. I love working with Afghan people . I love their spirit, resilience, determination and the fact that so many people are coming together to build their country after many decades of conflict. The job is also challenging because more than anything else there are not enough hours in the day. And it is such an important year, with security transition and political transition happening, which is going to bring about an economic transition too. For me, there are so many files to work on. The most challenging thing is to organize the day and get the work done. I think what we really need to focus on after elections is economic development. There were some legislations that we were hoping would be passed by the Parliament, but that did not happen, so with the new government and new parliament, we hope the legislations would be put in place, like the mining law and anti money laundering law. These things can help in building a feasible business environment because the next stage in Afghan-Canada partnership is about business and economics.
Q. In your dispatch, you also write about your plans to communicate with Afghans and the international community your position on issues like human rights, in particular the women’s rights, good governance and freedom of press. What is Canada’s position on women’s rights, good governance and freedom of the press?
A. As a female ambassador, I am inherently interested in women’s rights. But also my government, particularly the Minister of Foreign Affairs, has identified women’s empowerment throughout the world as one of his top priorities. So I have a great opportunity because of his support to work with both Afghan men and women to ensure the women in this country have enough opportunity to become educated, have access to healthcare, and encourage them to be politically active. So these are the areas we are concentrating on and I have great support from my government to use embassy resources to work with women’s organizations, with concerned Ministry, with media and society at large.
Regarding good governance, it is clear that any successful country has to have good solid institutions, in terms of its electorate, election process, Ministries, and civil society. We work hard to encourage active civil society and we work closely with Ministries here on host of issues. Thirdly, the freedom of press has impressed me since I have come here. It is a critical pillar for any progressive society. I see positive results and substantial progress in all these three spheres. But there are many other areas we need to work on.
Q. Canada’s current military engagement ends in 2014. What are your plans post-2014 for Afghanistan in areas like women’s rights, good governance, and freedom of press?
A. In terms of women’s rights, one area where we are working intensely right now is elections, encouraging women to go out and vote, and also encouraging female candidates for Provincial Council and the three vice presidential candidates to mobilize women voters across the country. We will continue to promote literacy for women. We will continue to work in the area of health, as malnutrition is a major issue for young children in Afghanistan. We want women to have information they need as mothers so that they have healthy children. For good governance, we will be working with the new government on new legislations to build a nice business environment for investments. Afghanistan can become a robust economy because of its rich resources, agriculture and talented people in arts and crafts. For all that we need to establish a solid business environment. We also have contacts with media groups, we meet at regular intervals and we will continue doing that. We are for free media and unbiased coverage that looks at issues from all perspectives.
Q. Canada has been working to advance gender equality in Afghanistan. Has the ground reality changed in terms of gender equality and women empowerment or is the status quo intact?
A. I had a meeting today with a group of women candidates running for Provincial Council, and I was telling them Afghanistan should be congratulated for having made fantastic progress in last 10 years. Afghan Constitution guarantees equal access for both men and women to education and healthcare, which is substantial. The Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) Law is in effect now. We need to make sure the law is implemented. We have eight million children in school and 40 percent of them are girls. There are around 2000 health clinics supporting women. I think there is a substantial progress and people should take heart from it. Now we have to make sure the progress is anchored and there is no falling back. We need to continue working with women parliamentarians to make sure they have the information they need. We need to create a good work environment for women in police force and support Ministry of Interior Affairs in that. Lastly, there is an active, vibrant religious community in Afghanistan. They need to come out and support women’s participation in social and political affairs.
Q. There is a large majority of female students who drop out of high school. How can Canada, a staunch supporter of women’s literacy, encourage and ensure these girls stay in school and pursue higher education and have bigger goals in life?
A. I have to admit that I did not realize that large numbers of girls are dropping out of high school. Firstly, we need to work closely with Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Ministry of Education and Ministry of Higher Education and find out why these girls are dropping out. Is it too difficult for them, is there any pressure from family, are they going into early marriage. Secondly, we have to see how we can encourage them to stay and finish their high school. These girls must see and emulate women who are active in society. Media can play an important role by promoting and highlighting the success stories of women in society, to get those images out there. Lastly, we have to demonstrate if you get the degree or diploma, there will be job opportunities.
Q. As a representative of your country in Afghanistan, how can you ensure participation of women in elections, who comprise almost half of the population here?
A. Our Foreign Minister is very particular about women’s participation in elections. We have developed a 7 point action plan. Firstly, I am doing a lot of regional outreach, going to various parts of country to encourage women to vote in both presidential and provincial council elections. Secondly, I have met most of the Presidential candidates to discuss women’s issues and encourage them to support women. I have been doing advocacy work, meeting various Ministers and making sure they encourage women to come out and vote. I have also been working with various civil society organizations and making sure they support our ideas. I am also working with media to build awareness about elections and importance of women’s participation. I am also meeting religious leaders to seek their cooperation and lastly I am working with female parliamentarians to discuss issues in their respective constituencies and see what help they require from us.
Q. How do you rate Hamid Karzai’s tenure in context of women’s rights, good governance, and freedom of press? What are your expectations from his successor?
A. Ambassadors do not generally rate politicians; it is a dangerous game. But I have had a positive relationship with the Afghan government. I met President Karzai soon after I came here and we had a great discussion about many issues. We have to recognize there has been real progress and President Karzai used his presidential decree to establish EVAW Law. We have worked closely with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs on host of issues. Afghan Constitution does guarantee equal access to men and women, so foundation is there. Good governance has been put in place but the struggle continues. Every government has to struggle to deal with issues of corruption, to make sure appointments are based on merit, to make sure they are responding to the needs of citizens. I think now we really have to build the Afghan economy and that is going to be the next challenge in the area of good governance. For human rights, there is Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), which has done exceptionally good work. Media in Afghanistan is vibrant and active. Our chief expectation from the new President is that the EVAW law must be implemented in letter and spirit and we must have information on how it is being applied.
Q. Canada has in the past also supported Taqnin (Legislative Drafting Dept.) of the Ministry of Justice. How will Canada help protect the gains made in drafting some laws, for example the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law, the prohibition of testifying against relative in the Criminal Code, and the return of stoning as punishment for women who are found guilty of adultery, that the government attempted to either amend or repeal? A. We will be working really hard in this area. We will be monitoring any legislation coming forward. We will be working with the Ministry of Justice, various human rights commissions, women’s organizations and media to identify any loopholes in new legislations. We will be looking at our position on those issues and make sure laws do support and protect women against violence. For EVAM law, we will continue working with Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and make sure it is implemented soon. The new President has to take personal interest in it and make sure the concerned Ministries are focused on it.
Q. How do you see Afghanistan’s relations with Canada? A. We share a very deep relationship. As I said, Canadian children know a lot about Afghanistan. We have more than 100,000 Afghans living in Canada and there are many Canadians here in Afghanistan as well. Our friendship is now taking a news shape. The security work has been completed but we will continue our diplomatic, development and business relationships. So it is a deep relationship that will continue to grow in coming years. We are here and we will continue to work with Afghans to build this country and ensure brighter future for Afghans that they so richly deserve. Q. How can peace and normalcy return to Afghanistan? A. We have seen Afghan National Army in recent past doing really well and that has given people a lot of hope and confidence. Our military has been very pleased with the training they have done with Afghan army. Security will be one of the top priorities for the new President. We need to continue work in policing and establish a professional, well-trained and well-supported police force. Canada has committed to provide 300 million dollars for the next three years to support the Afghan security forces. I am confident the other members of the international community are also going to continue supporting the ANSF. To attract economic investments, there has to be a sense of security. Q. At present, what is the biggest challenge for Afghan women? How do you envision their future? A. Security continues to be one of the biggest challenges. Literacy is also a big challenge for women. Participation in political process is another challenge. Women have to have their voice heard in parliament and women candidates in provincial council must be equipped to play a stronger role. Economic empowerment is again a challenge. Women need to grab opportunities to make it big. The future holds bright for these women. They have the strength, determination and resilience. It is the matter of believing in themselves and knowing they can do it. Q. You are the only female country ambassador serving in Afghanistan. Tell us a little bit about yourself? A. I grew up in a rural area in one of the poorest regions of Canada. We had a large family and no money. But we had good values and my parents very focused on our education so me and my siblings managed to get good education. Government also helped with educational scholarships. I used to run couple of businesses in my early days and was successful in that. I became interested in politics and joined government at a time when the environmental issues were very strong and became very involved as an environmentalist. Then I moved to economic development and was committed to my region that was relatively poorer than other regions in Canada. I did that work for 10 years. After that, I joined Foreign Service and had postings in Japan and Washington before coming to Kabul, a place I always wanted to come to. Q. You started your career as a small-time business entrepreneur. How was it running your own business? And what was the motivation of joining the government? A. It was a wonderful professional experience. When you have your own business you learn some important things. Firstly, you know you have to work hard for business to survive. Secondly, you learn how to work with people around you. You learn that your staff is your most important asset. These were important things for me to learn. I had tourism business and management consulting business. It gave me tremendous opportunity to learn how to be a strong manager. Then the government offered me a terrific opportunity when I first became interested in environmental movement, I transferred to government at a fairly senior level and worked in the area of energy management and energy conservation. Then my focus shifted to economic development and eventually the Foreign Service happened. I joined government because I felt I wanted to contribute more to my society. I wanted to get involved in policy issues and to be part of the federal government gave me that opportunity. After seven years into Foreign Service, I was asked to represent Canada around the world. I do not say Canada is the best country but it certainly has lot of offer and it is exciting to represent my country around the world. Q. Many people in Afghanistan fear that the international community is going to abandon them post-2014. As a representative of Canada, what is your message to the people of Afghanistan? A. From the Canadian perspective, I want to tell the people of Afghanistan that we are still here and we plan to stay as long as Afghan people want us to. It is a military shift happening in 2014. On a development level, there is much work for us to do here. The embassy of Canada is going to stay here and continue to work in those areas. We have had a wonderful experience working with Afghan people in last 12 years and we are going to continue this relationship for many more years to come and I am sure that is true for many other members of international community.
The legacy is deep, but it is also important to me that Canadians continue to care about Afghanistan, and continue to be involved here .
Afghanistan can become a robust economy because of its rich resources, agriculture and talented people in arts and crafts.
Media can play an important role by promoting and highlighting the success stories of women in society, to get those images out there.
From the Canadian perspective, I want to tell the people of Afghanistan that we are still here and we plan to stay as long as Afghan people want us to.