H.E. Adela Raz is the first woman to serve as Afghanistan’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations. That alone would be a historical landmark. Born in 1986, she is also among the youngest members of the ambassadorial corps at the United Nations. Just 15 years ago she was a first year student entering university and the first person in her family to study in the United States.
In an early statement when her appointment as UN ambassador was announced, Raz made clear her commitment to the future of her country: “It is a new Afghanistan when we, the younger generation, stand together to preserve our achievements and work for the betterment of this country.” Afghanistan today is a surprisingly young country. More than 60% of the population is under 25-years old, and just less than half the population is under 15-years old.
“Despite all that has gone wrong in Afghanistan and all the challenges we have,” Ambassador Raz reflects, “one thing that has gone right is that compared to the youth in the region the young people of Afghanistan are more aware, more critical of war and more pro-peace. For us, conflict is not acceptable. Conflict has seriously delayed our country’s development. Conflict is personal. We understand how brutal it is. Every family has paid the price of losing family members.”
Ambassador Raz has always taken substantial risks to pursue her education. Officially denied educational opportunity under the Taliban’s restrictive policies limiting the education of girls, she continued her education in unofficial home schools operating secretly. She even risked running her own home school teaching young girls in her family’s living room.
Offered a scholarship under the auspices of the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women (IEAW) to study at Simmons College in Boston, Ambassador Raz initially struggled with higher level lectures and complex textbooks in English. Determined to succeed however, she began recording lectures, repeatedly playing them back and taking careful notes to ensure that she thoroughly understood the material her professors were presenting. Four years later she was graduating with honors and a triple major in international relations, political science and economics.
From there it was on to Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where she earned both a Master’s degree and a Certificate in International Development. After graduating from Fletcher, Ambassador Raz spent two years working with an international development organization in the United States where her focus was on projects in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Though her formal education and initial professional experience took place over a span of eight years in the United States, Ambassador Raz balanced that time away from Afghanistan by devotedly returning home each summer. “Every summer,” she recalls, “I would be back in Afghanistan working for an international organization – either the United Nations, the U.S. Embassy, or later with CARE International. I was never totally disconnected from what was happening at home.” Much of that work involved liaising between international organizations working in Afghanistan and various government ministries as they sought to encourage and facilitate the participation of women in that country’s political, economic and social development.
In 2013, Ambassador Raz was appointed by then President Hamid Karzai as the first female Deputy Spokesperson and Director of Communications for the Office of the President. When President Ashraf Ghani took office following the 2014 presidential election, she was named as Chief of Staff at the Administrative Office of the President. Then, in 2016, she was appointed Deputy Minister for Economic Cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In that position Ambassador Raz represented Afghanistan in a wide variety of international conferences and development related forums. She played a leading role in convening and negotiating two Afghan-centered regional cooperation platforms – the Regional Economic Cooperation Conferences on Afghanistan (RECCA) and the Heart of Asia – Istanbul Process (HoA-IP) both designed to assist a modernizing Afghanistan to reach out beyond its land-locked geographic situation by establishing major avenues of communication and commerce with Central and South Asia and thence to Europe and East Asia.
Such regional efforts, Ambassador Raz insists, offer “models of cooperation where cooperation might not be expected. Our efforts,” she continues, “have been quite genuine, especially on the economic development side. We are pursuing the notion of Afghanistan as an overland bridge for pipelines and for shipping, using air freight and potential rail links to move goods and pipelines to move energy from Central Asia to ports in Pakistan, India or Iran. That sort of collaboration,” she adds, “helps to build the confidence that countries need to have in each other if they are to move on to more critical issues.”
Ambassador Raz’s rapid rise in government and diplomacy is testimony to her diligence, skill and remarkable poise. Her ambitious agenda reveals both the complexities of peacemaking in a historically conflicted area and the visionary energy of youth that is often necessary to turn hopes into realities. Her appointment as her country’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations is concrete evidence of the Afghan government’s commitment to bringing women and young professionals into the work of governing their country.
We are pleased that she made time for Diplomatic Connections in her whirlwind schedule to share her thoughts with our readers.
Diplomatic Connections: Afghanistan has for centuries been a preoccupation of history – the British, the Russians, the Americans, the Russians again, the Americans again – what is the attraction of Afghanistan to the world?
Ambassador Raz: Geographically, Afghanistan is very strategically located. It was historically a center of civilization and a crossroads for many great cultures and religious traditions. Afghanistan is physically, culturally and religiously at the very heart of Asia and the place where Asia and the West intersect.
Being in the midst of all of these civilizations plays an important role in explaining why Afghanistan has such a rich culture and history. The territory is quite mountainous, and Afghanistan sits astride many of the key mountain passes that make transit and commerce possible. The result is that Afghanistan is a very diverse community, and the Afghan people are the product of these multiple cultural influences.
It is unfortunate that recent conflicts have destroyed so much of the cultural richness and remarkable diversity.
Diplomatic Connections: You are the first woman to serve as Afghanistan’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Does being first pose any additional responsibilities for you?
Ambassador Raz: Being named my country’s Ambassador in New York is an honor for me, and I am very grateful for the decision that was made by his Excellency the President, Mr. Ashraf Ghani. But, there is nothing special about me. It is just the reality of change and transformation happening in Afghanistan.
The abilities of women are being recognized, and the capabilities of women in Afghanistan are expanding exponentially through new opportunities in education and advanced training. More Afghan women have the opportunity to study abroad, advanced education is expanding in Afghanistan, and more and more girl children are able to complete their education through secondary school.
Diplomatic Connections: You have joined the ranks of a limited number of women who serve as their country’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative at the United Nations. Does that place an added burden on you?
Ambassador Raz: Women increasingly play a central role in today’s diplomacy. Women are very good at multi-tasking because that is the way we are raised – being a mother, working outside the home, being a complement to our partner in life, being a sister and being a daughter. We learn to respond to all of these competing and overlapping roles as part of the expectations that culture and the world have for us.
These traits translate well to the work of diplomacy. A good diplomat must have a high level of adaptability, a high level of knowledge about their country and a strong grasp of the subject matter on which they’re working. At the same time, a good diplomat must have knowledge not only of specific issues but also an awareness of the wider global situation spanning many different areas and concerns.
Diplomatic Connections: Do women bring special gifts to the work of diplomacy?
Ambassador Raz: Diplomacy is not a gendered enterprise. The expectations of women diplomats are really no different than the expectations for men building diplomatic careers. Where there are differences, they are differences in emphasis not differences of kind. Women may be more detail oriented. They may be somewhat better listeners and more empathetic with the groups of people – men, women and children – with whom they are dealing.
Diplomatic Connections: Afghanistan was the 52nd founding member of the United Nations in 1946. What is the basic importance of the United Nations to Afghanistan’s security and economic development?
Ambassador Raz: When Afghanistan joined the United Nations our country was very committed to the values of the United Nations Charter and the subsequent Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We firmly believed in multilateralism and its ability to advance the cause of stability and peace in the world. We still believe in those principles.
The role of the United Nations in Afghanistan is more critical today than it was at the time the organization was founded. Due to the 40 years of conflict that Afghanistan has gone through, our economic development has stagnated, and both our internal and external security concerns have posed difficult challenges. Now our efforts must be directed toward trying to catch-up.
The United Nations is a vital partner in Afghanistan’s efforts to shape a stable peace, preserve our culture, energize our economy and offer advancement to our people.
Diplomatic Connections: The United Nations seems constantly under criticism from voices of resurgent nationalism around the world that disparage the effectiveness of multilateral efforts. How would you defend the United Nations from its critics?
Ambassador Raz: The United Nations will never be as efficient as its critics assert it should be both because the world is constantly changing and because the UN is a very big organization that includes most of the world’s nations, dramatically differing cultures and political systems, and extraordinarily diverse points of view. That is simply the reality of our world. We must have that internal reflection, however uncomfortable it may be, in order to discover how the United Nations might continue to refine and improve its operations.
Diplomatic Connections: What about the specific problem of resurgent nationalism?
Ambassador Raz: The global trend is swinging toward a more nationalistic competition between states, and that is troubling. Perhaps this is part of the search for a new international paradigm to describe the competitive political space that has emerged following the demise of the Cold War world and its comfortable bipolarity.
That is an important part of discussions at the United Nations today. How do we respond to the dramatic changes that have taken place in the world over the last three decades? How do we pursue economic and political justice, deal with issues like global public health, climate change, trade, development and human rights, the whole spectrum of the millennial development goals and at the same time deal with competition between a changing cast of leading global powers?
Diplomatic Connections: What has been the impact of the United Nations Assistance Mission (UNAMA) on Afghanistan’s political, social and economic life since that mission was established in 2002?
Ambassador Raz: UNAMA has assisted our country in many ways – advancing our education system, encouraging the process of drafting a new constitution, establishing election procedures, improving our infrastructure and, of course, coordinating the activities of the many different United Nations agencies that are working in Afghanistan. The so-called “transformational goal” of all UN programs in Afghanistan is to work toward full assumption of leadership and full ownership of all developmental, governance and security programs in the country by the Afghan government.
Diplomatic Connections: You actually worked for UNAMA earlier in your career. How does that grassroots experience with UNAMA inform your presence at the United Nations today?
Ambassador Raz: My experience has been very much welcomed by my UN colleagues. They respect that I have lived my country’s turmoil and have directly participated in the national and international efforts to build a better life for the Afghan people. That experience helps me explain complex Afghan issues to other UN representatives, and it lends credibility to suggestions my government might make regarding future assistance from the United Nations system and member states.
Diplomatic Connections: What was involved in your work with UNAMA?
Ambassador Raz: I shared in the experience of the first Constitutional Loya Jirga in Afghanistan as an example. That document was more than a year in the drafting and today, fifteen years after its adoption, the constitution remains an important document whose meaning is shaped by internal circumstances and shifting political realities. Very few people have the privilege in their career of being part of the constitutional drafting process, watching it move through the stages of political approval, and then seeing it interpreted, applied and implemented on the ground.
During my time with UNAMA, Afghanistan was preparing for the first presidential election, and the UN role in establishing basic election procedures was of critical importance. I could see those procedures take shape, understand the difficulties that staging a county-wide election presented, and then watch those procedures being utilized as the election of a president took place.
Diplomatic Connections: Now you are in New York representing Afghanistan’s interests before the United Nations General Assembly and the UN specialized agencies. What are the key items on your agenda?
Ambassador Raz: The day-to-day job here in New York is defined by the urgent national priorities that Afghanistan has laid out in its policy planning process – security, political development, economic development, social development. My country has lost 40 years of development and growth trapped in internal conflicts while the rest of the world has moved on.
In truth, almost every item on the UN agenda is a priority for us precisely because we are catching up. But with that in mind Afghanistan must still set priorities within priorities. Internal security must be at the top of our list because without effective internal security none of the other priorities can make progress. After decades of conflict, which have often destroyed infrastructure and undermined earlier development successes, Afghans want to be able to focus on rebuilding their country within a stable, conflict free environment that focuses on helping them reestablish, sustain, and improve their lives.
Diplomatic Connections: Beyond security what are some other priority issues you have identified?
Ambassador Raz: Afghanistan should take a leading role in promoting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. No doubt Afghanistan will benefit from these efforts, but it is also the case that Afghanistan can bring valuable experience to the work of implementing these goals in a post-conflict society and in the midst of deeply rooted traditional cultural norms and varying interpretations of Islamic identity.
Gender equality is also very important to my country’s development. Meeting with President Ghani before coming to New York we identified three priority areas: education for girls and women, better utilizing the skills of women in the continuing development and modernization of Afghanistan, and the importance of involving women’s voices in the Afghan peace process.
Afghanistan needs to become more involved in climate conversations because climate change can have a very direct impact on our development priorities. The voices of countries like Afghanistan that will feel the impact of rising temperatures and changing climate need to be heard.
Diplomatic Connections: What are the effects of climate change on your country?
Ambassador Raz: Afghanistan is among the top ten countries being affected by global warming and climate change. At the same time, we are among the countries with the lowest levels of greenhouse gas carbon emissions. Countries like Afghanistan are the proverbial “canary in the mineshaft.” Our experience with climate change represents an early warning system and an opportunity to develop appropriate responses.
As global temperatures rise, Afghanistan’s climate changes and the seasons on which we depend for water are disrupted. We have experienced three years of drought followed this year by torrential rains falling on desiccated, treeless land. Our problem is controlling, storing and distributing water because snowmelt and rainfall are so seasonal. This year’s floods were especially destructive and uprooted many families.
Ironically, the levels in our underground aquifers are going down as well. Over the next 50 years the water level will go down even further, not only in Afghanistan but across our region. With this in mind, the issue of transboundary water has become a highly politicized discussion. Water can become another source of instability in Central Asia if we are not prepared for these realities.
Diplomatic Connections: Whenever agriculture in Afghanistan is discussed inevitably the question of the drug trade and opium poppy production must be raised. Bluntly, it is often the case that growing poppies and producing opium is a much more lucrative agricultural enterprise than producing other crops.
How does Afghanistan tackle the issue of the opium poppy and agriculture in the economy in order to transition to other kinds of cash crops?
Ambassador Raz: We do not deny the central role that opium poppy production currently plays in Afghanistan’s agricultural economy.
At the core of drug production is a simple economic calculation. Despite the great pressure that we bring on people not to grow poppies there are two driving factors that push farmers toward poppy production. First is the issue of water supplies. One World Bank study suggested that when the farmers have adequate water supplies, they grow wheat. But, if the rivers are dry, then the farmers grow poppies because poppies do not require a great deal of water.
Second, there is pressure on individuals not to grow poppies but there is also pressure from the markets that encourage poppy production and the resulting opium and heroin. Production, processing, treatment, demand, sale and consumption are all part of a complex – and profitable – supply chain that is not easy to break. We need a comprehensive, collective regional and international approach to scrutinize the demand and supply chain of poppy cultivation and narcotics trafficking, especially the markets outside of Afghanistan.
We need to find and develop substitute crops that will have a market, be profitable and be dependable enough to generate a farm to market to consumer supply chain. Right now we have a few alternatives – wheat and saffron for example – but we need to offer farmers more options that are sustainable and economically viable.
Diplomatic Connections: Can the militant Islamic stance of the Taliban be included in a peace process that will result in security and stability for your country?
Ambassador Raz: Peace is a possibility. In 2018, for the first time, under the leadership of H.E. President Ghani, there was a 3-day truce – a ceasefire during Eid al-Fitr, the celebration acknowledging the end of the holy month of Ramadan. During that time 20,000 Taliban came to the big cities, and these cities were able to absorb them without a single incidence of violence being reported. That suggests that many of the Taliban foot-soldiers want to stop fighting, to be part of the peace process and to reintegrate into society. It was an indication that there is a readiness on the part of the public – from both fronts – to end the war. That is why we are taking the discussions with the Taliban seriously.
However, we need to know that the Taliban leadership has a firm and genuine commitment to peace. We are not sure if they are committed to preserving the Afghan constitution, which is an important pillar of the New Afghanistan. They are often suspicious of any kind of reform that might accept and encourage cultural change.
Still, there does seem to be willingness on both sides to talk and some hints of a greater willingness to negotiate. Everyone would like to see the long years of conflict come to an end.
Diplomatic Connections: Afghanistan’s First Lady, Rula Ghani, has noted that women have been largely excluded from the peacemaking effort. The record of the Taliban regarding the rights of women has been quite harsh. How can the rights of women be protected in any peace agreement that might be reached?
Ambassador Raz: The government of President Ghani has a very clear commitment to the inclusion of women in the peace talks and beyond that to secure the rights of women in any peace agreement. The United Nations has been very vocal in the discussions about the rights of women in Afghanistan as well as the rights of minorities and all human beings. These calls must be strengthened. We must make sure that our gains of the last 18-years, including women’s rights, are not lost in the peace talks with the Taliban.
Afghanistan now has a constitution that seeks to protect these rights and, at the same time, declares Islam to be the state religion while protecting the freedom to practice other faiths. Reconciling Afghanistan’s international commitment to women’s rights, human rights and its commitments to Islamic law, culture and civilization is a delicate balancing task at best. What must be done in any peace agreement is to create safe spaces where women themselves can have different interpretations of rights yet still live alongside each other and live together within the larger tent of Islamic civilization.
Diplomatic Connections: Though you are early in your diplomatic career, you have clearly accomplished a great deal. What lessons have you learned that you would wish to pass on to the youth of Afghanistan, especially to aspiring young diplomats?
Ambassador Raz: One lesson I learned is that the more women move toward leadership positions, the more hurdles and obstacles there will be. We should not be surprised by these realities. We need to turn to more experienced women colleagues to help us understand the impediments they encountered and how they responded to them. There’s no question that one of the most important things I have learned is the value of building a network with my female colleagues. If we are cohesive as women in diplomacy and respectful of each other, we will be able to hone our professional skills and become ever stronger.
There is always a temptation to believe that one person’s view does not matter, but actually it does matter. It matters to our country, our leaders and to the diplomats to whom we speak. It is important that we express ourselves and our views, or the official views of our country, to our counterparts in the right way.
It is important to have a clear commitment and an explicit vision for ourselves and the course we want to see our country follow. Once we have that focused vision, then climbing the path towards realizing those goals is difficult but not impossible.
Diplomatic Connections: Thank you, Ambassador Raz. We wish the best for you and for the Afghan people in the stressful but hopefully fruitful work of shaping a viable peace and laying out a vision for a new Afghanistan that successfully melds tradition and development.