19 Aug 2009

Afghan law change prompts deployment questions

3:15 pm on 19 August 2009

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully says he is urgently looking into whether a law severely curtailing women's rights in Afghanistan has been changed.

Opposition parties are questioning how New Zealand can send troops to Afghanistan after the government in Kabul approved a law removing a number of freedoms for Afghan women.

The Cabinet has approved the return of elite SAS troops, with three rotations of up to 70 personnel over 18 months. It also plans to withdraw the Provincial Reconstruction Team from Bamyan province over the next three to five years.

The newly passed law requires Afghan women to satisfy their husbands' sexual appetites, and allows a rapist to avoid prosecution by paying money to his victim or by marrying her.

Labour Party leader Phil Goff says the values of the current Afghan Government are such that it is hard to justify sacrificing New Zealand lives to protect what is happening in Afghanistan.

But Mr McCully says the Afghani President, Hamid Karzai, told him the law would be changed to be more acceptable to western values.

"I received some undertakings from President Karzai when I sat in his office and raised the matter with him," Mr McCully told Morning Report on Wednesday.

"I'm not prepared to jump to the conclusion that the president's done something that he indicated he wouldn't do until such time as we've had a good look at the law."

However Mr McCully says he's been unable to find out whether the law has been been changed and has asked for an English translation of it.

Parliamentary debate

On Tuesday, Mr McCully defended the Government's position during a snap debate in Parliament saying the decision was not made lightly.

"New Zealand nationals travel in planes; they stay in hotel rooms, they stay in resorts. Where terrorists strike around the world, the chances are New Zealanders will be at risk. All New Zealanders today have a strong interest in reducing the threat of international terrorism."

Mr McCully told MPs it is in New Zealand's interest to take part in the renewed international commitment in Afghanistan.

Green Party MP Keith Locke led the debate, saying his party opposes the redeployment of SAS troops.

Mr Locke told the House the Greens do not want New Zealand soldiers fighting and dying in an unjustifiable war that is not helping the Afghan people.

Maori Party MP Hone Harawira agreed that SAS troops should not be sent and questioned whether the decision was in New Zealand's best interests.

"In terms of our international responsibility every nation should examine its role in this so-called war on terror. And we do need to correct that phrase - because it's no longer a war on terror, it's a war of terror."

Mr Goff told MPs he could not understand why the Government is scaling back the reconstruction team, which is working well, and carries a lower risk than sending SAS troops.