The internal conditions of Afghanistan have taken the worst course possible, looming at the edge of a humanitarian crisis. The international community needs to quickly take measures that would alleviate the situation.
Putting aside the debate of how the war in Afghanistan started and ended, two decades of war and violence have inflicted visible consequences on the people. Prior to the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan was stuck in many issues including violent conflict, climate change, the COVID pandemic and poverty among others. As a result of the direct war, around 71,433 civilians have been killed besides hunger, disease and injuries caused. The prevailing situation in Afghanistan is still destroying the lives of millions of Afghans. They are trapped in a battle of survival and bone-jarring trauma.
In the conflict-wracked country, the general economic sanctions are further exacerbating the mass sufferings and adding to the pre-existing crisis. Afghanistan’s economy is heavily dependent on foreign aid, which accounts to 40-45% of the country’s GDP, including health and educational services. After the Taliban takeover, freezing of assets by the Biden Administration, financial aid cut-offs (by the IMF and World Bank) and other countries including the European Union and United Kingdom shook the already fragile economy. Social, economic and health impacts of the pandemic were felt across the country and undermined the coping capacity of the vulnerable population. Additionally, regional economic decline, migrants’ return, population growth and internal displacement further increased the strain on its economy.
In addition, trade disruption caused shortage of goods and medicines. In September, Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) released two general licenses (GLs) for continued flow of humanitarian aid in Afghanistan. However, it lacks clarity in application and scope for broader civil society programs. The U.S. sanctions have further complicated the situation along with a widespread indecisiveness among relief agencies to operate freely. Aid agencies have to engage all the groups in the humanitarian crisis situation for effectiveness. The U.S. has also enlisted the Taliban as Specially Designated Terrorist Groups (SGDTs). The Taliban takeover has put aid agencies, primarily the financial aid institution, in an uncertainty over how the term applies to the Taliban now and to whom do the sanctions apply, i.e., the whole government (ministries) or the self-identified members.
The financial crisis has especially affected women and girls for whom access to healthcare, food and financial resources is already a challenge.
The limited scope of exemption and sanction policies have endangered the Afghan people through famine and deprivations and have further added to their miseries. Afghanistan, as one of the poorest countries with a fragile health system and economic conditions, is heavily dependent on foreign assistance. According to the World Food Programme (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), more than 22 million (accounts to half the country) are on the verge of a famine, leading towards a catastrophe.
In Afghanistan, decades of conflict has inflicted mental distress and physical trauma on the people. Children and women continue to bear the brunt of the war. Afghan children have been exposed to violence as a part of their daily lives and have lived in continuous fear. Such daily direct and indirect combat related events and fear have led to mental distress and trauma. According to a European Union commissioned study, nearly half of the Afghanis are living through depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to the war and violence. The displaced children encounter additional risks during escapes and transits. Hence, in either case, they are caught in a loop. Due to the poor economic conditions, they are growing in a deprived environment and need grave mental health support. For their physical and psychological development, they require a peaceful environment both at home and as refugees.
Humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence provided the foundation for action in times of humanitarian crises to provide assistance without discrimination. As humanitarian assistance is always required in difficult political and militarized environments, therefore, adherence to principles is essential to differentiate humanitarian actions from other actors involved.
Women face additional challenges as they already have limited access to life saving services. The rate of access to obstetric services in Afghanistan is only 50%, which is much lower as compared to other low-income countries where it is 70-80%. Refugee women are also exposed to a number of health risks and are living in harsh conditions.
The combined effects of malnutrition and lack of access to humanitarian aid have worsened the food security situation in the country. According to the latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report issued by the Food Security and Agriculture Cluster of Afghanistan, co-led by the FAO and WFP, around 19 million people faced acute food insecurity (i.e., IPC phase 3 or above) in September and October. This is a 30% increase from the previous year (14.5 million people) and the highest number recorded in the past ten years. Among those at risks are 3.2 million Afghan children under 5 and women who are likely to face severe malnutrition with an already low access to nutrition services. WFP and UNICEF alerted that about 1 million children, if not given urgent lifesaving treatment, are at risk of dying from malnutrition. Due to the worsening economic conditions, people are using alternative harmful mechanisms such as child labor, forced marriages and other methods to offset financial burdens which have consequently disrupted the education system for children across Afghanistan.
Access to water, sanitation and hygiene supplies is another challenge that people have been facing. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), refugees, and people in rural areas are most exposed to the risks posed by insufficient sanitation facilities, unsafe water and unhygienic conditions. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Community-Based Needs Assessment Summary 2020, more than 70% of the population has no access to sanitation and safe water. Various supply and demand-related barriers and constraints to humanitarian access could further disrupt the available services.
Dominik Stillhart, Director of Operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) recounted the miseries of the Afghan children and parents after his visit to Afghanistan in November as ‘infuriating.’
Inadequate pandemic preventive and containment measures are also causing great concerns. Constraints affect the delivery and access of the people – particularly the displaced and in far rural areas – to health services and assistance.
In 2018 and 2019, climate change was a major reason for humanitarian assistance needs. This year, Afghanistan declared a drought emergency that affected millions across the country. Moreover, heavy rainfalls also caused unseasonal flooding in various parts of the country, affecting more than 28,000 people in 2021 alone.
Endemic poverty is another challenge for the Afghanis. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) 2021 report, half of the Afghans are living below the poverty line which equals to 1$ per day. By the end of 2021, 93% of the population was predicted to be living on less than 2$ per day.
Thus, the overall coping capacity is very low in the country and further aggravations and constraints will hugely impact the pre-existing humanitarian conditions that are rapidly deteriorating. The impact of sanctions on the flow and supply of funds and relief aid are raising huge concerns as half of the children under five are already facing acute malnutrition. The financial crisis has especially affected women and girls for whom access to healthcare, food and financial resources is already a challenge. Sanctions have made it difficult for the Taliban government to pay salaries or import essential goods.
Considering the grave humanitarian assistance needs, Pakistan dispatched medical and food aid to Afghanistan and urged the international community to play an active role in averting the humanitarian crisis. Pakistan also established a 300-bed tertiary-care health facility and committed $5 billion in aid to Afghanistan besides several trade and travel concessions.
Aid organizations had already warned of humanitarian crisis as ‘alarming’ for the winter season. If the aid could not reach the affected the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) predicted that poverty shall be widespread in Afghanistan by mid-2022. Hence, the sanctions have further complicated the already complex situation. There is an urgent need for a coordinated international humanitarian response.
Humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence provided the foundation for action in times of humanitarian crises to provide assistance without discrimination. As humanitarian assistance is always required in difficult political and militarized environments, therefore, adherence to principles is essential to differentiate humanitarian actions from other actors involved. Adherence to principles is significant for organizations to secure acceptance from actors on ground. This acceptance is needed to ensure the safe and sustained access to the affected people who are in need the most and permits the humanitarian actors to undertake monitoring and distribution directly.
Dominik Stillhart, Director of Operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), recounted the miseries of Afghan children and parents after his visit to Afghanistan in November as ‘infuriating.’ The man-made sufferings he witnessed were catastrophic. Sanctions are taking the country towards a total collapse that can only be prevented through engagement and impartiality.
Considering the grave humanitarian assistance needs, Pakistan dispatched medical and food aid to Afghanistan and urged the international community to play an active role in averting the humanitarian crisis. Pakistan also established a 300-bed tertiary-care health facility and committed $5 billion in aid to Afghanistan besides several trade and travel concessions. Pakistan begun supplying free medical supplies and set up the Afghan relief fund for donations to provide assistance for Afghanistan. For the Afghan students, Pakistan has prepared over Rs. 11 billion package in order to improve the education sector besides the development of skills. As a part of the package, the country will offer thousands of scholarships to Afghan students besides opening a campus of Allama Iqbal Open University in Kabul. Pakistan has also authorized the transport of food aid coming from India through Pakistan to Afghanistan.
The OIC CFM Extraordinary Session held in December was successful in focusing attention on the need for immediate humanitarian and economic assistance for Afghanistan. Thereafter, the Government of Japan announced its plan to contribute approximately USD 109 million to address the escalating humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and the affected neighboring countries. The Saudi Foreign Minister also announced one billion Riyals in aid to Afghanistan.
FAO and WFP had already warned the world of the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and the funding shortfalls. People of Afghanistan, with no jobs, cash or further prospects are in dire need of immediate financial support. The current funding is a drop in the ocean considering the Afghan peoples’ sufferings in the harsh weather. In the existing situation, merely verbal assurances won’t benefit the people of Afghanistan.
United Nations General Assembly Resolution 48/144 considers that ‘the promotion and the protection of all human rights is one of the priorities of the international community.’ In non-international armed conflicts, people who do not take part in aggression have the right to humanitarian assistance. Humane and non-discriminatory treatment are two protections offered in the Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention. Right to aid also flows through the international humanitarian law including the right to food and water in cases of natural or other disasters categorized under the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Hence, states have an obligation to ensure this right. The Taliban, with effective territorial control, have obligations to fulfil by allowing and facilitating humanitarian relief. The ICRC Customary International Humanitarian Law Database Rule 55 and 56 and Article 18(2) of Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions detail the obligations of parties to facilitate access to humanitarian relief for the people in need.
Existing humanitarian efforts by the international community in Afghanistan are unsustainable and insufficient. Therefore, establishing a humanitarian financial corridor – although difficult – is necessary. Establishing the corridor, given the existing sanctions against the Taliban, would require practitioners with technical understanding of the international financial regulations and the process will essentially involve all the parties.
OFAC, as a first step, should make clear the scope and application of GLs. The U.S. also needs to clarify the scope of their sanctions; whether the sanctions apply to members only or also prohibit the subsequent dealing with ministries under them. Most essentially, bans on banking services are throwing the economy into a free-fall and have slowed down the bilateral aid. U.S., along with various international partners and financial institutions, should establish a safe financial access channel to support the humanitarian assistance and devise a safer system for the transfer of funds. Consequently, to meet the scale of needs, the world needs to engage now and that is the only way to prevent Afghanistan from collapse and save millions of Afghanis from despair.
The writer is an expert on international law and human rights with a special focus on South Asia and Kashmir. She is also the Editor for Asian Journal of Law and Society, Cambridge University Press.
E-mail: [email protected]
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