Humanitarian groups urge Ottawa to exempt their work in Afghanistan from anti-terrorism law

Children in a pediatric ward at the Indira Gandhi Hospital receive treatment for malnutrition on August 13 in Kabul.Nava Jamshidi/Getty Images

Humanitarian groups say the federal government should exempt their work on the ground in Afghanistan from its anti-terrorism law, warning that current policies in Ottawa prevent them from providing crucial aid to those in desperate need. The law also impedes the work of groups helping to evacuate Afghans to Canada.

It has been a year since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, which is facing a worsening economic and humanitarian crisis. Nearly 20 million people face extreme levels of hunger. Yet Canadian groups are being prevented from helping people there with Canadian money.

Canada’s largest aid agencies say that because Ottawa views the Taliban as a terrorist group, a law prohibiting terrorist financing, as well as Canada’s sanctions regime, significantly impede their work.

The organizations recently launched an online campaign stating that Canada is refusing lifesaving aid. It says that while Canada’s allies have provided humanitarian exceptions to their sanctions regimes and criminal law, Canada “has not yet provided humanitarian agencies with the ability to continue operations in Afghanistan.”

Amy Avis, general counsel at the Canadian Red Cross, said there are two sets of barriers: the sanctions regime and the anti-terrorism provisions. Taken together, she said, neither has an exemption for humanitarian assistance, and the Canadian Red Cross is therefore unable to do its work in Afghanistan.

“Every Canadian aid organization is blocked, but all of our international partners can work in the country. And so Canadian aid organizations cannot provide any funding, even through our international partners,” she said. Ms Avis said Canada’s humanitarian sector is an “outlier in our conversations with our international partners”.

“It’s really difficult not being able to pursue projects that have been hugely successful, that we believe in and not being able to continue working with a partner that we have worked with for more than 10 years.”

Geneviève Tremblay, spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said that for 2022, Canada has allocated $143 million in humanitarian assistance to support vulnerable people in Afghanistan and neighboring countries.

Tremblay said the government is working with organizations in Afghanistan, including the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, to continue providing international aid.

“Although the Taliban have become the de facto national authority of Afghanistan, they remain a terrorist group and a listed terrorist entity under the Penal Code,” she said.

Ms. Tremblay said government departments are working to find a solution that “respects Canada’s national security interests while facilitating the effective delivery of assistance to the Afghan people in this unprecedented situation.”

Taryn Russell, head of policy and advocacy for Save the Children Canada, said when the Taliban took over the international community halted aid and froze assets, but other countries updated their schemes. , allowing humanitarian groups to continue working in the country. But Canada hasn’t done that, she says.

“Canadian organizations and the Canadian public cannot send funds to Afghanistan without running up against the Criminal Code and anti-terrorism provisions,” she said, which could lead to prosecution and loss of agency status. charity of the organization.

Ms Russell said Save the Children Canada is its own entity, so it cannot work inside Afghanistan, unlike Save the Children’s global operations, but it cannot be supported by any Canadian funding.

“It’s really disappointing,” she said, pointing to the fact that Canada has had a presence in Afghanistan for decades and that an important part of that presence was its international assistance. “Much of this money went to health, education, but especially women and girls. Canada has always been a champion in this area. So it’s a huge gap now that Canada is not contributing in this area.

She said that although Canada sends funds to UN agencies, there is still a huge hole because Canadian organizations and the Canadian public are excluded.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan is in the worst humanitarian situation on record, Ms Russell said. “Children’s lives are truly dire…97% of families struggle to provide enough food for their children.”

Reyhana Patel, director of communications and government relations for Islamic Relief Canada, said her organization has been operating in Afghanistan for two decades.

Ms Patel said she felt no urgency from Ottawa to act.

“Some of the calls I’ve gotten are like, ‘Okay, well, you know we’re looking at this.’ It’s really not urgent, but when you look at the humanitarian situation on the ground…it’s urgent.

Obstacles to aid have also affected veterans and volunteer organizations leading the charge to evacuate Afghans approved for resettlement in Canada.

The Globe and Mail reported in June that groups trying to evacuate people faced major hurdles because of Ottawa’s strict enforcement of anti-terrorism law.

Brian Macdonald, executive director of Aman Lara, one of the organizations doing this work, said they had to find workarounds, such as bringing in supplies from third countries to make sure they don’t incur no expense in Afghanistan.

“But a lot more would be possible if that wasn’t in place. For example, we would fly direct from Kabul. There’s no reason on the ground you can’t fly a plane out of Kabul, it’s a working airport… so we could do that except we can’t because we have to pay landing fees that accrue to the Taliban.

Mr Macdonald said the last thing his organization – a group of veterans – wants to do is fund the Taliban, but he believes that is a narrow interpretation of the law and complicates their operation.

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