Ottawa should allow Afghan aid

What part of “immediately” does the federal government not understand?

It was in June, after all, that the House of Commons Special Committee on Afghanistan recommended the feds “act immediately” to ensure that Canadian charities can provide humanitarian aid to Afghanistan without fear of being persecuted under Canada’s anti-terrorism laws.

It’s now been two months — which is a lot longer than “immediately” — since the committee issued that recommendation, and Canada has still failed to act. Thanks to anti-terrorism laws, non-governmental organizations are prohibited from providing funds or property “that will be used by or will benefit a terrorist group.”

Since Canada considers the Taliban a terrorist group, NGOs are barred from sending them food and other supplies. Yet since the Taliban form the government of Afghanistan, it is only they who can distribute the aid to the people, and they won’t be distributing anything they don’t receive.

World Vision is just the latest “casualty” of the law, as it was reported Wednesday that the NGO had canceled delivery of two containers of “therapeutic food” capable of feeding 1,800 children. But the real casualties are, of course, the children themselves, their parents, and all other innocent citizens of Afghanistan.

Now to be sure, it was appropriate for Canada to declare the Taliban a terrorist organization. Yet the federal government ought to exempt from prosecution those who provide aid to the people. That’s precisely what the United Nations did back in December, when the UN Security Council adopted a resolution to facilitate delivery of aid.

Many countries and organizations, including the European Union, the United Kingdom and Australia, followed the UN’s lead early this year. And the United States began the process of exempting humanitarian organizations from their anti-terrorism laws even before the UN passed its resolution.

That leaves Canada as one of the only countries to prohibit NGOs, including World Vision and the Canadian Red Cross, from delivering any aid to Afghanistan.

Strangely, the government itself is not similarly prohibited, and the feds have in fact boasted about the admittedly generous $143 million in humanitarian assistance they’ve earmarked for Afghanistan and the surrounding region in 2022. One would think that the feds would therefore welcome the support of NGOs.

It wouldn’t be that difficult to provide an exemption for humanitarian aid, and Canada could use the UN resolution, as well as exemptions provided by other countries as a guide. The UN resolution, for example, states, in part, “the provision of goods and services necessary to ensure the timely delivery of … assistance” is permitted.

Several countries use very similar language, with the European Union and the United Kingdom both exempting the provision of funds “to ensure the timely delivery of humanitarian assistance.” Although every country’s legislation is different, Canada could likely incorporate language like this to ensure aid makes its way to Afghanistan.

And even if the Canadian laws necessitate a different language, given the urgency of the situation, it’s not something for which the Afghan people can wait. The country is reportedly close to collapsing, which means aid delayed is aid denied.

This is clearly something we need to do right now. Not in the fall, when the Commons returns from its summer recess to ruminate on the straightforward language of the Special Committee on Afghanistan’s recommendations. And not after the fall, after countless Afghans suffer needless deaths.

But right now. Soon. That’s what “immediately” means.

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