Statement on the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan

21 January 2022

The scale of misery and hunger in Afghanistan this winter is beyond comprehension. The sheer level of this deprivation and the hopelessness that comes with it is causing the world to look away when it most needs to pay attention. The ACAA calls on the international community to reconsider the economic policies implemented towards Afghanistan since the Taliban came to power, and change course to avert massive human losses. A revaluation of existing measures such as sanctions, the suspension of aid and asset-freezing, is urgently needed. 

While the ACAA and NGOs all over the world have been raising money to alleviate the suffering in Afghanistan, we recognise that humanitarian aid can only offer temporary relief from the economic collapse caused by international political issues, and does not represent a long-term solution. The use of political sanctions by the international community to limit human rights abuses by the Taliban is of course justified. But these measures also have disastrous side effects, and are causing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.

The rights of the Afghan people cannot be secured without the fulfilment of their basic needs. One only needs to look at the number of desperate families forced to sell their young daughters into forced marriage to understand the correlation between the deprivation of basic needs and the violations of fundamental rights. Afghans are trapped in a vicious cycle, with material deprivation and human rights abuses fuelling each other.

Prior to the Taliban’s return to power, foreign aid represented as much as 43% of Afghanistan’s GDP. Therefore, its total withdrawal has been a core cause of economic collapse. Meanwhile, the freezing of assets means that government money is no longer available. Public sector workers have not been paid for months. Recently, an ACAA volunteer in Afghanistan reported the story of a police officer who was forced to flee the country with his wife and young child because he had not received his salary for months. With his young child suffering from malnutrition, he had no choice but to make the dangerous journey to Iran. 

Economic measures are a blunt instrument for securing human rights in an autocratic state. This was clear with the UN Security Council’s sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1990s in response to his atrocities against the country’s minorities. The punishing measures, intended to help the population, resulted in hunger, an epidemic of water-borne disease, and the collapse of the health and education systems in a once vibrant country. Several high ranking United Nations officials working in the country resigned to express their disagreement with the policy, with the in-country UN Humanitarian Coordinator, Dennis Halliday stating “I don’t want to administer a programme that satisfies the definition of genocide“. The sanctions failed to secure the desired political outcomes because while the population struggled, Saddam’s government continued to live in relative luxury. The human misery brought by non-targeted economic measures is a lesson that must be heeded in Afghanistan. 

The ACAA joins other organisations such as Amnesty International in their call for more practical solutions to the Taliban rule in Afghanistan. We are specifically asking the UK government to work with the US and with Afghanistan’s wealthy neighbours to release funds from the World Bank, pledge further aid and unfreeze government assets. While this approach may feel counterintuitive to liberally minded leaders who rightly abhor the Taliban’s rule, this crisis now calls for a pragmatic response to save lives. Every day that this truth continues to be ignored, the resulting human losses and regional instability worsen. Now is the time to make bold decisions.