A law prohibiting any relationship with the Taliban, whose charities complain of hampering their ability to help Afghans in need, could be adjusted by the federal government to give aid agencies more flexibility.
International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan said the government was considering making changes to the law to create “flexibility” to facilitate humanitarian aid.
But, in an interview with The Canadian Press, he insisted that Canada would not lift the designation of the Taliban as a prescribed terrorist organization.
“We’re looking at options on what we can do to create that flexibility that other countries have,” he said. “The United States can currently do more work than us, at least have the opportunity to do more things there. We are looking at similar exemptions that we can create as long as we can keep the pressure on the Taliban because they are a terrorist entity.
A law listing the Taliban as a terrorist organization was passed in 2013, before the allies pulled out and the Taliban took control of Kabul and formed a de facto government last year.
Under anti-terrorism legislation, Canadians face up to 10 years in prison if they directly or indirectly make assets or finances available to the Taliban.
Canadian aid agencies working in Afghanistan complain that the law impedes their work because they cannot help anyone who might have official dealings with the Afghan government, including people who pay rent or pay taxes.
They also criticized Canada for not adjusting its regulations following a December 2021 UN Security Council resolution that stated that “humanitarian assistance and other activities that support basic human needs in Afghanistan” would not violate the council’s sanctions regime.
Testifying before a special parliamentary committee on Afghanistan earlier this year, Michael Messenger, president of World Vision Canada, said Canada was “out of step” with other countries, including the United States, which have brought changes to facilitate humanitarian assistance following the UN. resolution.
Ten humanitarian organizations presented a brief to the parliamentary committee asking ministers to relax its laws so that they can work on the ground in Afghanistan without fear of breaking Canada’s anti-terrorism laws.
In its official report last month, the committee recommended that the government “ensure that registered Canadian organizations have the necessary clarity and assurances – such as exclusions or exemptions – to provide humanitarian assistance and meet basic needs. in Afghanistan without fear of prosecution for violating Canada’s anti-terrorism laws.
Sajjan said that despite bans on dealing with the Taliban, Canada has continued to provide large amounts of aid to Afghanistan through agencies such as the UN and the Red Cross.
But he acknowledged the law, introduced before the Taliban formed government, prevented some aid work, including “development projects where you have to work through the government structure”.
He said Canada had injected about $150 million into Afghanistan, including aid to help people following the recent earthquake that killed more than 1,000 people and injured more than 1,500.
The earthquake hit a remote area near the Pakistani border, damaging more than 10,000 homes, most of which are made of clay and mud. Immediately after the earthquake, the Taliban appealed for help from the international community.
“The law has not prevented us from helping the Afghan people,” said the Minister for International Development. “We can still help the Afghan people, but we are still looking at options to get the exemptions.”
Lauryn Oates, executive director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, said aid groups were getting conflicting legal advice on what the rules say they can and can’t do in Afghanistan.
She said the anti-terrorism law prevents Canadian aid workers from paying local taxes, including on rent or wages. But aid workers could be jailed in Afghanistan if they don’t pay taxes, under local laws.
The law also makes it harder to fund scholarships for Afghan women and girls at private universities and creates huge amounts of red tape, she said. A scholarship can now only be granted if the university signs undertakings that the money, even small sums, will not be used to pay taxes.
Oates said she fears a law change could take years when aid is urgently needed in the impoverished country.
“We need an innovative interim solution now,” she said. “Other countries have been able to come up with them and Canada is lagging behind.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 2, 2022.