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Afghanistan: Briefing and Consultations

Tomorrow (17 November), the Security Council will convene for an open briefing, followed by closed consultations, on Afghanistan. Deborah Lyons, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), will brief on the situation in the country and UNAMA’s work. A woman Afghan civil society representative is expected to brief in relation to the situation of women and girls.

Tomorrow’s meeting is being held pursuant to resolution 2596 of 17 September, which extended UNAMA’s mandate until 17 March 2022 and requested the Secretary-General to brief the Council “every other month” until that time. These oral briefings will replace UNAMA’s quarterly written reports, and the meetings regarding those reports, for the remainder of UNAMA’s current mandate.

Lyons is likely to focus on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, which is rapidly deteriorating as winter approaches. The latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report on Afghanistan, which was issued on 25 October, warns that 22.8 million Afghans—more than half of the country’s population—will face crisis or emergency levels of acute hunger between November and March 2022. In a 7 November interview with the BBC, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP) David Beasley said that 95 percent of people in Afghanistan have insufficient food and described the situation as “the worst humanitarian crisis on earth”. At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members are expected to express grave concern regarding the magnitude of the crisis and call for unhindered humanitarian access to Afghanistan. Several Council members may also highlight the importance of allowing women humanitarian workers to carry out their work.

The humanitarian impact of sanctions is another possible topic of discussion. Several members of the Taliban’s interim government, including the prime minister, the two deputy prime ministers and the foreign minister, are subject to UN sanctions, which has the potential to impede the operations of UN agencies and other humanitarian organisations working in Afghanistan. Bilateral sanctions imposed by member states also appear to be hindering efforts by non-governmental organisations to provide humanitarian aid. Some Council members may refer to these issues and suggest that the Council and member states should consider formulating appropriate exemptions to their respective sanctions regimes.

Lyons is also expected to raise the economic difficulties facing Afghanistan during her briefing. Following the Taliban’s seizure of power, the US froze approximately $9.5 billion in assets held by Afghanistan’s central bank and halted shipments of cash to the country, leading to a widespread liquidity crisis. Many Afghans cannot access their bank accounts and the authorities are unable to pay the salaries of most civil servants, including teachers and health care workers. Prices for basic goods, such as fuel and food, are climbing rapidly, and access to public services has been severely curtailed. The suspension of non-humanitarian aid by donor states and international financial institutions has also had a dramatic effect on Afghanistan’s economy, which is heavily dependent on foreign aid. In a 19 October report, the IMF found that the economic shocks caused by the Taliban’s takeover could lead to a 30 percent contraction in Afghanistan’s output, while a UN Development Programme (UNDP) report published on 9 September found that 97 percent of Afghans could fall below the poverty line by mid-2022.

Citing the scale of the economic crisis, China and Russia have been urging the international community to unfreeze Afghan assets. On 21 October, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Afghanistan’s financial reserves should be unfrozen “to give Afghanistan a possibility to solve socioeconomic problems of paramount importance”. At a 15 September press conference, Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, said that the US should not freeze Afghan assets “without justification” and called on the US to “stop creating obstacles to the economy, livelihood and peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan”. China and Russia may make similar remarks at tomorrow’s meeting.

Council members are also likely to discuss the deteriorating human rights situation in Afghanistan, with a particular focus on the rights of women and girls. Although the Taliban has allowed girls to attend school in some parts of the country, new rules that segregate students by gender and a shortage of female teachers have adversely affected girls’ access to education. Several human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, have reported that intimidation and harassment by the Taliban are leading to low rates of school attendance for girls. Many women have not been able to return to work, while reports of forced marriages to settle debts or appease Taliban fighters have begun to emerge.

The Taliban also appears to be targeting human rights activists. In a 3 November statement, Mary Lawlor, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, said that Afghan human rights activists have been subjected to “direct threats, including gendered threats against women, beatings, arrests, enforced disappearances, and [killings]”. At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members are expected to stress that the rights of women must be respected and call for accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations.

The rising incidence of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan is also likely to be discussed tomorrow. According to Extrac, a private firm that monitors militant violence in conflict zones, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K) carried out at least 54 attacks in Afghanistan between 18 September and 28 October. Several of these attacks targeted mosques, while others were directed toward critical infrastructure, including a 3 November attack on a military hospital in Kabul. Although there is consensus among Council members regarding the need to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorism, differences have emerged over whether and how to name specific terrorist groups in Council products. These differences may be reflected in Council members’ statements tomorrow. China, for example, might refer to the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which is currently subject to UN sanctions, when discussing terrorism in Afghanistan. According to a 1267/1989/2253 Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee narrative summary explaining the reasons for the group’s listing, ETIM is an “organisation which has used violence to further its aim of setting up an independent so-called ‘East Turkistan’ within China” whose members have travelled to Afghanistan.

Given the Taliban’s interim government includes no women and very few non-Pashtun appointees, Council members are expected to call on the Taliban to form an inclusive government that represents all segments of Afghan society. Several Council members have recently made similar calls in other fora. In a joint statement issued following an 11 November meeting, the “Extended Troika”— which comprises China, Pakistan, Russia, and the US— called on the Taliban “to work with fellow Afghans to take steps to form an inclusive and representative government that respects the rights of all Afghans and provides for the equal rights of women and girls to participate in all aspects of Afghan society”. The joint statement also noted that the Extended Troika has “agreed to continue practical engagement with the Taliban” and that discussions with senior Taliban officials had taken place “on the side-lines” of the 11 November meeting.

Council members are likely to be interested in hearing from Lyons about the conditions that UNAMA is facing on the ground and the extent to which the Taliban appears willing to allow UNAMA to carry out its work. Some members may ask Lyons to provide an update regarding preparations for the Secretary-General’s report on strategic and operational recommendations for UNAMA’s mandate. This report was requested by the Council in resolution 2596 and is due by 31 January 2022.

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