Wednesday, 29 September 2021
Afghanistan Crisis: Statements
I am thankful for the opportunity to have this important debate on the extremely worrying situation in Afghanistan. The current crisis comes against a background of 40 years of conflict, recurrent natural disasters, chronic poverty, drought and the Covid-19 pandemic. The people of Afghanistan have borne many hardships and are now experiencing new suffering, with the most vulnerable, particularly women and girls, most at risk.
Even prior to the events of 15 August, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan was one of the worst in the world. One in three Afghans was facing food insecurity at an emergency level. Half of all children under the age of five were suffering from malnutrition. The UN said this morning that almost half of Afghanistan's population, of 40 million, need humanitarian assistance and protection. This is likely to get worse in the near term. The latest reports from aid agencies on the ground indicate there are now 5.5 million people internally displaced and an additional 15 million Afghans at risk. Within these groups, women and girls are particularly vulnerable. International financing to Afghanistan has been suspended. Development funding has been severely reduced given the changes in government and governance now under way. However, this is happening at a moment when the country's economy and public services are under severe strain, with risks to the delivery of basic services, such as health services and education.
The UN's emergency relief co-ordinator, Mr. Martin Griffiths, recently visited Afghanistan to assess the situation and engage with the new acting administration. I spoke to him on his return. In our conversation, he highlighted the extremely challenging operating environments. He said that in the meeting with the acting Taliban authorities, he stressed the need for humanitarian access and principled humanitarian assistance. He also raised the issues of women's and girls' rights and their protection. These are top priorities for Ireland that we have highlighted in our interventions on Afghanistan at the Security Council, as the Minister has highlighted. In our discussion, Mr. Griffiths and I agreed on the importance of a particular focus on women and girls in the UN humanitarian response over the months ahead. We also discussed how the international community's humanitarian response was, in a sense, a litmus test for engagement between the acting Taliban authority and the international community.
Despite many operational challenges, the humanitarian community is on the ground and delivering much needed aid to millions of people. I thank those aid workers who stayed in Afghanistan to deliver under these most difficult circumstances. Their vital work reminds me of humanitarians in other places who are working in circumstances of conflict and at personal risk to ensure that aid reaches those who are most vulnerable. That is why respect for international humanitarian law is imperative. International humanitarian law helps to protect those who go only to serve. Our humanitarians, more than deserving of our thanks, deserve this respect, this protection.
Through the work of dedicated people, agencies are now scaling up operations across Afghanistan. This is allowing the delivery of community-based education initiatives, food assistance, emergency water supplies, treatment for acute malnutrition and psychosocial support services. Schools are reopening and vaccinations are starting. Airlifts of essential supplies have resumed. It is an extremely complex operation, but it is delivering results on the ground.
Significant challenges remain, however. Critical shortages of medicines and medical supplies are being reported across the country and are attributable to the absence of government funds. The salaries of healthcare workers and teachers have not been paid, in some cases for many months. The provision of humanitarian assistance is, in many cases, the only lifeline available for millions of Afghan people.
Additional funding is urgently required for humanitarian agencies to continue their vital work. The UN launched an urgent appeal for Afghanistan at the high-level ministerial meeting on 13 September. It asks for €515 million to provide assistance to 11 million of the most vulnerable Afghans to the end of the year. The UN has urged donors to fast-track funding and ensure that funding is flexible so that partners can adjust to the fast-changing conditions on the ground. At the high-level ministerial meeting, I confirmed Ireland's intention to do just that. I announced that, in addition to €2 million in Irish Aid funding already provided for Afghanistan in 2021, I had authorised a further and immediate grant of €1 million to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, in August. This enabled an urgent response to the needs of the people displaced by the changes in Kabul, both in Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries.
Yesterday I was able to announce a further €2 million in Irish Aid funding to support the vital work of UNICEF and the Afghanistan Humanitarian Fund addressing the humanitarian needs to the end of the year.
UNICEF has a presence in 13 offices right across the country and is in the process of further scaling up operations. Owing to its field presence, mandate and existing network, UNICEF is uniquely positioned to respond to the urgent needs in the areas of education, nutrition and water and sanitation. Its expertise in targeting women and girls is critical in the context of Afghanistan. Community-based education initiatives, for example, comprise one way of continuing girls' education.
The Afghanistan Humanitarian Fund, managed by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs,OCHA, from its office in Kabul, is a pooled fund that enables swift and principled action in response to humanitarian priorities throughout the country. Its field presence means it is able to identify experienced humanitarian partners who can access remote and hard-to-reach locations. Approximately 80% of its funding is allocated to NGOs, both international and national.
The Irish Aid response reflects Ireland's long-standing commitment to the people of Afghanistan, working with partners such as Concern Worldwide and HALO Trust over many years. My officials are in ongoing dialogue with our NGO partners on their plans for continued engagement in Afghanistan and to help ensure the well-being of their staff there. In addition to direct funding, Irish Aid core funding to key humanitarian partners such as UNHCR, UNICEF and the Red Cross Family, as well as global funds such as the UN Central Emergency Response Fund, is essential. This core funding has allowed our partners to react quickly to emerging needs. Only last week, for example, the UN Central Emergency Response Fund allocated €38.25 million to support the delivery of basic health services in Afghanistan. Ireland is proud to have been the tenth largest donor to the fund in 2021.
Our financial support to respond to urgent humanitarian needs in Afghanistan goes hand in hand with our strong engagement and advocacy at the UN Security Council and the EU.
During our Presidency of the UN Security Council this month, and, indeed, for the duration of our term on the UN Security Council, Afghanistan has been a priority for Ireland. We use our membership of the UN Security Council to advocate for a principled humanitarian response in Afghanistan. We also use our membership to advocate for safe, rapid and unimpeded access for all humanitarian workers — both male and female — so they can deliver aid to civilians wherever it is needed. The role of women in the delivery of aid in Afghanistan is critical. If women aid workers cannot operate, there is a real risk that the response will not reach the most vulnerable women and girls with critical supplies and services.
The renewal of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan,UNAMA, mandate will play a crucial role in facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid and monitoring any potential abuses. This will be an important test of the Taliban's commitment to allowing full, unfettered humanitarian access, and it is our responsibility to ensure there is no impunity. The international community must speak with one voice on this most critical issue.
Ireland has engaged strongly with the EU. Discussions on Afghanistan have dominated recent meetings of the Working Party on Humanitarian Aid and Food Aid, COHAFA. We supported the development of the European Council conclusions on Afghanistan, which call for full and safe humanitarian access to respond to the urgent needs of all Afghans, including families forced to flee their homes.
At EU level, we have developed key asks to all parties for the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan. These include asks on the need for the independent needs assessments that include marginalised populations; impartial and independent humanitarian activities; and safe and unimpeded access for all aid workers — regardless of gender, nationality, religion or ethnicity. These will be critical to ensure we will be able to deliver well-targeted humanitarian assistance that is based on needs, and needs alone.
Earlier this month, the EU announced an additional €200 million in additional humanitarian support to Afghanistan and it is engaged with member states, including Ireland, in the development of a longer-term, Team Europe, response.
The situation of women and girls in Afghanistan merits particular attention. There is a deep concern that there will be a backsliding of gains made in the past two decades for women and girls and, indeed, some of that is obvious already. There are reports of women and girls being denied access to education, further reports this morning of women having been denied access to university, of restrictions on their movement, and reports of violence and violations are becoming all too common. We must put gender and the needs of women and girls at the heart of the humanitarian response in Afghanistan. Never has this been so important.
At that same time Ireland will continue to use its membership of the UN Security Council to consistently call for the protection and promotion of human rights, especially for women and girls.
Finally, we all know that there is no humanitarian solution to a humanitarian crisis. While we have a moral imperative to save lives and livelihoods, reducing humanitarian need over the long term will only be achieved through lasting peace for all the people of Afghanistan. Ireland will remain a strong voice on the UN Security Council advocating for an inclusive, sustainable, political settlement with full, equal and meaningful participation of women and inclusion of minorities and youth.
We also remain steadfastly committed to standing by the Afghan people in their hour of unprecedented humanitarian need. We can be rightly proud of Ireland's support to the Afghan men, women, and children most impacted by this devastating crisis. The House can be assured that my Department, through Irish Aid, will continue to monitor the evolving humanitarian situation on the ground and respond appropriately.