Wednesday, 29 September 2021
Afghanistan Crisis: Statements
All Members of the House are aware of the recent history of Afghanistan. As a country, it has been forever caught up in regional conflicts and interference by neighbouring powers. Prior to 9-11, al-Qaeda was allowed to operate in Afghanistan under Osama bin Laden, hence the subsequent US-led NATO action in 2001 and the toppling of the Taliban regime. In hindsight, one would have to question if the USA in particular could ever have hoped to bring about regime change and impose a Western-backed government and liberal democratic values without the full support of the local community and in a place where religious fundamentalism is deeply ingrained in the life and culture of the country. However, we are where we are. The sudden and abrupt withdrawal of US-led forces from Afghanistan at the end of August was chaotic and could be described as a debacle.
Members of this House are right to have fears for the Afghan people. We have fears for women and girls, as mentioned by many Deputies, and fears for their rights to full and equal access to education, healthcare, freedom of movement and participation in public life. We have fears for minorities in Afghanistan, including the LGBTQI community. We have fears for human rights defenders, journalists and judges. We need to support all these groups and bring them to safety. They need our help and to be given safe passage if needed and requested.
Aside from the Taliban's approach to human rights, there is a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. The economy has stalled and the pandemic prevails there as well. There is a drought and food supplies are scarce. There is a real risk of a major famine and a humanitarian disaster. Many Afghans have been displaced, including internal displacement. In addition, there have already been reports of conflict, violence and intimidation. Ireland and the global community need to support humanitarian organisations through the UN and the EU and to increase humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. I note and welcome that Ireland has already provided more than €2 million in humanitarian funding to Afghanistan this year.
That brings me to the issue of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers. We need to show support and solidarity with the Afghan people at this time. I welcome the initiative whereby vulnerable Afghan nationals will be facilitated by Ireland under the Irish refugee protection programme. A figure of 300 has been mentioned in that regard. I note the announcement this week of a special Afghan admission programme which will have 500 places. This will allow current or former Afghan nationals living in Ireland to apply to bring their close family members to Ireland to live with them. This should not be a cumbersome process but, rather, flexible, with decisions made on a case-by-case basis. Many Deputies have drawn attention to the flaws in the scheme that has been announced to date. It should also be put on the record, however, that so far this year 670 Afghan nationals have already been granted permission to reside in the State.
That said, I note the decision of the EU justice ministers earlier this month to the effect that borders should be secured to avoid a repeat of 2015 - a clear reference to the Syrian civil war. What I hope the justice ministers meant was simply that the situation should be undertaken in accordance with the relevant legal systems and procedures. If that was their intention, I would agree with it.
As regards the repatriation out of Afghanistan of Irish citizens and their dependants, as well as Afghan citizens and their dependants, we need to continue our efforts for them, working with the Irish embassy in Abu Dhabi. I thank the personnel from the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Defence who took part in the deployment of the ECAT mission to Kabul airport on 23 August.
The Minister took risks in making the decision to send the team and the personnel who went were courageous and brave. They took risks too. As Irish citizens, we are most grateful to them for the work that they did.
There is also the question of the recognition of the Taliban regime. I understand that no state has formally recognised the new administration and that there has been no reopening of previous diplomatic missions. We should be very slow to take any action in that regard. This week, I and other Members of the Oireachtas heard from Afghans requesting that the regime not be legitimised, given what is happening on the ground. As the Minister stated, we must judge the regime on what it does, not what it is saying. Recognition can only come with compliance with international, humanitarian and human rights law.
I refer to remarks made by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in her state of the Union address earlier this month. In the context of recent events in Afghanistan, she called for a common EU defence and the pooling of defence capabilities. She stated the EU needed to be able to defend its interests, in a clear reference to the inability of many EU states to evacuate their citizens following the unilateral decision of US forces to withdraw.
These comments certainly deserve our attention. The issues raised by President von der Leyen have already been mentioned in the House by Deputies Richmond and Costello. The Commission's proposed strategic compass is due in November, but Dr. von der Leyen called for a pooling of intelligence and shared cyberdefence capabilities. Given the recent HSE cyberattack, it is something we could certainly consider. Perhaps that is a debate for another day, but it should be said at this stage, that in my view, Ireland must continue to be able to opt in or opt out of defence projects, given our traditional policy of military neutrality.