The devastating earthquake on Wednesday is just one of several emergencies facing Afghanistan, and continued dialogue with the Taliban de facto authorities remains the only way to address ongoing challenges in the country, the Security Council heard on Thursday.
Ambassadors stood and observed a minute of silence for the victims of the disaster before being briefed by Ramiz Alakbarov, Acting Special Representative at the UN’s Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, and Martin Griffiths, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator.
In remarks to #SecurityCouncil session on #Afghanistan today, UNAMA acting head @RamizAlakbarov briefed on swift humanitarian response to yesterday's devastating earthquake & called for concerted international support. More: https://t.co/5DwZYRiPNu pic.twitter.com/TbWUoOUBPt— UNAMA News (@UNAMAnews) June 23, 2022
Mr. Alakbarov provided an update on the earthquake, citing latest figures which revealed nearly 800 confirmed deaths and more than 1,400 injured, before turning to the ongoing human rights, economic and humanitarian challenges the country is facing.
He said despite difficulties, "we firmly continue to believe that a strategy of continued engagement and dialogue remains to be the only way forward for the sake of the Afghan people, as well as for the sake of regional and international security.”
Squeeze on human rights
Mr. Alakbarov reported that the human rights situation in Afghanistan remains precarious.
Despite the adoption of a general amnesty, and repeated assurances by Taliban leaders that it is being respected, UNAMA continues to receive credible allegations of killings, ill-treatment and other violations targeting individuals associated with the former government.
Credible allegations of violations against persons accused of affiliation with the National Resistance Front and the ISIL-KP terrorist organisation have also been reported.
“The de facto authorities have increasingly restricted the exercise of basic human rights, such as freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of opinion and expression, quelling dissent and restricting civic space in the country,” he said.
Furthermore, restrictions particularly target women and girls, such as the ban on secondary schooling for girls, and the decree ordering women to wear face coverings.
“The costs to the economy of these policies is immense,” he said. “The psychosocial costs of being denied education, for example, are incalculable, and women are collectively being written out of society in a way that is unique in the world.”
Economic woes persist
The economic crisis is perhaps the single most important issue in Afghanistan, and a potential driver of conflict and misery. It is estimated the economy contracted by up to 40 per cent since August.
Unemployment could reach 40 per cent this year, up from 13 per cent in 2021, while the official poverty rate could climb as high as 97 per cent.
“If the economy is not able to recover and grow meaningfully and sustainably, then the Afghan people will face repeated humanitarian crises; potentially spurring mass migration and making conditions ripe for radicalization and renewed armed conflict,” he warned.
Afghanistan also remains highly vulnerable to future climate and geopolitical shocks. Drought, floods, disease outbreaks affecting both people and livestock, as well as natural disasters like the earthquake, are further deepening vulnerabilities.
Mr. Alakbarov stressed the need to prioritize rural areas, with focus on agricultural and food systems to prevent hunger. This will also help to reduce child labour, improve health outcomes, and create the environment that will enable social development and change.
“It will also pave the way for substitution agriculture to replace the poppy cultivation, allowing us to capitalize on the de facto authority’s recent ban on poppy and narcotic cultivation,” he said.
“While doing so we need to continue to provide adequate attention to clearance of widely unexploded ordnance of war. This bottom-up approach to economic recovery is shared by the de facto authorities and would help the most vulnerable.”
On the political front, Mr. Alakbarov reported that the Taliban continues to hold power almost exclusively, and the emergence and persistence of an armed opposition is largely due to political exclusion.
Exclusion and insecurity
Meanwhile, the overall security environment in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly unpredictable.
Armed opposition attacks against the de facto authorities doubled in May, compared to the previous month. Although the number of ISIL-KP terrorist attacks has generally decreased, their geographic scope has widened from six to 11 provinces.
“We cannot exclude the possibility of increased instability if peoples’ rights are denied and if they do not see themselves in their government,” he said.
Inclusion and engagement
In the coming month, the UN will seek to promote political consultation and inclusion, and engagement with the de facto authorities will continue.
“Even as the international community and the Taliban remain far apart” on the question of human rights, specifically for women - and political rights, “there are some areas where we can do better to improve the lives of Afghans, as well as advance on issues of common concern such as counter-narcotics and mine action.”
Addressing humanitarian response, Mr. Alakbarov highlighted how aid partners have reached some 20 million Afghans between January and April this year alone, including nearly 250,000 returnees and some 95,000 people affected by floods and weather-related events.
However, the humanitarian crisis persists, and sustained support will be needed through next year.
Millions facing famine risk
More than 190 aid organizations are operating in Afghanistan, where nearly half the population, 19 million people, are facing food insecurity.
This includes more than six million people at emergency level - the highest number of any country in the world at risk of famine-like conditions, said Mr. Griffiths, the UN’s relief chief.
Last December, the Security Council adopted a resolution clearing the path for aid to reach Afghans, while preventing funds from falling into the hands of the Taliban, which has been critical to ensuring operations can continue.
Although humanitarians are reaching record numbers, there is still “a long hill to climb”, said Mr. Griffiths, listing several impediments to aid delivery.
The formal banking system continues to block money transfers due to “excessive de-risking”, thus affecting payments and causing supply chain breakdowns.
“Despite efforts to create a temporary solution for the failure of the banking system, through a so-called Humanitarian Exchange Facility, we have seen limited progress because of resistance, I have to say, by the de facto authorities,” he said, adding “this is an issue that is not going to fix itself.”
Additionally, national and local authorities are increasingly seeking to play a role in the selection of beneficiaries. They are also channeling assistance to people on their own priority lists, thus contravening promises made to UN officials.
Interference on the rise
Humanitarians are also seeing more demands by the Taliban authorities for data and information regarding budgets and staffing contracts. Non-governmental organizations in particular face continued difficulties in trying to hire Afghan women staff for certain functions.
“There are more instances of interference today than in previous months, most of which are resolved through engagement with the relevant de facto authorities,” Mr. Griffiths told ambassadors.
“But for every issue that is resolved, another one emerges, sometimes in the same location with the same departments. And there is now a much more palpable frustration felt by aid organizations, local communities and local authorities.”
Mr. Griffiths also underscored the pressing need for funding. A $4.4 billion humanitarian plan for Afghanistan is only one-third funded, despite pledges of $2.4 billion made at the launch in March.