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Senate to probe Liberal silence on Afghanistan aid as terror rules bar humanitarians

Sen. Salma Ataullahjan is seen during a news conference, Thursday, July 14, 2022, in Ottawa. Ataullahjan has persuaded her colleagues on the human-rights committee to hold hearings next month on rules that bar aid groups from working in Afghanistan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — Senators are ramping up their push to get Ottawa to stop barring humanitarian workers from responding to devastating crises in Afghanistan.

"We've been waiting for months now for the government to do something, and they're just dragging their feet," said Conservative Sen. Salma Ataullahjan.

"Really, come on — all our allies have found a way to work around it."

The Ontario senator, chair of the upper chamber's human rights committee, has persuaded her colleagues to hold hearings next month on rules that bar aid groups from working in Afghanistan.

The Taliban took over Kabul in August 2021, and humanitarian groups say Canadian officials told them that they can't pay anyone in Afghanistan or buy goods there, because paying taxes counts as supporting a terrorist group.

Aid groups such as the Canadian Red Cross are set to testify about the issue at a Dec. 5 hearing, while bureaucrats or ministers might appear Dec. 12.

Ataullahjan says a Canadian running an orphanage in Kabul fears landing in prison for 10 years if she does anything to improve the living conditions of children following the pullout of the U.S. and allies from Afghanistan.

"Our young men and women died there," Ataullahjan said. "The least we owe them is that we need to be concerned about the people that they died for. It's not rocket science."

In June, a House of Commons committee called for Ottawa to come up with a remedy, noting that other countries had already amended their laws to clarify that delivering aid will not lead to prosecution. The United Nations has issued a similar rule for its agencies.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers have said they want to resolve the issue, but as of Monday they still lack any timeline or publicly stated plan to resolve the issue, despite having regular talks with the Taliban.

Government departments told the House they "will consider measures, including legislative options, to address the need for exemptions." The Liberals have repeatedly noted that they are funding some aid that UN agencies are delivering on the ground.

"It's not good enough," Ataullahjan said. "It's a lot of non-answers."

The UN says nearly 60 per cent of the Afghan population needs humanitarian aid to help with the collapse of food and health systems due to an economic crisis, natural disasters and armed conflict. Winter temperatures can plunge to —25 C in some parts of the country, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees noted.

"Many displaced and conflict-affected families will be left exposed to the elements," the agency reported on Nov. 11.

"Many displaced families will have no option but to choose between food and warmth as they struggle to heat their shelters, source warm clothing, and cook hot meals."

The International Committee of the Red Cross has reported a rise in poverty and spiking cases of child pneumonia and malnutrition ahead of the typically harsh winter.

Ataullahjan grew up in Pakistan and fondly recalls vacations in Afghanistan, decades before it was ruled by zealots.

She has been distressed to hear friends describe parents drugging their children so that they sleep, because they're subsisting on a meal of soaked bread once every two days.

They send her videos of children hiding under parked cargo trucks before running along and jumping onto the vehicles to help smuggle goods between Afghanistan and Pakistan in return for money.

"I was sent the videos of these little kids, and it just disturbed me so much," Ataullahjan said. "I was horrified when I saw that."

Last week, a United Nations group of experts reported that the Taliban may be committing crimes against humanity in its treatment of women, on top of "violations of their human rights and freedoms that are already the most draconian globally."

Women have been lashed in front of hundreds of spectators in a sports stadium, while the Taliban has banned women from entering parks and gyms, and beaten men for allowing their female relatives to wear bright clothing.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2022.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

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