International aid organizations headquartered in Winnipeg are welcoming news the Canadian government may allow them to once again provide assistance in Afghanistan — without fear of criminal prosecution.
Earlier this week, International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan said he expects Parliament to approve changes to the Criminal Code that outlaw any dealings with the Taliban, while not lifting its designation as a terrorist organization.
That change could happen by late spring, he said, adding his department has been working hard behind the scenes with the departments of justice and public safety so humanitarian organizations can resume their work in that country.
International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan said he expects Parliament to approve changes to the Criminal Code that outlaw any dealings with the Taliban, while not lifting its designation as a terrorist organization. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)
The Taliban was listed as a terrorist organization by Canada in 2013. Canadians could face up to 10 years in prison if they, directly or indirectly, provide support for that group. When the Taliban took power in 2021, it put aid groups in a challenging situation since operating in Afghanistan could put them at risk of breaking the law.
Fearing the possibility of prosecution, Canadian aid groups pulled out of the country. This included Winnipeg-based Mennonite Central Committee and Canadian Foodgrains Bank.
The Foodgrains Bank had a project ready to go through its members to help 2,500 households when the Taliban took over, said Paul Hagerman, who directs public policy for the agency.
After that happened, CFB withdrew its assistance in light of Canada’s anti-terror legislation.
Requests for exemptions for aid were not granted, unlike in other countries such as Australia, Germany and the U.S.
Hagerman doesn’t know why the federal government didn’t make it a priority to deal with the situation. He suggested it might have been due to the pandemic and the trucker convoys across the country that were occupying its attention.
With the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan worsening, in August the Foodgrains Bank and MCC were among 18 Canadian international relief and development groups that launched the Aid to Afghanistan coalition effort to persuade the government to lift the restriction.
Along with meetings with government officials and members of Parliament from all parties, the coalition encouraged Canadians to write their MPs about the restriction. More than 9,500 letters were sent.
“Nobody said it was a bad idea,” said Hagerman of meetings with politicians and others. “But it just hasn’t happened yet.”
While grateful to hear the government is open to making the change so aid can get through, Hagerman worries about the timeline — spring will be too late.
“Winter is harsh in Afghanistan,” he said. “It is unquestionable that people will die because we can’t reach them.”
Annie Loewen is the assistant co-ordinator for humanitarian assistance for MCC. She also welcomed the minister’s comments.
“We have not been able to program resources due to the risk of being held criminally responsible if we were found to be in support of terrorism,” she said. “That is a significant risk for us.”
MCC had aid ready to go in Afghanistan when the Taliban took over. It would have provided food and other assistance for thousands of households, Loewen said, adding other countries have found ways to quickly work around anti-terrorism rules.
“So if Canada needs ideas, there are allies that can help them with this,” she said.
Loewen said she’s also worried about the length of time it will take to change the legislation to allow aid groups to once again operate in the country.
“Almost 100 per cent of the population is in need of life-saving assistance now,” she said.
One thing the government could do is create a temporary exemption that would permit aid groups to respond immediately, Loewen noted.
“If they can guarantee we won’t be prosecuted, we can start right away while they work out the legislation,” she said.
Both the Foodgrains Bank and MCC say they can assure the federal government their aid won’t end up in the hands of terrorists.
“We are accustomed to working in areas of the world where there is conflict and governance is not ideal,” Hagerman said. “We have good experience in making sure our aid reaches the people it is supposed to reach.”
Added Loewen: “We work in many challenging environments where there are similar constraints. We have processes in place to do due diligence and monitoring.”
Both agencies plan to encourage Ottawa to move speedily on lifting the restriction. Canadians can help by contacting their members of Parliament at aidforafghanistan.ca.
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John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg’s faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.
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