Afghan walks in the rubble of a house destroyed in the earthquake that struck the village of Gayan in Paktika province, Afghanistan.
A law that prohibits any relationship with the Taliban, including charities say it hampers their ability to help Afghans in need, could be adjusted by the federal government to give aid agencies more flexibility.
International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan said the government is considering changes to this law to create flexibility to facilitate humanitarian aid.
However, in an interview with The Canadian Press, he insisted that Canada will not revoke the designation of the Taliban as a terrorist organization.
“We're looking at options about what we can do to create that flexibility that other countries have. The United States can do more work than us and at least has the ability to do more things there. We are considering similar exemptions that we could grant as long as we can keep the pressure on the Taliban, as it is a terrorist organization.
—Harjit Sajjan, Federal Minister for International Development
A regulation designating the Taliban as a terrorist organization was passed in 2013 before the allies pulled out of the country and the Taliban took control of Kabul and formed a de facto government there; last year.
Under the Anti-Terrorism Act, Canadians face up to 10 years in prison if they directly or indirectly contribute property or financing to disposal of the Taliban.
Canadian aid agencies working in Afghanistan complain that the law impedes their work because they cannot help anyone who might have official relations with the Afghan government, including people who pay rent or taxes.
They also criticized Canada for not adjusting its regulations following a December 2021 UN Security Council resolution that stated that humanitarian aid and other activities that support basic human needs in Afghanistan do not violate the Council's sanctions regime.
When testifying before a special parliamentary committee on Afghanistan earlier this year, Michael Messenger, president of World Vision Canada, pointed out that Canada is out of step with other countries. , including the United States, which made changes to facilitate humanitarian assistance as a result of this UN resolution.
Ten humanitarian organizations presented a brief to the parliamentary committee in which they ask the minister to relax his laws so that they can work on the ground in Afghanistan without fear of violating Canada's anti-terrorism laws.
In its official report last month, the committee recommended that the government ensure that registered Canadian organizations have the necessary clarity and assurances – such as exclusions or exemptions – to provide humanitarian assistance and to meet basic needs. in Afghanistan without fear of prosecution for violating Canada's anti-terrorism laws.
Minister Sajjan noted that despite bans on dealing with the Taliban, Canada has continued to provide substantial assistance to Afghanistan through agencies such as the UN and the Red Cross.
However, he acknowledged that the law, introduced before the Taliban formed government, prevents certain forms of aid, including development projects where we have to work with the government structure.
He added that Canada has injected approximately $150 million into Afghanistan, including helping people following the recent earthquake that killed over 1,000 people and injured over 1,500.
The disaster hit a remote area near the Pakistani border and damaged more than 10,000 homes, most of which are made of clay and mud. Immediately after the earthquake, the Taliban appealed for help from the international community.
“The law has not stopped us from helping the Afghan people. We can still help the Afghan people, but we are still reviewing options to obtain the necessary exemptions.
— Harjit Sajjan, Federal Minister for International Development
Lauryn Oates, executive director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, said aid groups are receiving conflicting legal advice about what the rules allow and prohibit to do in Afghanistan.
She added that the anti-terrorism law prevents Canadian aid workers from paying local taxes, including on rent or wages. However, under local laws, aid workers could be imprisoned in Afghanistan if they do not pay taxes.
The law also makes it more difficult to fund scholarships for Afghan women and girls in private universities and creates huge amounts of paperwork, she said. A scholarship can now only be awarded if the university agrees that the money, even small sums, will not be used to pay taxes.
Ms Oates lamented fears that changing the law could take years when aid is urgently needed in this very impoverished country.
We need an innovative interim solution now, she concluded. Other countries have been able to offer them and Canada is lagging behind.