Humanitarian Situation in Afghanistan

– in the House of Lords at 4:01 pm on 24 October 2001.

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Photo of Baroness Amos Baroness Amos Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 4:01, 24 October 2001

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development in another place. The Statement is as follows:

"Mr Speaker, I would like to keep the House informed regarding the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and my recent visit to Pakistan.

"The humanitarian situation remains fragile. Humanitarian agencies, particularly the World Food Programme, are performing impressively under very difficult circumstances. Deliveries of food and other essential relief supplies which were halted after 11th September have resumed and the quantities crossing into Afghanistan are increasing. Deliveries inside Afghanistan are continuing, but are very difficult. So far, the refugee outflow has been smaller than expected. Contingency plans are being made in case the exodus increases.

"This situation is very worrying, but the House will be aware that a very severe crisis existed long before the events of 11th September. It is due to 20 years of conflict, the policies of the Taliban and the drought of the past three years. All those events have devastated the livelihoods of millions of people. Emergency humanitarian supplies have been provided inside Afghanistan and to refugees in Pakistan and Iran for many years.

"Immediately after 11th September, all international staff were withdrawn from Afghanistan due to fears for their safety. That led to a cessation of all supplies into Afghanistan. I and others have been doing all we can to get supplies moving again.

"Due to harassment and Taliban restrictions on the use of telephones, it remains very difficult for the aid agencies to communicate with colleagues inside Afghanistan. Precise information on deliveries is therefore sparse. The Taliban have looted the offices and stocks of some aid agencies. Afghan hauliers are also fearful of harassment and attack.

"But, despite those difficulties, programmes inside Afghanistan continue due to the brave efforts of local staff of the UN, the Red Cross and non-governmental organisations, who have continued to work in the face of extreme hardship and serious personal danger.

"Our capacity to influence the humanitarian situation is also limited. Access to many areas of the country is not possible. But the international community remains determined to do all in our power to continue to provide desperately needed assistance. We are looking at all options--for example, World Food Programme air drops and the possibility of opening new land routes from neighbouring countries, such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

"Since deliveries recommenced on 11th October, the WFP has continued to make progress. Regional stockpiles are adequate and deliveries are entering the country in increasing amounts. The World Food Programme is moving towards achieving its target of delivering 1,700 tonnes of food a day. Over 5,000 tonnes have been delivered in the past week and when I was in Peshawar, rates had reached 1,300 tonnes a day. We are also doing all we can to maintain the onward distribution of those supplies from the major warehouses inside Afghanistan. Given the difficulties, WFP is now looking at delivering food direct to more destinations.

"We are also working with the UNHCR to identify and prepare sites for refugee camps in Pakistan. We continue to urge all neighbouring countries to adopt an open border policy and allow those seeking refuge safe passage. Agencies are also attempting to provide assistance to those who remain on the Afghan side of the border.

"As the House is aware, our aims are to bring to justice those responsible for the events of 11th September, to dismantle the Al'Qaeda network and to maintain humanitarian supplies to the people of Afghanistan. It is essential that we pursue all three aims at the same time. The humanitarian effort remains difficult for all the reasons I have outlined. It is not the case that a pause in the bombing would solve these problems. Indeed, a pause would simply encourage the Taliban to harass humanitarian supplies more than at present to prevent further military action.

"All our objectives would be better achieved if a new government can be put in place in Afghanistan. Key to this process will be the central role of Ambassador Brahimi, Kofi Annan's newly appointed special representative for Afghanistan. We warmly welcome his appointment. Ambassador Brahimi is well respected and has considerable experience of the region. His is a difficult task and we stand ready to support him and his office in any way we can.

"There is also a need for the current coalition military campaign to be fully informed about the humanitarian effort and situation. Co-ordination mechanisms have been put in place, although closer co-ordination is still required. My department continues to liaise closely with the UN and our US and UK military colleagues at both HQ and field level to ensure that there is a shared understanding of each other's objectives and to create safe areas as rapidly as possible.

"We also continue to urge other donors to turn pledges to the UN appeal quickly into actual payments. Of the 600 million dollars requested, over 700 million dollars has been pledged, but only 70 million dollars has so far been received. Although immediate needs are covered, unless pledges are released soon, ongoing operations will be hampered.

"We cannot resolve the humanitarian--and political--crisis in Afghanistan without attention to the regional context. Afghanistan's neighbours, particularly Pakistan and Iran, have generously provided for millions of Afghan refugees for many years. Pakistan's role is of central importance. President Musharraf's government have given strong support to the international effort in Afghanistan. We should not underestimate the burden that that places on a country already playing host to 2 million refugees while at the same time undergoing painful economic reform to overcome the legacy of previous mismanagement.

"Last week, I had fruitful discussions with President Musharraf, Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz and other ministers in Islamabad. The government there remain strongly committed to the efforts of the coalition, to economic reform and to poverty reduction in Pakistan. They are also firmly committed to parliamentary elections by October 2002. There is a real prospect that the government can achieve a much better future for the country. But the economy of Pakistan has taken a knock as a consequence of the events of 11th September. Pakistan needs short-term help, debt relief and continuing support to maintain its long-term reform effort.

"I reaffirmed our commitment to a new IMF/World Bank programme of budgetary support and to writing off remaining government debt. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is looking urgently with his Finance Minister colleagues at how we might best collectively agree a debt alleviation package for Pakistan that underpins its reform programme.

"Afghanistan is a country that has suffered terribly and faces a very severe humanitarian crisis. The reason why bin Laden has his headquarters in Afghanistan is linked to the cause of the crisis. Afghanistan is a failed state because of 20 years of warfare and the excesses of the Taliban regime. We must retain our resolve to bring to justice those responsible for the events of 11th September, to dismantle the Al'Qaeda network and to maintain our humanitarian assistance. We must also, through the efforts of Ambassador Brahimi, support the establishment of a representative government in Afghanistan who will work with the international community to resolve the immediate crisis, start the long haul of reconstructing Afghanistan and offer its people a better future. Our Government remain determined to do all that we can towards this end".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Conservative 4:11, 24 October 2001

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, for repeating the Statement on this very important issue. We have had four debates on the present crisis, but a number of questions remain unanswered. The Minister will know that my honourable friend Caroline Spelman has called for a matching in this country of an appeal launched by President Bush asking every American child to donate a dollar for an Afghan child. The British Red Cross is willing to administer such a scheme and has been to see her officials. We feel most strongly about this valuable initiative. Will the Minister use the opportunity to support it?

I shall structure my comments around three key areas: first, the aid situation within Afghanistan; secondly, the refugee situation around Afghanistan; and, thirdly, thoughts on the long-term reconstruction of Afghanistan.

First, there has been little unanimity about how much aid is required for the region. We fear that the figures used by DfID may prove to be a considerable underestimate. The World Food Programme says that we need to get 50,000 metric tonnes of food into Afghanistan every month. However, a month from now, two regions of Afghanistan will be cut off by snow. In those two areas 70,000 tonnes of food need to be stockpiled within the next month. In other words, we need to ensure that within four weeks 120,000 tonnes of food get into Afghanistan.

The latest information released by DfID is that we are currently shipping in approximately 50,000 tonnes of food each month. That will not be sufficient to provide stockpiles for areas that will be cut off by the snow. There is clear dissent between the NGOs and the government agencies over the basic facts. What is the Minister's assessment of the true position? Does she acknowledge that a significant proportion of the food meant for the starving in Afghanistan never even reaches them? Last week we heard reports of 7,000 tonnes of food aid being seized from a UN warehouse. Medecins sans Frontieres reported that the Taliban had seized medical supplies from its compound. How obstructive is the Taliban to the delivery of aid?

Another aspect of the question is whether food is reaching people in the remoter regions of Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands of people are on the move throughout the country. There is a real need to get food to the people in their villages to prevent them from fleeing their homes and adding to the refugee crisis. How much food is reaching people in their homes and villages in remote areas of Afghanistan, and how much is based in the larger towns of the country?

Can the Minister say what are the latest figures on population movement within Afghanistan? Does she accept the assessment of many aid agencies which say that it is likely that many people will die a lonely death in the mountains, not necessarily from starvation but from illnesses generated by malnutrition? Yesterday's Select Committee interviewed representatives of the aid agencies, and concern was expressed about the lack of co-ordination on the ground where a considerable number of NGOs are working. Relations with local Afghan NGOs have been vital to the aid distribution network. Indeed, Christian Aid has a policy of working with local partner agencies from the region.

The importance of local partnerships with British aid agencies cannot be stressed highly enough, especially where the Taliban heavily restricts contact with the outside world. Will the Minister acknowledge the role of Afghan NGOs and their importance in the relief work? I am most grateful to the Minister for reversing the Government's policy earlier this year regarding our people working for NGOs in Afghanistan. I wonder what the present situation is.

That leads me to the refugee problem. Is the Minister satisfied that standards in refugee camps are adequate? We on these Benches have asked repeatedly for the refugee camps to meet internationally agreed standards. However, indications are that that is not the case. The UNHCR reports that there are great difficulties with the refugee camps in Pakistan. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, said that the UNHCR is fighting a losing battle to build adequate refugee camps on time.

Unless the refugee camps are adequate and prepared for a large influx of refugees, the situation will deteriorate rapidly. Aid workers in yesterday's Select Committee meeting said that a potential for disaster was looming on the borders. As the Secretary of State has just returned from Pakistan, where a generous aid package for the country was agreed, can the Minister tell your Lordships whether assurances were received from the Government of Pakistan that they would take action to improve the standards in the refugee camps?

It was reported in the newspapers yesterday that the Taliban will run one of the refugee camps in Afghanistan. Can the Minister confirm or deny those reports? If they are true, who authorised that decision and who will ensure that the poor refugees chosen to be housed in Taliban refugee camps will not face the brutality and repression that characterise Taliban rule?

Thirdly, I turn to the long-term rebuilding of Afghanistan. We on these Benches have called repeatedly on the Government to commit themselves to the rebuilding of Afghanistan after the conflict has ended. In that regard, we were very pleased to see that that is now one of the Government's official war aims. Given that the rebuilding of Afghanistan is such a large and ambitious commitment, can the Minister inform your Lordships what discussions were held with our coalition partners about this shared responsibility?

Finally, what will be the position of women in the future Afghanistan? On Monday, the Foreign Secretary made a very detailed speech in which he outlined his vision of a future government in Afghanistan. How does his vision compare with that of the other coalition partners? However, the Foreign Secretary did not mention the representation of women within Afghanistan. Women have been treated in the most inhumane and degrading way. I am sure that everyone in this House will agree with me in saying that providing the women of Afghanistan with a far better future should be a top priority in the rebuilding of the country. What assurances can the Minister give the House that women and children will be treated fairly when food aid is distributed in refugee camps? The present policy of allowing village elders to decide who gets food does not necessarily mean that food goes to the most vulnerable.

War always takes its toll on women and children, but they do represent the future for this war-torn country. The Government share an enormous responsibility to get the humanitarian aspect of this crisis right. Otherwise, ordinary Afghan people will never believe us when we say that our war is not with them.

Photo of Lord Redesdale Lord Redesdale Liberal Democrat 4:20, 24 October 2001

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, particularly because I believe that doing so meant the postponement of her travel plans for this evening. We are grateful that she is here to answer our questions.

I am sure that all noble Lords recognise that the Statement contained a classic under-statement; namely, that the humanitarian situation remains fragile. The possibility of a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan is brewing. That is one reason why many in my party feel cautious about the continuation of the present campaign. However, we must face the real situation. Although much food is available and can be shipped in, the Taliban has done little during the past few months, and it continues to do little; it merely exacerbates a difficult situation. Indeed, there are reports that the Taliban is charging vast amounts for the transportation of food across its borders to feed its own population.

I take this opportunity to commend NGOs on the work that they have undertaken in a dangerous and difficult situation. There have been unfortunate incidents in which they were hit by bombs that were aimed elsewhere--Afghanistan is becoming a very lawless area. It takes much courage for those working for the World Food Programme, Feed the Children and Oxfam to man the trucks that are taking vast quantities of food--thousands of tonnes--into an area, and they risk their lives by doing so.

I, too, recognise the role that Pakistan has played in this context. It has opened its borders to not just thousands or tens of thousands of refugees but to millions of them. That has been done by a country that is suffering its own economic problems. As someone who monitored the previous elections in Pakistan, I also look forward to the elections in 2002.

Other noble Lords wish to discuss this matter so I shall put only one question to the Minister. What are the Government doing to replenish DfID's budget? The aid that has already been pledged will have drained the emergency relief budget. What action are the Government taking to ensure that the needs of Afghanistan are met and that other programmes, such as those relating to Sierra Leone and other African projects, will not be stripped bare to pay for this immediate crisis?

Photo of Baroness Amos Baroness Amos Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 4:24, 24 October 2001

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that NGOs are to be commended on their work in a very difficult situation. Many Afghan workers in NGOs are putting their lives on the line when they seek to deliver food.

I shall try to address the questions that have been raised. The noble Baroness asked about the appeal that has been launched by President Bush and whether we would support it. We should be happy to discuss that with the British Red Cross, but it has not yet been in touch with us. When it is, we shall discuss the matter with it.

The noble Baroness asked about the figures. I assure her that we are working closely with the World Food Programme in that regard. The figures that we are using have been agreed with the WFP. She mentioned that 50,000 tonnes of food was needed per month. In fact, our figures suggest that 52,000 tonnes needs to be delivered and distributed every month, along with several thousand tonnes of medical supplies, clothing, blankets and tents.

Like the noble Baroness, we are particularly concerned about the onset of winter, when the situation will become very difficult. We are keen to ensure that there are adequate stockpiles of food. As the noble Baroness said, the Taliban is being obstructive. As the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said, it is taxing food supplies that are coming into Afghanistan.

Communication remains difficult. The Taliban has prevented NGO representatives from using telephones to gauge the situation on the ground, which would assist with planning. In some cases, it has allowed NGOs to make one telephone call a day. Noble Lords will understand how difficult the situation is on the ground. It has also seized assets. For example, the WFP does not now have access to its warehouse in Kandahar. Food might be in a warehouse, but access cannot be gained to it.

The noble Baroness asked about the importance of supplying food to remoter regions. That is why the WFP is considering delivering food direct to more destinations. It is also considering air-drops to the more remote regions in Afghanistan precisely because of the problem, although we recognise that air-drops can be difficult.

The noble Baroness discussed the lack of co-ordination on the ground. Given the communications difficulties, that problem is of course understandable. However, the work of local NGOs is absolutely vital to that process. She also asked about standards in refugee camps--she has raised that matter with me previously. We work very closely with the UNHCR in that regard. Part of the UNHCR's role is to try to ensure that refugee camps meet internationally agreed standards. It will continue to monitor the situation and try to ensure that refugee camps do that.

The noble Baroness asked about the situation regarding women and girls, which we take very seriously indeed. We strongly support the common programme approach under the UN-led strategic framework for Afghanistan. One of its key themes is the protection and advancement of human rights, with particular emphasis on gender. The agencies through which we channel our funds, including the UN agencies, the Red Cross movement and other NGOs, continue to focus on the rights of Afghan women and girls, both inside Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries. Obviously, the role of women and girls will be important within any future effort to build a coalition or consensus government in Afghanistan.

I have to say to the noble Baroness that I have no evidence of the Taliban running camps in Pakistan. If she knows any more about that, perhaps she could let me have some information.

We are, as the noble Baroness said, committed to rebuilding Afghanistan after the conflict has ended. We are engaging in ongoing discussions with our coalition partners and others and the UN is playing a key role in that regard.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, asked what the Government are doing to replenish DfID's budget. That is under active consideration. There have been discussions between the department and other government departments. The noble Lord will know that in past situations the Treasury has been mindful of the need to ensure that DfID's work in other parts of the world will continue.

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour 4:30, 24 October 2001

My Lords, I am sure that we all deeply appreciate the fact that my noble friend has made herself available for the Statement this afternoon. I should declare an interest as a member of the Oxfam association in asking two questions. First, my noble friend has referred to Mr Brahimi. All who know him cannot think of a better appointment and we all wish him well. Can my noble friend assure us that no penny will be spared in ensuring not only that the United Nations has a role to play in reconstruction but that it will have the resources to play that role effectively? There is a very strong feeling within the United Nations system that repeatedly it is called upon to take up responsibilities without being properly resourced. Can we have a specific reassurance on that point?

Secondly, my noble friend has referred to co-ordination. Can she assure us that if there is to be no pause in the bombing--and I personally accept that position--will there be the maximum possible co-ordination between those responsible for the humanitarian tasks and those responsible for the military tasks so that objectives on both fronts can be fulfilled without one part of the operation getting in the way of the other?

Photo of Baroness Amos Baroness Amos Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, we all recognise the important role that the UN is playing and will have to continue to play in the future reconstruction of Afghanistan. The resources issue will be looked at very carefully indeed. We all recognise that if the UN is to play such an important role it must be adequately resourced. All countries within the UN system will need to look at this.

As regards securing the maximum possible co-ordination, this very much concerns my right honourable friend Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development. She is working with Cabinet colleagues to ensure that there is co-ordination from the UK end and we are also working to ensure that such co-ordination is carried through internationally with our partners. I can reassure my noble friend on that point.

Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that there is enormous concern among the staff of the aid organisations about the side-effects of the bombing and whether it is properly targeted or will have consequences for humanitarian work in itself? There is now clear evidence of civilian casualties, not least in centres where there are humanitarian workers such as have been described, related to our own aid organisations. How can that be reconciled, and can she say whether more members of her own party will be allowed to express these concerns on behalf of aid organisations and the public?

Photo of Baroness Amos Baroness Amos Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, can I say to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that every effort has been and is being made to ensure that the bombing is targeted. We deeply regret any civilian casualties as a result of the bombing. As regards members of my own party being able to raise any concerns that they may have, it is important that in the present situation everyone has the opportunity to voice any such concerns because that is the difference between what we have, with our freedom and our democracy, and what exists in Afghanistan.

Photo of Lord Sandberg Lord Sandberg Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am particularly pleased that in the Statement this afternoon a lot of weight was put on the problems facing Pakistan, because although that country is--temporarily, I hope--suspended from the Commonwealth gatherings it is a well-founded member of the Commonwealth. When the Prime Minister was in Islamabad not long after the 11th September, when Pakistan very bravely said it was going to be a full member in the battle against the terrorists, he had a long talk with General Musharraf. Mention was made at the time of the debt which is owed by Pakistan. Only last week the USA has either rescheduled or forgiven part of the debt, and it behoves us to be proactive in helping Pakistan with its debts. I hope the Minister will make this clear. Finance Minister Shaukiat was due to visit England about a fortnight ago. His trip has been momentarily cancelled, but I hope that he will be coming fairly soon.

Lastly, I think that there is a misunderstanding. I do not think that the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, spoke about the Taliban looking after refugee camps in Pakistan. There would be no question of the Taliban being allowed to run such places in Pakistan itself.

Photo of Baroness Amos Baroness Amos Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, first, let me thank the noble Lord, Lord Sandberg, for his clarification. It is true that Pakistan is suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth, but the transition to democracy is happening. Provincial and local elections took place earlier this year and a commitment has been made for national elections by October 2002.

On the subject of debt, substantial progress has been made on economic reform. Pakistan completed a nine-month standby arrangement for the IMF earlier this month, which is the first time in her history that this has been done. The UK is ready to provide substantial economic assistance, and we have made that clear. It will enable Pakistan to bring about improvements in social services delivery. That will amount to £15 million in this financial year and in the order of £45 million for each of the following two years. We agree that debt relief is important. We are not a major creditor and we have written off some £20 million of debt which was previously owed to the Commonwealth Development Corporation and transferred to the department earlier this year.

Photo of Baroness Uddin Baroness Uddin Labour

My Lords, although I am not an expert on the numbers of refugees or on the current situation in Afghanistan but merely an observer and a parliamentarian, would my noble friend respond to the concern that thus far the amount of humanitarian assistance available in particular to vulnerable women and children is about a quarter of what is required? What are the Government doing to make sure that not only this country but others involved in the conflict try to ensure that we provide at least as much food as is required, not only on a daily basis but in the long term?

Also I should like to say that in this conflict the plight of Afghan women has been long forgotten: very little attention has been paid to that aspect. Will my noble friend assure me and your Lordships' House that expertise and sufficient resources will subsequently be made available to Afghanistan when re-building takes place, and that every effort will be made to provide a role model for women's advancement not only for British Muslims but for other Muslim countries--a role model which can withstand the allegation of an imperialist model for the advancement of women that has often been attributed to modernisation of any kind and the intervention of any western countries?

Photo of Baroness Amos Baroness Amos Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, first I can reassure my noble friend that we are doing all we can to ensure that the food that the World Food Programme and others have identified as being required is delivered. However, in the Statement and in the answers that I gave to the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, I made it absolutely clear that there are some difficulties attached to getting the food through that are not of our making but are a result of the way in which the Taliban operates.

On the amount of humanitarian assistance, the UN has made an appeal. It requested 600 million dollars and in fact received pledges for over 700 million. Our concern is that of those pledges only 70 million dollars have been received so far. With the UN, we are putting pressure on those countries that have made those pledges to ensure that the money is released.

I agree with my noble friend that we need to ensure that the experience and expertise of other countries which have worked hard to ensure that women are a part of the development process are used in our thinking and planning when talking about the future reconstruction of Afghanistan.

Photo of Lord Mackie of Benshie Lord Mackie of Benshie Liberal Democrat

My Lords, perhaps the Minister can answer a question on airdrops to outlying places. She talked of airdrops and she cast some doubt upon how well the produce is received on the ground. Is there any possibility of using helicopters for the job, or is that too difficult? I know that helicopters now can carry a considerable amount and they could land the food where it is wanted.

Photo of Baroness Amos Baroness Amos Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that in considering whether it is appropriate to use airdrops, the method will also be considered. The issue is much less about the method used--be it planes or helicopters--and much more about whether airdrops will be dangerous, who they will land on and whether they will be more problematic than not doing airdrops at all. All those factors are being and will be taken into consideration when the World Food Programme considers the use of airdrops as part of its future strategy.