Humanitarian Situation in Afghanistan

Part of the debate – 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"Immediately after 11th September, all international staff were withdrawn from Afghanistan due to fears for their safety.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.