Afghanistan

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:00 pm on 5th November 2001.

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Photo of Lord Joffe Lord Joffe Crossbench 8:00 pm, 5th November 2001

My Lords, I do not have the expertise to form a judgment on the military and political strategies being followed in Afghanistan. However, as Chair of Oxfam, which has 120 staff based in Afghanistan, skilled in the distribution of food, I am able to bring to your Lordships' attention our assessment of the deteriorating humanitarian situation in that country and the appalling consequences unless further action is taken to prevent a disaster. I say "further action" because our Government have already taken impressive action to address the humanitarian crisis. I was reassured by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, as he has reasserted that a key strand of government policy is to address the humanitarian crisis.

In the current climate of crisis it is hard to ascertain how much food is being delivered into Afghanistan and harder still to determine how much is being distributed into the hands of the needy, because distributing the food is perhaps more difficult than getting it into the country. However, the consensus among UN agencies and other aid agencies working on the ground is clear. For many Afghan people, food has now run out and the new supplies are insufficient to replenish the stocks.

At the start of November a limited amount of new food is entering the country. Winter is closing in. Based on World Food Programme projections and that organisation's analysis of the situation on the ground, Oxfam and other British aid agencies believe that it is now likely that there are approximately 1.7 million people who will be cut off from conventional supply routes during the winter and will run out of food at some point during that period.

A question that is often asked by politicians, by the press and by members of the public is, "How many of those people will die?" Not only is that an impossible question to answer, but it is actually the wrong one to ask. The question that should be asked is: how many people should have to endure the unspeakable suffering that comes with starvation?

In the areas that are particularly short of food and currently inaccessible, we have a good idea of what is happening and will happen to varying degrees. It is a harrowing picture. The noble Lord, Lord Rea, has touched on some of the facts that starving people face. Perhaps I can outline the effects that starvation has on the daily lives of starving people. People will beg and borrow what they can, getting into debt as they do so. They will sell their possessions, one by one. Then they will sell their houses piece by piece, finishing with selling the roof beams of their houses. Once those are sold there will be no protection against the Afghan winter. After selling their material possessions, they will begin to sell their children, especially girls, who will be sent out of their household to be married to anyone who makes an offer. Men and women will roam further and further afield to find wild foods, to dig up plants, to eat the roots, to boil up grasses and to eat animal fodder. Such fare lacks vital nutrients and may even be poisonous. Their hair will begin to fall out and skin lesions will become infected easily, turning into sores. As the noble Lord, Lord Rea, pointed out, people will become more vulnerable to disease and infection, especially in the Afghan winter. Of course, the first to die will be the children and the elderly.

There is still time to prevent that fate from befalling many of the 1.7 million people in greatest need. We have two weeks before the first snows are anticipated. That is a window of opportunity that the Afghan people can ill afford us to ignore.

It is clear that there are significant differences across Afghanistan in terms of need and access. Therefore, there are grounds for hoping that a variety of options can be looked at and designed specifically to meet the conditions on the ground. That may require a range of actors negotiating access to different areas of the country and different approaches according to local conditions.

There are still thousands of people who can and must be reached by significantly increasing the delivery of food into Afghanistan by land, by airdrops and by airlifts into secure zones. Greater diplomatic pressure is required to ensure that neighbouring countries facilitate trucking into Afghanistan by easing bureaucracy at borders. That is a priority option for zones that are considered accessible and that will require increased efforts by the World Food Programme to move even greater quantities of food into the country than they achieve already.

Given the level of the crisis in some areas, all options for getting the food to needy populations must now be considered. It is time to start the negotiation of safe routes and safe zones for food delivery and airdrops. Some of those issues are not the most effective ways to get food to people. Trucking is better, but as roads become blocked by snow food delivery by air becomes the most practical alternative in some instances. There must be a radical redesign of the packages to include, for example, food that is appropriate to people's needs and to their religious and cultural beliefs. There must also be much better targeting to specific places.

However, let us not forget that there are other obstacles to the delivery of aid that are more difficult for the international community to address. Even in the zones that are not cut off by winter snows, accessibility for aid workers is severely limited by insecurity. Taliban soldiers and other militias have looted many aid offices. In some parts insecurity is due to a break down of law and order and in other parts it is due to increased fighting between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Continued bombing in most parts of north and central Afghanistan and the use of cluster bombs have created a climate of fear that severely limits the ability of the World Food Programme and other agencies to continue food deliveries. Islamic NGOs that are currently delivering food into the east of the country believe that they could do much more if the fear of truckers could be diminished.

The creation of a humanitarian space would make a great difference. It would enable the international aid agencies to carry out their work effectively. Oxfam, Christian Aid and other agencies are calling for a pause in military action so that food stocks can be replenished. In reviewing the case for such a pause, I am sure that the Government will weigh the prospects of the success of their existing bombing campaign and the damage to such a campaign of a pause in the bombing against the innocent civilians who will die as a result of misdirected bombs and the tens of thousands of civilians who will die of starvation or suffer terribly from it.

Even if the Government decide against a general pause, surely there is a case for a pause in some of the regions where the need is greatest. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, said in opening the debate that a pause would not make any difference. If one is talking about a pause by itself, that may be correct, but if such a pause could be linked to some arrangement negotiated by the United Nations with the Taliban, who must have an interest in ensuring their innocent civilians do not starve, it must be worth while trying to achieve such an agreement under the auspices of the United Nations. They could help to select specific areas and the timings of such a pause, which could be negotiated by the United Nations. I support much of what the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, said about a pause. But, of course, the military consequences are not for us at Oxfam or the aid agencies to judge. That is clearly a decision for government.

It should not be forgotten that the Geneva Convention clearly established the obligation of all warring parties to ensure that food and medical supplies reach civilians. Although much has been and is being done by our Government to comply with that obligation, it is clear that if we do nothing further tens of thousands of innocent Afghan civilians will face a winter of unimaginable suffering. Let us remember that these civilians are as much the victims of terrorism as the innocent civilians who died on 11th September.

I had intended to touch upon the importance of combating terrorism in the future by helping to create a better and a fairer world. However, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield, in his powerful speech, has spoken so eloquently on this issue that all I want to do is associate myself with what he has said. It is immensely encouraging that our Prime Minister, in his speech to the Labour Party convention earlier this year, committed himself to addressing this critical issue.

Like other noble Lords, I look forward to the response of the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, to the specific question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Judd.