UN chief tells Security Council: Afghanistan ‘hanging by thread’

Afghanistan is “hanging by a thread,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement to the Security Council on Wednesday, urging countries to sanction all transactions necessary to carry out humanitarian operations in the Taliban-ruled nation.

He also called for the suspension of any rules or conditions that would prevent “lifesaving” aid operations from taking place because millions of people in the country are suffering from extreme hunger, education and social services are on the verge of collapse, and the United Nations and aid organisations are unable to reach people in need due to a lack of financial resources.

As Guterres pointed out, “we need to provide legal assurance to financial institutions and commercial partners that they can work with humanitarian operators without fear of breaching sanctions.” Guterres was referring to the 15-member Security Council’s adoption last month of a humanitarian exemption from UN sanctions related to Afghanistan.

Since the Taliban seized control of the country in August, around $9.5 billion in Afghan central bank deposits have been frozen abroad, and international development assistance has dried up. Contributors hope to use the funds as leverage against the Taliban on a variety of concerns, including human rights.

Persuasive evidence suggests that a growing climate of intimidation is taking root, and human rights are being violated at an alarming rate. “This shows that the consolidation of government authority may be leading to the control of the populace by fear,” Deborah Lyons, the UN Special Envoy for Afghanistan, told the council. “Fear is a powerful tool for controlling the population.”

In December, contributors to the Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund, which is administered by the World Bank and has been frozen since 2009, decided to release $280 million to the World Food Program and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to boost nutrition and health in Afghanistan. At that point, Guterres stated that the remaining $1.2 billion in the fund needed to be “released as soon as possible in order to assist Afghanistan’s people in surviving the winter.”

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, informed the Security Council that Washington had taken steps to ensure that US sanctions did not obstruct humanitarian activities and that Washington was “considering various possibilities to alleviate the financial situation.”

Need for cash in Afghan economy

Earlier this month, UN Secretary-General Martin Griffiths and President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, held a virtual meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss Afghanistan.

In a statement, Dominik Stillhart, director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said that “intense” discussions were taking place between the United Nations, the ICRC, the World Bank, and key donor countries about a “humanitarian exchange facility” that would be supported or managed by the World Bank and that would allow cash to be injected into the Afghan economy.

He told reporters that money could be deposited in the facility and that “under certain conditions, cash could be made available to traders in Afghanistan,” though he stressed that this was only a temporary solution because “it is the central bank that must be capacitated to discharge these functions,” according to him.

According to Thomas-Greenfield, “a functioning Afghan economy will ultimately necessitate the establishment of an independent and technically competent central bank that meets international banking norms.”

Stillhart stated that an agreement between the United Nations, the World Bank, and key donors was required in order to “kick-start this facility,” noting that the discussion did not concern the unfreezing of Afghan assets or the modification of sanctions against the Taliban.

It was also mentioned that a separate plan was being studied, which would include utilising money from the Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund, which is overseen by the World Bank, to pay non-security public sector staff.

The United Nations made a plea earlier this month for $4.4 billion in humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan in the year 2022. A further $3.6 billion was requested on Wednesday for health and education, basic infrastructure, the enhancement of livelihoods, and social cohesion, with a special emphasis on the needs of women and girls, according to the organization.