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Unblocking Afghanistan aid could come in spring, minister says amid calls for urgency

Click to play video: 'Afghan refugees in limbo as resettlement program becomes full after weeks'
Afghan refugees in limbo as resettlement program becomes full after weeks
WATCH: Afghan refugees in limbo as resettlement program becomes full after weeks – Dec 9, 2022

A Senate committee is urging the Trudeau government to amend laws that are blocking humanitarian groups from responding to growing desperation in Afghanistan, but the Liberals say the fix might only come a year after MPs first called for it.

“We need to do this well; we can’t rush this,” International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a Wednesday interview.

Humanitarian groups say Global Affairs Canada has told them that purchasing goods or hiring locals in Afghanistan would involve paying taxes to the Taliban, which might be considered under the Criminal Code as contributing to a terror group.

That advice was given despite a cascade of humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, from a collapsing health-care system to soaring rates of child malnutrition.

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A House of Commons committee flagged the issue in June, noting that other Western countries amended their laws or issued exemptions for aid groups as early as the fall of 2021.

Six months later, humanitarian organizations told the Senate human rights committee they have goods expiring in warehouses that they cannot access and midwives they can no longer deploy to help rural Afghan women at risk.

Sajjan said Wednesday that the government plans to amend the Criminal Code.

“The earliest time could be around springtime; it could go faster or it could take longer,” he said.

That timeline would be just shy of two years after the Taliban swept into power, taking control of the capital Kabul in August of 2021.

Click to play video: 'Thousands of Afghans who helped Canada still stuck under Taliban rule'
Thousands of Afghans who helped Canada still stuck under Taliban rule

Sajjan said the topic is being steered by Justice Minister David Lametti and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino. Last week, Lametti said that he expected a Criminal Code amendment, but had no timeline for when one will be tabled.

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“The ministers who are involved have been working really hard to get this done,” Sajjan said.

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“The last thing you want is legislation that doesn’t have flexibility, or we missed something.”

Also Wednesday, the Senate committee released a report calling on the Liberals to issue an immediate waiver, and solicit similar ones from attorneys general across Canada. Such statements would say that Canadian groups operating in Afghanistan should not be charged with anti-terrorism offences for delivering “legitimate humanitarian aid — absent any terrorist intent.”

Government lawyers said such waivers would not preclude prosecution, though constitutional lawyers argued that statements from ministers could help prevent criminal proceedings from even happening.

The senators also want Justice Canada to publish its understanding of how anti-terrorism sentences apply to humanitarian groups and for Ottawa to “urgently” amend the Criminal Code.

The committee opted to “emphasize the need for an immediate solution” and noted that three ministers and their parliamentary secretaries were not able to attend last week’s hearings.

“The absence of all of these officials was at odds with the assurance from the department officials who did appear (at the committee), that this issue is a priority for the government,” the report reads.

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Sajjan said Wednesday that amendments will move faster if they get all-party support.

Click to play video: '‘You’re not paying attention to us’: Afghan interpreters stage hunger strike in Ottawa'
‘You’re not paying attention to us’: Afghan interpreters stage hunger strike in Ottawa

Conservative foreign-affairs critic Michael Chong said the Liberals are dragging their feet.

“It’s long past time for the government to address the problem,” he said Tuesday.

“Afghanistan is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis; it has been now for over a year, and the government, unlike our G7 allies, has failed to address the impediment.”

The NDP says Ottawa has to boost its own spending to make up for the time it has spent holding back humanitarian groups from responding.

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“This Liberal promise will not come in time to help Afghans face the brutal winter,” reads a joint statement by MPs Heather McPherson and Jenny Kwan.

“Afghanistan is in acute humanitarian crisis, with soaring food prices, insecurity and lack of access to basic services likely to cause widespread suffering and many deaths.”

Sajjan responded that Canada has channelled $176 million in aid to Afghans through United Nations agencies, and said Ottawa is still advocating for the Taliban to live up to pledges it has already violated to uphold women’s rights.

“We are not going to let go of our expectation for the Taliban to allow girls to go to school; this is something that has to be met. And so we will keep very strong on this.

“At the same time, we’re not going to allow the Afghan people to go hungry, or not get the appropriate emergency health support that is so desperately needed.”

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