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Interview: UN aid chief on humanitarian relief for Afghanistan, women’s rights and the Taliban

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A major funding appeal for Afghanistan is due to take place on Monday, 13 September. Ahead of the launch, Martin Griffiths, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, took part in an interview with UN News, in which he reiterated his belief that the country’s new Taliban leaders understand the significance placed by the international community on upholding women’s rights, and on providing guarantees so that aid agencies can function.

In the interview, which took place at the Palais des Nations, the UN building in Geneva, Mr. Griffiths also said that, by Monday, he hoped to receive written assurances from the Taliban Deputy Prime Minister that aid agencies and their partners will be able to operate freely inside Afghanistan and have complete control of their operations.

‘Money well spent’

The flash appeal – for more than $600 million to support around 11 million people across until the end of the year – is, said Mr. Griffiths, an opportunity to lay out the critical needs of Afghans to Members States, and for them to pledge a partnership with the UN to meet those needs in very difficult circumstances.

Describing an encounter in Kabul with Afghans displaced by the conflict and turmoil leading up to the Taliban takeover on 15 August, Mr. Griffiths said that the flash appeal was designed to help them, if it is funded quickly.

“I went to talk to them, and I said, ‘What do you want?’ Two-thirds of those we spoke to wanted to go back home. One-third still didn't trust the Taliban, that they would be treated properly back home. For the two-thirds who wanted to go back home, all they needed was the price of transport and some help to repair damages to their houses and their community. Money well spent, you would imagine, if we want to stabilize the region and if we want to enable people to stay in Afghanistan instead of fleeing to neighbouring countries and beyond.”

Women’s rights and aid access

Mr. Griffiths said that he had raised two main issues with the Taliban leadership in a recent visit to Kabul, where he went at the request of the UN Secretary-General.

The first was the rights of women and girls “to all that is normal in society”: work, education, freedom of movement; basic expectations which peaceful protesters have called for in demonstrations across Afghanistan and for which they have been reportedly beaten and whipped, the UN human rights office, OHCHR said.

“What they said to me was that, ‘We promise that the rights of women and girls will be respected’ – subject, they added, ‘to the religion and culture of Afghanistan.’ Now, this is a work in progress, and we've been here before. And so, we need to have a lot more discussion in the days to come, in the weeks to come about what that really means. And that's very important for the people of Afghanistan, but it's also important for the international community.”

Mr. Griffiths, a veteran humanitarian who last negotiated with the Taliban in 1998 when they came to power, insisted on the need to have “a lot more discussion in the days to come, in the weeks to come” with them about how to ensure continued international engagement, amid concerns over the loss of women’s rights.

“This is what the Taliban themselves told me…they have come to power sooner than they thought, they are unprepared for this,” he said.

Written assurances from the Taliban

The UN emergency relief chief also spoke to the Taliban about the conditions needed for humanitarian agencies to function. He said that he went into some detail with Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Baradar and his advisers on these issues, including the safety and security of humanitarian workers, the freedom of humanitarian agencies to employ whoever they wish - both men and women - and assurance that operations would be independent and controlled by the agencies themselves.

“Mullah Baradar, who is one of the top leaders of the movement in this new administration, confirmed support for all of those elements,” said Mr. Griffiths. “This is essentially a description of the humanitarian space within which agencies operate. He is now turning, at my request, those oral commitments into written assurances. And we hope to have that letter from him with us on Monday here in Geneva.”

Highlighting the dire situation for many millions of Afghans today, Mr. Griffiths said that half of the children under five in the country are thought to be at risk of severe malnutrition.

“Two-thirds of the country needs humanitarian assistance. That was even before recent events,” he said. “So, we have reassessed humanitarian needs, added more because of the circumstances now, and what we will be hoping to see on Monday are pledges and commitments to allow us to go forward.”

Changing times

Asked whether he sensed a change in the Taliban that he had engaged with more than two decades ago, compared with today’s administration, the UN humanitarian chief described a recent meeting with representatives of Pakistan and Qatar, which indicated that this may be the case.

“They said, what the Taliban leadership understand very clearly this time round is how much they need the international community to deliver the aid that we've been talking about for the people.

Because as they say, there is a very, very difficult economic situation; the banks are closed, there's no money in the system, people aren't paid salaries, local institutions are at risk... the Taliban are as conscious of that as you and I are. So they need us to be there. And I think that drives them making the sort of commitments that they made to me. And hopefully that will drive their behaviour when we move from promises into practice”.