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Aid agencies call on Taliban to back new humanitarian agenda

The Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Afghanistan, Kai Eide, during a press conference in Kabul.
(Akmal Dawi/IRIN)

The UN and some aid agencies have called on Taliban insurgents to support a new humanitarian agenda in Afghanistan with the aim of regaining operating space for aid workers.

“Now is the time to expand the humanitarian agenda together… I appeal to the Taliban, to share our humanitarian agenda,” said Kai Eide, special representative of the UN Secretary-General for Afghanistan.

“I would like to underline that this is not a political effort - this is not a hearts-and-minds effort - it is a purely neutral humanitarian effort… There are disagreements on so many things, but let us demonstrate that we can share this humanitarian agenda,” said Eide who also heads the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

Matt Waldman, Oxfam’s head of policy in Kabul, said: “It's essential that there are renewed efforts to achieve greater humanitarian capacity, coordination and access.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has frequently voiced concern about the growing impact of conflict on civilians and aid workers, said it was vital to reach and assist needy people.

“Humanitarian access has to improve and civilians have to receive humanitarian assistance which will ensure their survival. It has to be totally disconnected to any political statement. This requirement has to be respected by all sides to the conflict,” Franz Rauchenstein, head of the ICRC delegation in Kabul, told IRIN.


Photo: Masoud Popalzai/IRIN
Humanitarian access has become a major challenge for aid agencies in Afghanistan

Worst year for aid workers

Calls for the expansion of humanitarian space in Afghanistan come after Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, in September reported to the Security Council that the number of UN civilian staff killed in security incidents around the world had increased by 36 percent in 2008 compared with 2007.

“Primary threats against United Nations and humanitarian personnel remain armed conflict, terrorism, harassment, violent public protests, banditry and criminality in areas of armed conflict, as well as in countries with economic, political and social unrest,” Ban stated in his report entitled Safety and Security of Humanitarian Personnel and Protection of United Nations Personnel.

About 30 aid workers, including Afghans and foreigners, were killed and 92 abducted across Afghanistan from January to September 2008, according to a separate report Ban Ki-moon presented to the Security Council on the situation in Afghanistan on 23 September.

“The United Nations Department of Safety and Security has assessed approximately 90 of almost 400 districts as areas of extreme risk… 40 to 50 percent of the country is inaccessible to United Nations aid activities, which affects service delivery,” the Secretary-General said in his report.

Access negotiations with Taliban

The UN said access negotiations with the Taliban had enabled health workers to immunise 1.6 million children against poliovirus in the volatile south and eastern provinces.

Afghanistan could eradicate poliovirus if six similar immunisation drives are conducted in the future, the UN said.

“We should build on the success of the polio vaccination campaign,” Eide said.

The idea of negotiation with the Taliban on humanitarian access has to some extent been a reflection of the Afghan government’s policy of reconciliation with the insurgents, experts said.

President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly invited Taliban leaders for dialogue and peace talks.

“In parts of the country engagement with a range of actors may well be necessary to ensure sufficient and sustainable humanitarian access,” Oxfam’s Waldman said.

Anja de Beer, director of the non-governmental organisations’ network network in Kabul (ACBAR), appealed to all warring parties to acknowledge international humanitarian law, respect humanitarian action and ensure aid workers’ access to areas under their influence.


Photo: Atta Mohammad Ahadi/IRIN
Many international aid organisations and UN agencies have been using armoured vehicles to ensure staff safety

Downside of armoured cars

In a bid to cope with rising security challenges, some international aid organisations, mostly UN agencies, have increasingly relied on the use of armoured vehicles even in Kabul, and have also erected large blast-resistant walls outside their offices.

However, armoured vehicles and anti-blast barriers have not only significantly inflated programme costs but have also isolated aid workers from communities and local implementing partners, said an international expert with extensive experience in the country who preferred anonymity.

The increased use of high-profile armoured cars by aid workers has also blurred their identity with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, US military personnel, Afghan government officials and Western diplomats that also use such transport means.

Time running out

As aid agencies call for a new humanitarian approach, a combination of problems resulting from high-food prices, drought, crop failure, lack of access to basic health services and conflict-related violence are threatening millions of vulnerable people.

The ICRC and Oxfam International have already warned that parts of the country are on the verge of a serious crisis (large-sale population displacement).

“Time is running out to avert a winter of hunger,” Oxfam warned in a statement on 30 August.

The new humanitarian agenda needs to be implemented quickly - ideally before winter - if it is to avert a possible crisis in the near future, experts said.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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