Afghanistan

As Afghanistan ‘Hangs by a Thread’, Secretary-General Says World Must Not Abandon Country’s People, in Briefing to Security Council

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Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the Security Council meeting on the situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security, in New York today:

Six months after the takeover by the Taliban, Afghanistan is hanging by a thread. For Afghans, daily life has become a frozen hell. They’re in the grips of another brutal winter of blistering wind, cold and snow. Families huddle in makeshift tents under plastic sheets — even burning their possessions to keep warm.

Clinics are overcrowded — and under-resourced. Ambulances and hospital power generators are running dry because of skyrocketing fuel prices. Afghans are stalked not only by COVID-19, but by deadly preventable diseases like measles, diarrhoea and even polio.

Education and social services are on the brink of collapse. Millions of children — critically, girls — are out of school, and 70 per cent of teachers are not getting paid.

Over half of all Afghans face extreme levels of hunger. The country is facing its worst drought in two decades, pushing 9 million people closer to famine. More than 80 per cent of the population relies on contaminated drinking water, and some families are selling their babies to purchase food.

The Afghan economy is enduring a bitter winter of its own. There is a danger that the currency could go into freefall and the country could lose 30 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) within the year. Liquidity has evaporated. Sanctions and mistrust by the global banking system have frozen nearly $9 billion in central bank assets. Vital systems are starved of needed funds. Lack of liquidity — particularly in local currency — is limiting capacity to reach Afghans in need.

As the economy spirals downward, human rights are also losing ground. Women and girls are once again being shut out of offices and classrooms. They lost their country overnight. Years of steady progress gone in the blink of an eye.

I am deeply concerned by recent reports of arbitrary arrests and abductions of women activists. I strongly appeal for their release.

Meanwhile, terrorism remains a constant threat — not only to the security of Afghanistan, but to the entire world.

When it comes to complex humanitarian emergencies, Afghanistan is as bad as it gets. That is why we launched an appeal two weeks ago — the largest in the Umited Nations history for a single country, more than $4.4 billion for this year.

We’re ramping-up life-saving support around health, shelter, nutrition, protection and emergency education — as well as cash transfers to help families make ends meet. Last year, the United Nations and our partners reached 18 million people across the country. And our teams are working at scaled-up capacity to reach even more people this year, and keep the country’s food, health and education systems from collapse.

The appeal also contains vital support for refugee-hosting countries. I will never forget the generosity of countries like Pakistan and Iran, which — for decades — have hosted millions of Afghans in need.

At this moment, we need the global community — and this Council — to put their hands on the wheel of progress, provide resources and prevent Afghanistan from spiralling any further.

First and most urgently, we need to scale-up our humanitarian operations to save lives. This goes far beyond our humanitarian appeal itself. We need to suspend the rules and conditions that constrict not only Afghanistan’s economy, but our life-saving operations.

At this moment of maximum need, these rules must be seriously reviewed. International funding must be allowed to pay the salaries of public-sector workers. From surgeons and nurses, to teachers, sanitation workers and electricians — all are vital to keeping systems up-and-running. And they’re critical to Afghanistan’s future. We need to give them a reason to stay in the country.

I welcome this Council’s adoption of a humanitarian exemption to the United Nations sanctions regime for Afghanistan. I repeat my call to issue general licenses covering transactions necessary to all humanitarian activities. We need to give financial institutions and commercial partners legal assurance that they can work with humanitarian operators without fear of breaching sanctions.

And standing with the people of Afghanistan also includes a strong role for the United Nations. This includes the One-United Nations Transitional Engagement Framework for Afghanistan, which is being launched today — a plan to extend and accelerate humanitarian and development support to the Afghan people, while sustaining and strengthening essential services and systems throughout this critical period of transition. And it includes recommendations for a new mandate for the United Nations special political mission in Afghanistan to support security, progress and human rights, contained in my upcoming report. I urge this Council to consider these recommendations as this country enters a new chapter in its history.

Second — and deeply connected to the first — we need to jump-start Afghanistan’s economy through increased liquidity. We must pull the economy back from the brink. This means finding ways to free-up frozen currency reserves and re-engage Afghanistan’s Central Bank, and it means exploring other ways to rapidly inject liquidity into the economy.

The World Bank’s reconstruction trust fund for Afghanistan transferred $280 million to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme last month. We need the remaining $1.2 billion to be freed-up urgently, to help Afghanistan’s people survive the winter.

Time is of the essence. Without action, lives will be lost, and despair and extremism will grow. A collapse of the Afghan economy could lead to a massive exodus of people fleeing the country.

Our team in Afghanistan stands ready to work with Member States and others to establish accountable systems to ensure that funds go to the Afghan people most in need and are not diverted.

Third — now is the time for the Taliban to expand opportunity and security for its people and demonstrate a real commitment to be a part of the global community. The window for trust-building is open, but this trust must be earned.

Inside Afghanistan, Afghan and international female aid workers are hard at work implementing projects, supporting programmes and even leading country operations across the country. They’re making a difference on-the-ground — clearly demonstrating the contribution that women can make when given the opportunity to do so.

Unfettered humanitarian access to all regions of the country is vital. At the same time, every effort must be made to build inclusive government institutions in which all Afghans feel represented.

Promoting security and fighting terrorism are also crucial. For far too long, the country has been a fertile breeding ground for terrorist groups. If we do not act and help Afghans weather this storm, the region and the world will pay a heavy price. Illicit drug flows, and criminal and terrorist networks, will increase. Without food, without jobs, without their rights protected, we will see more Afghans fleeing their homes in search of a better life.

I urge the Taliban to work closely with the global community — and this Council — to suppress the global terrorist threat in Afghanistan and build institutions that promote security. We must prevent the expansion of all terrorist organizations in the country.

And just as I appeal to the international community to step up support for the people of Afghanistan, I make an equally urgent plea to the Taliban leadership to recognize and protect the fundamental human rights that every person shares.

A stable, prosperous and peaceful Afghanistan is an inclusive Afghanistan — one in which all people can contribute to its future. This must include the rights of women and girls, who are once again being denied their rights to education, employment and equal justice.

This is a tragedy for those women and girls who grew up believing that any dream was within reach, and now helplessly watching those dreams slip away. But it is also a collective waste of talents and skills Afghanistan needs as it navigates a precarious future. As a moral imperative — and a practical one — all doors must be kept open for women and girls: in schools, in the workplace, in the halls of justice, and across all aspects of public life.

Opportunities for a new beginning are rare. We urge the Taliban to seize this moment and garner international trust and goodwill by recognizing — and upholding — the basic human rights that belong to every girl and woman.

In the depths of a frigid Afghan winter, renewal and hope can seem distant. For decades — even centuries — Afghanistan has been unfairly used as a platform for political agendas, geopolitical advantage, ideological dominance, and brutal conflicts and terrorism.

As a matter of moral responsibility — and regional and global security and prosperity — we cannot abandon the people of Afghanistan. They need peace. They need hope. They need help. And they need it now.

For information media. Not an official record.