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New Delhi: In the UN Security Council, decisions are primarily shaped by only three countries prepared to wield their vetoes – and the recent exemption granted for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan is no exception.
Like the rest of the UNSC, India voted in favour of Resolution 2615 last week, which carved out a humanitarian exemption from the sanctions regime put in place five years ago. But the final text is largely perceived in South Block and some other world capitals to have been a “lost opportunity” for the international community in putting stronger conditions on the Taliban and having been rammed through by the three permanent members jointly.
The humanitarian disaster facing Afghanistan is a bitter reality. Following the Talibani takeover, the economy has been in a “free fall”, with hardly any cash available even for daily transactions as financial networks have snapped ties with the country. This was further complicated by the country’s worst drought in 27 years. The GDP has contracted by an estimated 40%. Over 55% of the entire population may require urgent humanitarian assistance.
Following alarm bells from international NGOs, multilateral bodies from the UN to G-20 and OIC to SCO had increasingly pledged their support for supplying humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. There was also the looming fear of a humanitarian crisis fuelling a refugee crisis that would be politically difficult to handle at home for the West.
For three contentious weeks, the initial text drawn up the Council’s penholder for Afghanistan, the United States, was negotiated and debated behind closed doors. On December 22, the resolution was passed at an early morning meeting of the Council.
After the resolution, India explained why it “supported” the resolution but expressly did not “welcome” it like the US, Estonia, UK and Ireland did in their post-vote statements.
India’s permanent representative to India, T.S. Tirumurti, noted that the Security Council should keep constant vigil over the delivery and guard against the diversion of funds. “That is essential since any diversion or misuse can be counterproductive.”
In that context, Tirumurti then specifically noted that India does “welcome the provision in the resolution that calls for a review of the implementation of the humanitarian carve-out after one year”.
Tirumurti’s reference to the one-year review indicated a key issue on which some of the countries had major differences during the negotiations – a time limit for the humanitarian exemption.
According to the initial draft, the United States had advocated a shorter nine-month time limit for the humanitarian exemption. But China and Russia had argued that there was no reason for a time limit – or at least, it should be for 12 months.
China had also questioned the need for a resolution as the UNSC’s 1988 resolution passed after 9/11 did have provisions for granting humanitarian exemptions. Chinese diplomats argued that if such a resolution was adopted, it would mean that aid supplied after August 15 was by default a violation of the sanctions regime against the Taliban.
But the need for a resolution was also due to pressure not only from UN bodies but also international NGOs who want to start supplying humanitarian aid.
Aid delivery by humanitarian organisations had become virtually paralysed by legal complications. As an official explained, there were questions right from customs and highway tolls for trucks, electricity bills for office and warehouse facilities, and the money to be paid to transporters. “Will they come under the purview of sanctions or not?”
During the multiple rounds of negotiations, India – and some other countries – pointed out that the problem stemmed from the Taliban appointing sanctioned personnel as heads of ministries and departments in their new government. “If they had not put them in key ministries which would directly work with NGOs and UN for distribution of aid, then this concern would not have arisen in the first place,” said an official.
The international community had reacted to the initial appointment by calling for an “inclusive” government in Afghanistan. This call has been parroted ad nauseam at every bilateral or multilateral platform that has discussed Afghanistan. A couple of ministers from Uzbek and Hazara communities have been added. Still, this vital legal obstacle remained as none of the UNSC sanctioned Taliban leaders were withdrawn from the cabinet.
Despite the verbal calls for an ‘inclusive” cabinet, there is hardly any pressure on the Taliban to change tack. Most of the regional players, including central Asian countries, have sent minister-level delegations to Kabul to engage with the Taliban, even though it may not have got full recognition as the legitimate government.
In October, two senior Indian diplomats had met with the deputy prime minister of the Taliban in Moscow and offered humanitarian aid. A plane-load of medicines and vaccines flew to Kabul earlier this month. Meanwhile, India and Pakistan are still discussing the complicated modalities for sending 50,000 metric tonnes of wheat through Pakistani territory to Afghanistan.
As mentioned earlier, India and France had pushed for a shorter time limit for the resolution. A time limit would have meant the exemption would lapse after the validity period, and renewing the mandate would need passing another resolution.
The New York-based research group Security Council Report recorded the multiple rounds of negotiations, with the last few days mainly involving discussions only between the US, China and Russia.
It reported that the draft text finalised a day before the voting did have a 12-month time limit, but China disagreed strongly, which led the US to modify the draft resolution further.
The final UNSC resolution has no time limit but only called for the Security Council to “review the implementation after a period of one year”, which means that this resolution does not technically expire and requires no renewal of the mandate.
Sources told The Wire that there were also reservations in New Delhi that the resolution does not define the scope of the “humanitarian assistance”. “The lack of definition could mean that international financial institutions planning to distribute salaries to certain groups like teachers and doctors is also brought under the scope of humanitarian aid,” a source said.
The resolution’s operational paragraph three merely “calls on all parties” to respect the human rights of all individuals, including minorities, women and children. The preamble just referred to “expectations” that the Taliban will adhere to its commitments on humanitarian access, counter-terrorism, human rights, et al.
Along with France and others, India had pushed for acknowledgement in the text about the need for the Taliban to follow up on its human rights commitments.
There was also some tug of war during the negotiations over the reporting requirements by humanitarian aid agencies. In the end, the resolution says that the Emergency Relief Coordination will brief the UNSC every six months. This was a much-relaxed provision compared to the zero draft’s proposal to give a written report to the UNSC every two months.
In the end, there was a perception that the US, Russia and China had crafted the final product without taking the views of the others advocating for putting more stricture on the Taliban to meet their commitments on human rights and protection of minorities.
“It (UNSC resolution) was definitely a lost opportunity to put some sort of pressure on the Taliban for them to implement their commitments on human rights issues,” said a senior Indian official.
From the signing of the Doha deal with the Taliban to the decision to withdraw all foreign troops, India had largely kept quiet on its disquiet with US policy. It was only after the disastrous foreign troops evacuation and the complete collapse of the Afghan republic that Indian officials have tentatively asserted in public that they had concerns and were largely kept in the dark by the US.
Chinese envoy Zhang Jun had noted that the original draft text circulated by the US had “deviated from the right track”. But, he added that the final text “incorporates the views of the Chinese side and clarifies some key issues”.
India’s statement was low-key on its reservations, but France did not mince words.
The French diplomat Sheraz Gasri pointed that idea of putting stronger conditions on the Taliban was “not to restrict or condition humanitarian assistance, but rather to be sensible in the light of decades of armed combat and Taliban collusion with Al-Qaida”.
Stating that the Taliban had to meet the expectations of UNSC under resolution 2593, she said that the international community “cannot let them (Taliban) profit from the suffering of the people of Afghanistan”. In the final text, there was no mention of UNSC resolution 2593, passed after the Taliban takeover in August.
Asserting that it was a “mistake” to remove the time limit for humanitarian exemptions in the final resolution, France trained its guns at the US.
“We regret that important modifications such as these, on a subject under consideration for several weeks, were made at the last minute by the United States without any consultation, and they were then presented as a cosmetic change,” said Gasri, political coordinator at the French permanent mission to the UN.