Recent complex negotiations surrounding UNAMA’s mandate in Taleban-run Afghanistan have shone a light on longstanding divisions among UN Security Council members concerning key issues, such as human rights, women’s rights, peace and security and governance. This year, on 16 March 2023, member states agreed to resolve their differences by passing two Afghanistan-related resolutions; one that extended the UNAMA mandate until 17 March 2024 and another that requested an independent assessment of in-country efforts, with a report to be presented to the council before 17 November 2023. Meanwhile, the new Humanitarian Response Plan, which requests USD 4.6 billion to support 23.7 million Afghans in need, was launched in early March after a two-month delay. Defining the coming months as an “operational trial” period, the HRP plans for enhanced monitoring to ensure minimal conditions are met. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica and Roxanna Shapour take a look at the latest developments related to the UN and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and wonder what the efforts to increase scrutiny might bring. UN Security Council unanimously votes on two resolutions on Afghanistan. Photo: United Nations, 16 March 2023.
On 16 March 2023, the UN Security Council (UNSC) passed two resolutions on Afghanistan. The first resolution (S/RES/2678(2023) extends the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) for another year, until 17 March 2024, without changes to its mandated tasks and priorities as agreed in SC Resolution 2626 adopted in March last year. The second resolution (S/RES/2679(2023) is a brief text with only two paragraphs. The Resolution requests the Secretary-General “to conduct and provide, no later than 17 November, an integrated, independent assessment, after consultations with all relevant Afghan political actors and stakeholders, including relevant authorities, Afghan women and civil society, as well as the region and the wider international community” (see UN website here). This assessment, according to the resolution, should provide recommendations for “an integrated and coherent approach among different actors in the international community in order to address the current challenges facing Afghanistan” (see here.)
Emirate spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed welcomed the extension of UNAMA’s mandate, but cautioned that the assessment should not be used “for producing propaganda against the system and based on false information.” He added that the Emirate stood ready to cooperate with the assessment if it was conducted with “the aim of continuing aid and [supporting] progress” (see ToloNews here and here).
The two resolutions were agreed upon after an initial draft resolution on UNAMA’s mandate, which was circulated to the UNSC members on 1 March 2023. The draft caused deep divisions in the 15-member council. This draft resolution, co-authored by Japan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), envisioned an extension of the mandate without any changes for nine months and asked the Secretary-General to conduct an independent assessment regarding Afghanistan and report to the UNSC by October 2023. The United States, in particular, opposed extending UNAMA’s mandate for only nine months, as well as any change to the mandate, and supported a simple technical 12-month extension instead. The Alternate Representative for Special Political Affairs, Ambassador Robert Wood, said at a UNSC briefing on Afghanistan held on 8 March 2023:
The United States opposes – repeat, opposes – any effort to interfere with a simple technical extension. Such interference is unwarranted. It would negatively affect both UNAMA and the Secretary-General’s plan to convene Afghanistan special envoys. The Council should preserve UNAMA’s mandate through a simple technical extension without delay. We have only days left.
Other members like France, Ecuador, Malta and the UK “indicated that they had reservations and concerns about the independent assessment without directly opposing it.” While China and Russia wanted to expand the focus of the independent assessment to include “engagement with the Taleban and the impact of unilateral coercive measures,” according to a detailed account published on the UN Security Council Report (SCR) website on 15 March. The differences of opinion among Council members regarding the independent assessment and renewal of the mandate ultimately led Japan and the UAE to suggest two separate drafts, one extending UNAMA’s mandate and another requesting an independent assessment.
UN mandate in Afghanistan
Last year, on 17 March 2022, after several rounds of negotiations and at least four drafts, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2626, which redefined UNAMA’s mandate in Taleban-run Afghanistan. At the time, Security Council members disagreed on whether UNAMA should concentrate on delivering humanitarian and development assistance or also aim to have a more robust role in political dialogue with the Taleban, including on human rights, inclusive governance and gender equality. A 2022 SCR report summarised the discussions among members in February and March 2022 as follows:
It appears that China and Russia contended that UNAMA’s primary focus should be assisting with efforts to address the humanitarian and economic crises in Afghanistan. However, many other Council members strongly supported a more robust mandate for UNAMA spanning several additional areas, including the protection of human rights and the promotion of inclusive governance and gender equality. China and Russia, for their part, apparently argued that the initial draft of the resolution was unrealistic and placed too much emphasis on these issues.
In the end, the 2022 resolution placed at the core of the UNAMA mandate to “coordinate and facilitate, in accordance with international law, including international humanitarian law, and consistent with humanitarian principles, the provision of humanitarian assistance and financial resources to support humanitarian activities” (Article 5.a). Other priorities included political and governance components (outreach and facilitation of dialogue between different stakeholders and promotion of responsible governance and the rule of law); human rights and gender monitoring and reporting (also supporting gender equality and the full, equal, and meaningful participation of women in all levels of decision-making); humanitarian assistance (engaging national and subnational stakeholders, civil society organisations, international NGOs, and donors to support the delivery of humanitarian assistance); and regional cooperation with a view to promoting stability and peace. This mandate, as defined in Resolution 2626, was extended unchanged for another year by the UNSC on 16 March 2023.
The question of whether UNAMA’s primary focus should be assisting humanitarian and economic crises in Afghanistan or taking on a broader governance and human rights mandate, however, remained a point of contention. For example, Japan and the UAE, the co-penholders on Afghanistan, called a private meeting of the UN Security Council on 13 January 2023 (see here) shortly after the Council’s regular quarterly meeting on Afghanistan on 20 December 2022. The two countries wanted to hear from UN and NGO officials about the Taleban’s recent decisions to bar women from higher education and ban them from working for NGOs, and to allow Council members to have a “frank discussion” on the situation in Afghanistan. As the SCR reported on its website, consensus could not be reached on the content of a draft presidential statement:
[…] members were unable to reach consensus, apparently due to disagreements about the scope of the product. It seems that some members wanted to focus on the rights of women and girls and recent developments in this regard. Other members—including China and Russia—felt that the text should have a broader scope and address such issues as the security situation and the economic crisis in the country.
These divisions also came to the fore in a recent workshop about the mandate and political strategy of UNAMA, organised by the International Peace Institute (IPI), the Stimson Center and the Security Council Report on 14 February 2023 (see the minutes of the meeting here). The discussions illustrated how Security Council members remain divided over the appropriate level of political engagement between the UN and the Taleban and the future of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, particularly in light of the Emirate’s increasing encroachments on the rights of Afghan women and girls:
Some participants alluded to the deputy secretary-general’s characterization of UN strategy as a push-and-pull approach whereby UNAMA leverages the provision of humanitarian support to build trust with the de facto authorities in the hope of achieving commitments for more inclusive governance and reduced restrictions on the Afghan population. Some participants questioned the sustainability of this strategy given the absence of meaningful concessions to date from the de facto authorities. Others argued that the Security Council should continue to give UNAMA time and space to implement this part of its mandate, given the slow-moving nature of such political endeavours. […] Further restricting the mission’s level of engagement with the de facto authorities would arguably hamstring UNAMA’s political engagement and functionally limit its role solely to enabling humanitarian assistance. Others questioned the extent to which UNAMA can promote inclusive governance given the significant recalibration of Afghan state institutions following the Taleban’s takeover, as well as the lack of a written constitution. They argued that engaging with the de facto authorities runs the risk of crystallizing their modus operandi and legitimizing their claim to international recognition.
Most recently, following the vote on the two resolutions on 16 March 2023, the customary remarks by SC members only confirmed that these divisions run deep. The most evident division is the one between the United States and Russia. In his remarks Robert A Wood (US) said the one-year extension of UNAMA’s mandate would enable the United Nations to foster the human rights of all Afghans, especially women and girls. In contrast, Anna M Evstigneeva (Russian Federation) said it was crucial to maintain the pragmatic cooperation of UNAMA with the de facto authorities and that any attempt to politicise humanitarian assistance was immoral and unacceptable.
The UN’s centrality to the delivery of humanitarian aid
The renewal of UNAMA’s mandate is highly relevant to the ability of humanitarian actors to deliver aid to Afghans in need of urgent assistance (which is one of the drivers for the UNSC extending it, even when there are divergences of opinion on its particulars). Since the fall of the Republic, the UN has emerged, by default, as the most important international aid actor operating on the ground in Afghanistan. The reluctance of donors to work directly with the Taleban means that the UN is the preferred vehicle for delivering humanitarian aid and essential services. The scope of the programme, however, is staggering.
At USD 4.4 billion, the 2022 humanitarian appeal for Afghanistan was the UN’s largest appeal ever for a single country. A virtual pledging conference co-hosted by the United Kingdom, Germany, Qatar and the United Nations on 31 March 2022 saw donors pledge a little over half the requested amount, USD 2.4 billion, with some speculating that the Taleban’s decision a week earlier to renege on their promise to reopen girls’ high schools had caused “a backlash from donors” (see AAN reporting here and here). By the end of the year, however, donor funding stood at USD 3.33 billion (see the UN’s financial tracking service), a sizable amount but still USD 1.07 billion short of the appeal’s request.
The ability of humanitarian actors has, at the same time, been challenged by the Emirate’s increasing encroachments on the rights of Afghans, particularly women. The planned launch of the 2023 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) in January 2023 was derailed by the Emirate’s 24 December 2022 decree banning women and the decision of as many as 150 NGOs and aid organisations to suspend some of their operations pending the ban’s rollback.
What followed was an intense round of discussions and negotiations both with the Islamic Emirate and among humanitarian actors, including a January visit by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), led by its chair, the UN’s humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths. In a 30 January 2023 press conference after his visit to Kabul, Griffiths provided details of his talks with Taleban officials, which had included assurances that women working in health and primary education would be exempt from the ban. He added that the Taleban authorities had asked humanitarians “to be patient” as the Emirate developed guidelines that would “provide, allegedly, the role of functioning of women in the humanitarian operations.” He was not particularly optimistic about a forthcoming reversal of the ban:
I’m somebody who doesn’t like to speculate too much, because it is a matter of speculation. Let’s see if these guidelines do come through. Let’s see if they are beneficial. Let’s see what space there is for the essential and central role of women in our humanitarian operations. Everybody has opinions as to whether it’s going to work or not. Our view is that the message has clearly been delivered that women are central, essential workers in the humanitarian sector, in addition to having rights, and we need to see them back to work. And in that regard, we need to maintain humanitarian operations in the sectors already [exempt], health and education, but expand that to the others.
The IASC mission did, however, pave the way for the launch of the 2023 HRP. The earlier aid suspension in response to the Emirates’ ban on women working for NGOs was rebranded as “a month-long partial operational pause” and, on the recommendation of the IASC, humanitarian activities moved to an “operational trial period.” During this trial period, as spelled out in the HRP, humanitarian actors, including the UN, would continue negotiations with the Taleban to expand authorisations to cover all sectors; pursue local reinforcement of these authorisations with provincial and district-level authorities; and agree on minimum criteria for operations. The plan’s concept of operations also included an “enhanced monitoring and reporting framework”, including a priority indicator to track the ban’s impact on the ability of humanitarian actors to operate against minimum criteria defined by IASC (See HRP 2023, Section 2 Response Monitoring, pp 48-50).
The 2023 Humanitarian Response Plan
After several weeks’ delay, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) launched the 261-page long 2023 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) on behalf of humanitarian organisations working in Afghanistan on 9 March 2023. The plan requests USD 4.6 billion in assistance, USD 200 million more than the previous year, to support 23.7 million people in need, an increase of 1.6 million from 2022, with a little over half, USD 2.66 billion going to food security and agriculture.
According to the HRP, the number of Afghans in need has tripled since January 2020, from 9.4 million to a staggering 28.3 million, which it attributes to “the progressive shocks of COVID-19, the increase in conflict leading up to the takeover by the DFA [or de facto authorities, a term used by the UN to refer to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan], the resulting economic shock, recurrent drought and the impact of policies, particularly restrictions on women’s rights and mobility, since August 2021.”
The numbers are indeed staggering. As a result of the economic crisis touched off by the collapse of the Republic and the suspension of foreign development aid, which accounted for 75 per cent of public spending, “the proportion of households reporting humanitarian assistance as their main source of income increase[ed] six-fold since 2021,” according to the HRP.
Three years of drought have resulted in diminished surface waters and a major drop in groundwater levels, with the “proportion of households experiencing barriers to accessing water increasing from 48 per cent in 2021 to 60 per cent in 2022.” The weakened household economies coupled with the severe drought conditions have left an estimated twenty million people facing acute food insecurity (Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) 3 or above), six million of which are facing “emergency levels” (one step away from famine) – one of the highest figures in the world.
The mix of economic collapse, natural calamity and gender repression has left the majority of the Afghan population in peril for the foreseeable future: 33 out of 34 provinces, and 27 out of 34 major cities/provincial capitals are considered in extreme need, with the rest in severe need. While the HRP noted that some needs had stabilised as a result of the humanitarian assistance provided in 2022, it did raise the alarm on unprecedented levels of need in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) and protection. “Without economic stabilisation, large-scale investment in infrastructure for water and a shift in the restrictive policies of the [de facto authorities] on women’s rights, the likelihood of further deterioration remains extremely high,” it said.
The Emirate’s restrictive gender policies have had far-reaching knock-on effects on planned humanitarian activities. For example, humanitarian actors have now classified all secondary school age girls as people in need, as a result of the Taleban ban on girls’ education, meaning that there is less money to support other vulnerable groups within the planned appeal. Because of this, the education, emergency shelter and non-food items, and protection clusters now plan to assist far fewer beneficiaries than their original 50 per cent targets and water, sanitation and hygiene has had to scale back to only two-thirds of what was envisaged for the sector.
The Taleban’s decision to ban women from working for NGOs has left humanitarians and donors in the difficult position of working to alleviate human suffering while at the same time ensuring the participation of women in the humanitarian response and the full participation of women in public life. As the 2023 Humanitarian Response Plan puts it:
Women have a right to work and are an integral part of humanitarian action, and their participation is essential (as in all aid operations) if we are to reach populations in need safely and effectively with principled and quality assistance – be they men, women, boys or girls. Furthermore, women beneficiaries depend on the involvement of female humanitarian workers not only to directly receive assistance and services, but also for the safeguarding, meaningful engagement and quality assurance that their presence ensures.
While the UNAMA mandate was extended for another year (until 17 March 2024) in line with the one defined by the March 2022 UNSC Resolution 2626, it remains to be seen what an independent assessment of in-country efforts will bring to the fore in November. This assessment, along with the outcome of the IASC-mandated “operational trial” period and its attendant monitoring, could have an impact on humanitarian aid scope and delivery, as will as any future decision by the Emirate to ease or tighten the restrictions on Afghan women in general and in particular the ban on women working for NGOs.
Those on the UN Security Council who called for an assessment, Japan and United Arab Emirates, expect it to provide “forward-looking recommendations on how relevant actors can address challenges more coherently.” Other Security Council members, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, did not even mention the assessment in their remarks after the vote on 16 March 2023. Divisions and differences of opinion in the UNSC remain and it is unclear how and in which format they will be reconciled once the independent assessment has concluded. Given the UN’s centrality to the provision of humanitarian aid in Afghanistan, and the Security Council’s probable difficulty in reaching a consensus, it is very likely that UNAMA’s mandate will be extended in the foreseeable future, with few substantive changes. At the same time, however, the assessment, which will put UNAMA’s work in Afghanistan to the test, could present interesting avenues for a repurposed mandate. This is certainly something to keep an eye on in November.
Edited by Martine van Bijlert
This article was last updated on 20 Mar 2023