Afghanistan: Sixty New Zealand human rights groups, activists call for Government to escalate response to 'humanitarian disaster'

More than 60 human rights groups and activists are sending the Foreign Affairs Minister an open letter calling for the Government to escalate support for those remaining in Afghanistan.

Concerns about a humanitarian crisis and potential economic collapse in the central Asia nation continue to mount, as poverty rates spiral in the wake of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban seizing control in August. The treatment of women is also under scrutiny, with the Taliban's all-male Government already taking a hardline approach. 

On Tuesday, United Nations Secretary António Guterres said that, despite Afghans having already faced decades of war and suffering, "they face perhaps their most perilous hour". 

Tens of thousands of foreigners and locals fled the nation in August - hundreds coming to New Zealand - after Kabul fell to the Taliban. 

A collective of 33 human rights organisations and 28 activists, community leaders and academics are now calling for the New Zealand Government to step up its response. Among the collective is Amnesty International, Oxfam Aotearoa, the Afghan Cultural Association of Wellington, Save the Children, Tearfund, and World Vision New Zealand.

In an open letter being sent to Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta on Thursday, the collective acknowledges Aotearoa's efforts so far - including statements in support of women in Afghanistan and millions in aid - but says more action is needed. 

"The needs in Afghanistan are growing by the hour," the letter says. "Right now, there are compounding crises taking place, including hunger, displacement, conflict, and COVID-19. "Basic services are collapsing, and aid is running out. There are ongoing reports of gross human rights abuses. Women, children, and those who have worked to promote human rights, democracy and education, are amongst the people most at risk. 

"Urgent action is needed to prevent an even greater humanitarian disaster and to ensure that every individual has their rights and dignity upheld."

Among a set of requests is for the Government to double aid to Afghanistan to help local organisations, support surrounding countries taking in refugees, evacuate those unable to return to New Zealand during the initial evacuation mission, and consult meaningfully with the Afghan community already in Aotearoa. 

The collective also wants to see at least 1500 Afghan refugees welcomed in this year's intake on top of the current quota "for those at most immediate risk or with connections to Aotearoa". It notes that other countries, like Canada and the United Kingdom, have made commitments to settle thousands. 

"The New Zealand Government spent 20 years and hundreds of millions of dollars in military expenditure as part of the international intervention in Afghanistan," the letter says. "We have an obligation to the people of Afghanistan to stand by them now. Be it the provision of aid, or safe pathways to New Zealand, the time for response is immediate and the cost of inaction is high."

The full open letter and list of signatories can be found here.

The situation in Afghanistan worsens.
The situation in Afghanistan worsens. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said last month that Cabinet would work through a plan for Kiwis remaining in Afghanistan as well as those Afghan nationals who supported our forces. Due to time pressures and security issues on the ground, including a suicide attack at Kabul's aiport, not everyone who wanted to be evacuated could be. 

She said New Zealand would look to support the wider humanitarian effort. 

"I do think there’s work to be done across the international community to see that there is going to be that support. But we’ll have a particular eye on those who, because of their human rights work, or others, you know, we would have concern about."

Speaking to TVNZ on Sunday, Mahuta said the Government was "critically aware" of the situation in Afghanistan as well as the "urgency, but the practicality of being able to respond requires us to work with allied partners". 

She said it's not as easy as setting up a commercial flight to get people back.

"We are looking to those like-minded countries who have similar challenges to find a way forward. We will do the best we can as soon as we can based on good information and the ability to find a pathway forward for them."

Mahuta said refugee intakes will considered in the second phase of our Government's approach.

"We want successful resettlement and we want to ensure that the experience of that successful resettlement has a response in terms of our COVID considerations, but also housing. There has been a lot of trauma around these individuals and families so making sure that we have the right networks and support here for successful resettlement, that is an absolute focus for our Government."

A petition from Amnesty International Aotearoa, ActionStation and Oxfam Aotearoa, was last month presented to associate Immigration Minister Phil Twyford calling for the Government to bring more Afghan locals to New Zealand.

Twyford said he was "honoured" to receive the petition and that the Government "accepts and welcomes" the points made. 

"The evacuation effort over the last week or so is just the current instalment, but there will be more to come. There will be more diplomatic action, there will be more humanitarian support and I am sure there will be more resettlement." 

New Zealand has a refugee quota of 1500. However, it's expected just 750-1000 individuals will be settled in Aotearoa under the refugee programme in 2021/22 due to the impacts of COVID-19.

Mahuta last week announced $3 million in humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan, recognising the crisis there is "disproportionately affecting women and girls". That money, which comes on top of $3 million given to the Red Cross and UN Refugee Agency, is being provided to UNICEF and the UN Population Fund.

Nanaia Mahuta.
Nanaia Mahuta. Photo credit: Newshub.

The open letter being submitted on Thursday also calls on the Government to support women's rights and "drive agreement in the international community to establish a robust investigative mechanism" to consider human rights violations in Afghanistan.

The United States and Germany last week co-hosted a ministerial meeting on Afghanistan. It included representative from a large number of countries ranging from Australia to the United Kingdom to Turkey to Uzbekistan. Officials from the EU, NATO and UN were also present.

New Zealand, however, was not invited. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade told Newshub while we weren't invited to this meeting, "we do participate in other discussions on Afghanistan with the US and other partner".

Asked why Aotearoa wasn't invited, a MFAT spokesperson said it understood the meeting "came together at very short notice and the focus was on Afghanistan's regional neighbours, EU members and G20 countries".

"While we were not involved in this particular meeting, it was one of many discussions currently under way amongst partners, many of which involve NZ".

A spokesperson for the US State Department told Newshub on Wednesday that "due to the fact  that we work with many partners and allies on issues related to Afghanistan, we do not include each partner in every meeting". 

"We value New Zealand's contributions and look forward to continuing our close coordination going forward."

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