Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has not specified a timeline for when Canadian aid groups will be able to respond to a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, despite peer countries finding loopholes in their anti-terrorism laws months ago.
Aid groups told members of Parliament this spring that Canadian officials warned them that they could run afoul of terrorist financing rules by delivering support.
They told a parliamentary committee that officials said buying supplies or paying a driver to deliver food in Afghanistan would incur taxes for the Taliban, which took over the country in August 2021 and which Canada recognizes as a terrorist organization.
The Liberals say they want to find a workaround. But Trudeau offered no timeline Wednesday when asked when the federal government would fix the situation.
“We know how important it is to support the people of Afghanistan,” Trudeau responded during a news conference in Pickering, Ont. “We will continue to look at how we can help.”
Afghanistan is facing a shortage of food and medical supplies, made worse by international sanctions, two large earthquakes and drought.
UNICEF has reported a rise in child labour, and has said that more families are offering young girls for marriage in exchange for a dowry so they can purchase basic necessities.
By the time the House of Commons special committee on Afghanistan reported on the aid issue in June, the U.S., Britain, Australia and the European Union had all found workarounds to their own laws, allowing aid groups to help Afghans without incurring penalties.
The government filed a response to the committee report last week, saying it “will consider measures, including legislative options,” but offering no timeline.
“Current counter-terrorism measures and legislation have the unintended effect of impeding legitimate humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan,” the Oct. 6 response reads.
“Unlike laws in some other like-minded states, Canada does not have an exemption mechanism for this (terrorism financing) offence, including for the provision of life-saving humanitarian aid.”
Ottawa’s response also notes that “the government of Canada has no intention of recognizing the Taliban de facto authorities as the government of Afghanistan,” a point Trudeau reiterated on Wednesday.
Yet Trudeau has confirmed that Ottawa has been in regular talks with Taliban leaders since shortly after they took over Afghanistan, as reported by CBC News last week.
Constitutional lawyers have argued that Ottawa isn’t correctly interpreting its own laws, saying the Criminal Code provisions against financing terrorists cannot apply to paying local taxes.
Otherwise, they note, Afghan refugees would be barred from entering Canada, since they had likely paid taxes to the Taliban.
Conservative international development critic Garnett Genuis said Trudeau’s response rings hollow when millions are at risk of starvation.
“It’s a major crisis situation, from a humanitarian perspective, and Canadian organizations are obviously at a particular disadvantage,” said Genuis, who was part of the special parliamentary committee.
“Sadly, this is another one of those cases where the government claims to be on top of something but is, by all indication, doing nothing, offering no timelines and not recognizing the need and the urgency.”
The Liberal government has stressed that it is able to get aid to Afghanistan through the United Nations, even if Canadian organizations can’t do independent work on the ground.
“We are continuing to work with partners around the world, to help get needed humanitarian aid into Afghanistan despite the Taliban, and we will continue to do just that,” Trudeau said Wednesday.