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Canada terror rules unchanged as Afghans face humanitarian crisis and winter looms

OTTAWA — Opposition parties and aid groups say the Trudeau government is dragging its feet in carving out exemptions to anti-terrorism laws to allow humanitarian groups to reach desperate people in Afghanistan.

"There is nothing but political will interfering with us solving this problem," said NDP foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson.

In June, a multi-party committee called on the government to modify the Criminal Code so that major humanitarian groups can help Afghans without being charged with assisting the Taliban.

Representatives from 10 humanitarian groups told MPs in March that Global Affairs Canada informed them they would not be able to pay a driver to deliver food or buy supplies within Afghanistan because that would incur taxes sent to the Taliban.

That would mean supporting the terrorist group, which has been listed as such under Canadian law since 2013.

Liberal MP Salma Zahid, who sat on the special parliamentary committee, said Canada must find a workaround like its allies did to ensure much-needed aid is delivered.

"I think the minister of Public Safety and as well as the minister of Justice are looking into it," she said in an interview Thursday.

"They have to find some solutions."

The issue was well-known last December when the UN Security Council issued an exemption to anti-terrorism sanctions on the Taliban that allowed humanitarian aid to reach Afghanistan.

By June, Australia invoked that resolution to get help to Afghanistan, while the U.S. and European Union modified their rules to ensure humanitarian groups could respond.

That same month, public servants warned Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly of challenges Canadian organizations were facing in Afghanistan before she met with former female Afghan parliamentarians.

"There is no ability to provide exemptions under current Canadian law," reads a briefing note obtained through an access-to-information request.

"The need for mitigation measures imposes serious constraints on humanitarian and development activities that the government is able to support and the organizations with which Canada is able to partner."

International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan said the Liberals plan to modify the law, but couldn't explain why departments that handle the Criminal Code haven't moved.

"They're working on options right now with the ministers of Public Safety and Justice," Sajjan said in a Thursday interview.

The office of Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino had no explanation for the holdup nor a timeline, and did not confirm that Ottawa actually intends to amend the current laws.

“We continue to explore new ways to support Afghans, while following Canada's Criminal Code,” wrote spokeswoman Audrey Champoux.

The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

"I, as minister of International Development, have to work within the current laws that we have," Sajjan said.

He stressed that the government has found ways to deliver $144 million in aid to Afghans through organizations that can comply with Canada's rules. Much of that is going to Afghans who have fled their country; the rest is largely procured by the UN thanks to the Security Council exemption.

"I just want to stress, it's not preventing us from actually providing the funding to the Afghan people themselves," Sajjan said.

Humanitarian groups say otherwise, arguing their hands are tied as desperation mounts.

This month a coalition of 18 groups, including as the Canadian Red Cross and Islamic Relief, decried the Liberals' "disheartening lack of urgency in acting to remove the barriers."

In late August, UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said more than half the Afghan population — some 24 million people — need assistance, and close to 19 million are facing acute levels of food insecurity.

On Tuesday, the UN warned that drought, economic tumult and high oil prices will only make this worse as winter sets in.

Conservative Sen. Salma Ataullahjan said the government must implement a solution this fall to help the millions of people who are struggling.

"Especially, I think of the women, I know how hard it is in that society to function if you don't have a man," she said.

The party's foreign affairs critic noted that aid groups were raising the Criminal Code issue months before their testimony this spring.

“They've had a lot of time to fix the problem,” said Michael Chong, who argued the Liberals should have had legislation ready to table when the House resumed sitting this month.

“This inability to execute on something that everyone agrees upon is part of a broader pattern in this government of being unable to implement policy,” he said.

“This government struggles to put words into action.”

Instead of incompetence, McPherson chalked it up to indifference.

"There is no way that it should be taking this long for them to sort this out," she said.

"I've spoken to Liberal members of Parliament who are appalled at their own government for not doing anything on this."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 30, 2022.

Dylan Robertson and Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press