The Liberal government has proposed legislation to amend provisions in the Criminal Code that had prevented humanitarian organizations from working in Afghanistan and hindered the ability of veterans’ groups to evacuate Afghans who have been approved for resettlement in Canada.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino tabled the legislation Thursday. He held a press conference at the Canadian Red Cross headquarters in Ottawa alongside other ministers and parliamentary secretaries and in the presence of senior aid workers. Mr. Mendicino said the proposed amendments would allow humanitarians to work in Afghanistan legally.
The Taliban are listed as a terrorist group under the Criminal Code, so humanitarian organizations were blocked from delivering assistance in case the money would fall into their hands.
The proposed legislation would shield them from liability.
“What we did today was put in place a very responsive piece of legislation that will accelerate the delivery of humanitarian aid by creating a streamlined, flexible process that reduces barriers and gets the food, the clothing, the life’s necessities that are desperately needed on the ground in Afghanistan,” Mr. Mendicino said in an interview.
He said the legislation will accelerate the processing of immigration applications and get life-saving support to women and girls who are targeted by the Taliban.
At the press conference, Justice Minister David Lametti called the new measures an “authorization regime.” He said aid groups can submit an application, describe their intended work, and if they stay within the scope of that work, they will be shielded from any liability under the Criminal Code.
“It allows us the flexibility again to allow them to do their good work, but still allows us to maintain the very stringent anti-terrorism measures that we want to keep in place for everyone else,” Mr. Lametti said.
Most organizations celebrated the announcement, but some were skeptical and worried about bureaucratic hurdles.
Danny Glenwright, president and CEO of Save The Children Canada, said he is relieved and grateful. “I’m eager to get moving as quick as possible so that we can actually make it materialize on the ground,” he said.
Tim Laidler, Veterans Transition Network’s director of the Afghan Support Project, said the proposed changes will help his organization’s evacuation efforts of Afghans who are waiting to come to Canada, but he hopes applications do not get stuck in bureaucratic tape.
“It means we won’t have to buy gas for our evacuation vehicles outside of Afghanistan any more. What a relief. We can now buy supplies inside Afghanistan,” he said, adding the rules stipulating they could not even purchase gas in the country have complicated their efforts.
“We welcome this announcement today, but the devil isn’t in the details, it’s in the delays. We don’t want this new policy to include two agonizing years of security checks. Charities need to work quickly in crisis countries, so we want to see approvals under the outlined process move as quickly as possible.”
Mr. Laidler said the government should approve the applications of groups that were previously working in Afghanistan within a month.
Doctors Without Borders issued a statement saying it does not support the changes and wants the government to enact a full humanitarian exemption to ensure aid is not held back.
“Despite finally acknowledging that Canadian laws can inadvertently criminalize impartial humanitarian workers, these amendments unfortunately create new bureaucratic hurdles for organizations to overcome. These amendments also contradict the fundamental principles of independence and impartiality of humanitarian assistance under international humanitarian law,” the organization said.
Jason Nickerson, the organization’s Humanitarian Representative to Canada, said the legislation requires aid groups to seek permission before sending medical staff to some disaster-stricken areas. “What happens if they say no? Do we walk away from maternity hospitals or primary health clinics?”
Mr. Mendicino said Ottawa “specifically designed legislation that would be appropriately flexible so that we could meet the needs of not only our partners in delivering the aid, but the people who are in most need of the aid themselves.”
Opposition MPs pointed out that the proposed legislation comes more than a year after sustained pressure from critics and that they will study the bill.
Conservative critic for international development Garnett Genuis said legislative action is needed to address the challenges of getting aid into Afghanistan. He said Conservatives will study the legislation and work with stakeholders to ensure necessary changes are made.
NDP critic for foreign affairs Heather McPherson said the legislation comes after more than a year of pressure and as Afghanistan faces an acute humanitarian crisis. She said the NDP will take a close look at the bill to ensure organizations will be able to restart their work.
With a report from Catriona Koenig.