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A Taliban fighter stands guard as people receive food rations distributed by a Chinese humanitarian aid group, in Kabul, Afghanistan.Ebrahim Noroozi/The Associated Press

Ottawa is preparing to bring forward a change to an anti-terror law in the new year to make it easier for humanitarian organizations to operate in Afghanistan, while not lifting the Taliban’s designation as a terrorist organization.

International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan expects Parliament to approve the change to the Criminal Code that outlaws financial dealings with the Taliban by late spring.

It is a criminal offence to finance a terrorist entity, which means that renting an office or apartment in Afghanistan, or even buying gas puts Canadian aid agencies at risk of criminal prosecution. Many, fearing falling foul of Canada’s anti-terror laws, have pulled out of the impoverished country or severely curtailed their humanitarian operations there.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Sajjan said his department has been working “aggressively” behind the scenes on altering the Criminal Code in tandem with the Justice and Public Safety departments so humanitarian organizations can continue their work.

But he said the change will require the approval of Parliament, and the wording was being carefully framed to ensure it achieves its aim, without unintended consequences.

The minister said recognition of the Taliban, which seized back control of Afghanistan in August, 2021, is “off the table.”

He said “there’s a very good chance of things moving very quickly” through Parliament, adding that it would happen more quickly if opposition parties support the government move.

“This is the Criminal Code, so you have to change legislation,” he said. “It’s up to Parliament to decide how fast they want to go – if they want to make changes to it. We’ll see how that goes. But I’m definitely confident … the process can be accomplished by late spring.”

Afghans who worked on Canadian-funded projects feel abandoned waiting for refuge in Pakistan

Speaking from Kuwait where he visited a massive depot used to store Canadian aid before it is shipped to Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan and Ukraine, the minister said he was already planning future aid shipments after the legislative change goes through and had met with Canada’s special envoy in Afghanistan while in Qatar.

He said the legal ban on working with the Taliban had not prevented Canada from funnelling tens of millions of dollars in aid to Afghanistan this winter through bodies such as the World Food Programme.

The government has been sharply criticized for failing to act swiftly enough to help Canadian aid organizations.

Danny Glenwright, president of Save the Children Canada, said the change could not come soon enough, and he urged MPs from all parties to support it.

“Waiting until spring will mean people will die. It’s devastating,” he said, adding that families were marrying off their young daughters because they could not afford to feed them.

He said the Canadian arm of Save the Children was being forced to work from outside the country in border areas or with local partners, while branches from countries such as Australia, without such restrictions, could work directly with the Afghan people.

Humanitarian bodies told a special parliamentary committee on Afghanistan earlier this year that Canada is out of step with other G7 countries, including the United States, which have adjusted laws freezing out the Taliban, so that they do not inhibit charitable work to help the Afghan people.

A December, 2021, UN Security Council resolution said “humanitarian assistance and other activities that support basic human needs in Afghanistan” would not violate the council’s sanctions regime.

A law listing the Taliban as a terrorist organization was passed in Canada in 2013. Under the anti-terrorist legislation, Canadians could face up to 10 years in prison if they, directly or indirectly, make available property or finances to the Taliban.

Lauryn Oates, executive director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, said many charities have left Afghanistan for fear of criminal prosecution.

“It’s a really dire situation and it’s getting worse. 90 per cent of people are going hungry. The time for aid is now. It’s hard to think of a more severe crisis. Every added day is a matter of life and death,” she said.

World Vision Canada told The Globe that it has had to cease shipments to Afghanistan and tonnes of aid bound for the country have been sitting in warehouses.

Martin Fischer head of policy at World Vision Canada, gave evidence to the Senate human-rights committee last week when he outlined how huge numbers of Afghans were facing starvation. They included a family from a village with 7,000 inhabitants that has already lost one child to malnutrition and was now facing losing their seven-month-old-daughter Miriam, who can hardly move because she is so weak from lack of food.

“If ever there was a situation that requires the government to make such a decision, it is Afghanistan. Urgent government action is needed, now,” Mr. Fischer said.

Mr. Sajjan, who said he could not attend a Senate hearing on Afghan aid last week because he was on a long awaited official visit to the Mideast, said the legal changes are a “priority.”

Mr. Sajjan said Canada is committed to helping the Afghan people but will not give the Taliban “a free ride” when it comes to aid, saying there were “significant concerns” about the regime, including the treatment of women and girls.

Canada wants to see the regime guarantee education for girls from elementary school to university, he said.

“If they were willing to open up, we would be willing to do more,” he added.

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