After Taliban promises made in Geneva, now what?

Geneva Call’s director general Alain Délétroz (left) sits next to a Taliban delegation as the members sign a declaration on 11 February in Geneva, promising to facilitate humanitarian work in Afghanistan. (Credit: Geneva Call)

The Taliban pledged to allow female health staff back to work and keep humanitarian workers safe, following talks with NGOs in Geneva two weeks ago. Afghanistan’s new rulers sent a high-level delegation to stay in Geneva for a week, hoping to unblock the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.

Back in Kabul, they will now be under heavy scrutiny on whether they will honour their promises as Afghanistan continues to spiral into a humanitarian crisis. Their actions will also come under the spotlight in Geneva next month as the Human Rights Council hears from UN experts on the human rights situation in the country.

Alain Délétroz, director general of Geneva Call, an organisation that works with armed groups to convince them to respect the international rules of conflict, and which organised the visit, spent the week with the Taliban delegation. He tells Geneva Solutions how the NGO plans to follow up on these commitments and the challenges that finance roadblocks will continue to pose.

GS News: How did the discussions with the Taliban go?

Alain Délétroz: We have started here a very good dialogue on key issues with people that we've been engaging with for years as an armed movement and who are now willing to govern the country. They were very frank also on what would put them in difficulty when going back to Kabul, and the need for the declaration and for everything that we discussed, to be implemented in Afghanistan to ensure that everybody in the government would follow those lines.

I was quite happy that the main thematics, on which we've been engaging with the Taliban for more than four years, are now taken into account in the declaration – land mines, female workers in the health system, protection of humanitarians in the country, and education for children. Now the question is to see how the implementation goes.

GS News: How will you make sure that they will follow through?

AD: We have several offices in the country and there are other agencies, like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), that can monitor that female workers can go back to the hospitals or that children can return to school. It will be easy for us and the whole world to see that these commitments are implemented. On demining, we want to ensure that specialised organisations can safely access the worst places where the biggest amount of landmines are. We are preparing a programme on mine awareness that we want to distribute throughout the country.

They also had a long meeting with Dr. Tedros (director general of the World Health Organization), the director general of the ICRC and the secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). We just introduced them and left the room but I have absolutely no doubt that the implementation agenda to tackle the humanitarian crisis must have been discussed in a rather precise way.

The Taliban are very careful about each word before signing a paper. Last week we discussed every word too. But the experience we have with them is that once they signed a declaration in the past with us, they respected their commitments.

GS News: Did they show interest in coming back?

AD: Yes, of course, and I plan to visit Afghanistan again in the second semester of this year so that we can go through the statement again together.

GS News : Why bring them to Geneva?

AD: The visit here was in the framework of our usual engagement with them and with other armed groups. From time to time, we like to bring the commanding structures of an armed movement to Geneva to take them out of the field and to expose them also to what we call l'esprit de Genève, where they can be for a few days in an international city and where we can talk calmly. In certain cases, like we did last week, we propose to other organisations to meet with them too because Geneva Call is unfortunately one of the few organisations talking to many of these armed movements.

GS News: You also told them about the Geneva conventions. What was their reaction?

AD: The fact that they have obligations towards these conventions is clear to them, but we helped them realise their obligations in more detail. We gave them concrete examples of legislation that have to be put in place for example. On the wider issues of their obligations under the law of human rights, it was an open dialogue. Their red line is always whether it clashes with what they call the values of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

GS News: A group of Afghan women held a protest outside the hotel the delegation was staying in, calling out the talks for not inviting Afghan women to the table. Why weren’t they?

AD: We have a lot of solidarity in our hearts for the suffering of Afghan women. Our deputy director of operations, Vanessa Merlet, came out and talked to the women for about two hours and they had a very constructive discussion where she explained what our mandate is.

But this was a strictly humanitarian meeting. We discussed women's issues under two prisms: female personnel in the healthcare system and the obligation to protect the civilian populations, including women. Other problematics, such as women in government, are outside of our scope. We did not want other organisations to be in the room for this restricted discussion. But I would like to underline that Geneva Call’s director in Kabul is a woman and she was very involved both in the preparation of the talks and the meetings themselves. Our director of Eurasia, Marie Lequin, and our deputy director of operation are also women. One of the two legal advisers from Geneva Call is also a woman. They were all there around the table and their presence was quite well accepted.

GS News: What other issues do you think still need work?

AD: There is one major topic that is outside the frame of the discussions, but which is like the elephant in the room. It’s money. It's very nice for us to have a declaration about the healthcare system and education. But there are about 40 hospitals that closed down because people are not getting paid and it’s the same for schools. If the international community doesn't find a way to fund these systems, the humanitarian crisis that is already there will just worsen. The international community also has to be more engaged, but it is up to the de facto government to gain their trust.

GS News: But countries have already pledged several millions of dollars for Afghanistan. Why is this money not reaching the country?

AD: For my small team of three offices in Afghanistan, paying employees is a problem because the whole banking system is still not fully working. I imagine that for the big agencies that have to deliver aid in the form of medicine, food and so on, transferring such amounts of money must be a headache. But this is not something that humanitarians can solve alone. This is a political decision. The question is: do  Afghanistan’s neighbours and the rest of the international community, including the great powers, want Afghanistan to turn into a major humanitarian crisis? And how will the de facto government gain their trust?

GS News: Does Geneva have a role to play in unblocking the political standoff?

AD: What we've seen last week is a clear act of committed neutrality and of foreign policy in favour of peace from the Swiss confederation and the canton of Geneva. Very often these groups are considered to be criminals by many other states, but Switzerland put its trust in humanitarian organisations like Geneva Call and provided the visas for delegation, like they have always done.