Exclusive: Geneva NGO leads talks with Taliban on humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan

A Taliban flag is seen in a military position on a hilltop in Kabul, Afghanistan, 7 October 7, 2021. (Credit: Keystone/REUTERS/Jorge Silva)

A Taliban delegation landed in Geneva on Sunday to meet with organisations and will be staying for a few days to discuss the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan, as first reported by Geneva Solutions. The visit was organised by Geneva Call, a humanitarian organisation which engages with armed groups.

“We have several years of engagement with the Taliban and the meetings here in Geneva are in the framework of that continuous engagement with them to ensure that the basic humanitarian norms are not only being respected in public speeches, but implemented on the ground,” Alain Délétroz, director general of Geneva Call, told Geneva Solutions.

Marie Lequin, Geneva Call’s head of Eurasia Region, stressed that the meetings in Geneva were exclusively focused on the humanitarian situation and were not “political”.

“Twenty-three million Afghans who are now below the poverty line, and are in a dire humanitarian situation,” Délétroz added.

The purpose of the meeting according to Délétroz is to obtain guarantees for the humanitarian actors such as that funds will in fact reach the Afghan population in need and that humanitarian staff can work in safe conditions. “Trust has to be established between all the parties,” Délétroz said.

Geneva Call also offered the possibility for other organisations to arrange a meeting with the Taliban but declined to say who else would be meeting with them. According to other Geneva Solutions sources, the ICRC and MSF are among them. On the side of the Afghan group, Lequin said that the Taliban representatives had been “designated by the effective government to be here, so they have the capacity to influence”, but did not specify who was part of the delegation.

The Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs also has plans to meet with the Taliban delegation this week. “The discussions aim to improve respect for humanitarian principles, promote humanitarian access to populations, and raise awareness of human rights, including the rights of women and minorities, among the Afghan delegation,” said Paola Ceressetti, a spokesperson for the FDFA, adding that the Swiss delegation would include representatives of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the FDFA’s peace and human rights division and the Asia and Pacific political division.

Aid tap turned off

Since the change in regime, donor countries have halted assistance by freezing $10bn worth of financial assets and enforcing other economic sanctions in an effort to pressure the government into respecting human rights, especially those of women. But the country’s economy, which relied mostly on foreign aid, is rapidly collapsing, with thousands losing their jobs or going without pay.

The country is also experiencing a severe drought, which has ravaged farmers’ crops. The World Food Programme, which continues to operate in the country, has warned that if aid does not come fast, half of Afghanistan’s 40 million people risk starvation.

Read also: Climate threat looms large in Afghanistan

The Taliban have made pleas for humanitarian relief to be renewed and have been multiplying efforts to get state assets unfrozen, with little avail. The UN launched in January a record aid appeal for $5bn, with countries committing for now around $419 million. It had already rounded up $1.2bn in emergency pledges in November 2021.

The issue of women remains a point of contention as reports of women being shunned from the public sphere, women activists being imprisoned and girls being barred from school, have sparked outcry from Western countries and human rights advocates.

Lequin said that the issue of women had been “touched upon constantly” during discussions with the Taliban. “You cannot discuss health or education without discussing women,” she added.

A delegation led by the Afghan foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi was in Oslo, Norway at the end of January to meet with Western officials and civil society from Afghanistan. It was the Taliban’s first trip to Europe since seizing power in August 2021, and in decades.

Norway’s foreign minister Anniken Huitfeldt said that the talks, which sparked a small protest of Afghan citizens in Oslo, would “not represent a legitimisation or recognition” of the new rulers, which has yet to be recognised by any country, reported Al Jazeera. However, the Taliban has presented the meeting in that manner, with Muttaqi saying in an interview with Agence France Presse that “on the process of getting recognition... we have come closer to that goal”.

Ceresetti said that “the presence of the Taliban delegation on Swiss territory does not represent a legitimisation or recognition of the Taliban”.

“Geneva is an impartial platform that is available to address the major challenges of our time through dialogue. This implies inviting all actors who can play a role in the search for solutions. Therefore it is important to talk with the de facto authorities of the country,” she added.

Echoing the remarks, Délétroz said that the Taliban talking to Geneva Call did not “legitimise” it. “What would legitimise them is respecting all international obligations Afghanistan has under international conventions,” he said, noting that part of the purpose of the visit was to have them learn about their international obligations and the challenges they face in gaining the support of the international community.

“Dialogue is always the solution to all crises. We need to leverage that for change and we are seeing some change. We see that the Taliban are looking for support,” said Lequin.

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