Open letter to the Afghan Support Group

Dear Madam, dear Sir, As we all know, the situation of the people in Afghanistan is extremely dramatic today. Consequently, the participants of this year's annual Afghan Support Group meeting have the opportunity and the enormous responsibility to devise policies and facilitate actions that can alleviate the suffering in Afghanistan. On November 27, Médecins Sans Frontières hosted a colloquium in Berlin which brought together UN, EU and German decision - makers, as well as NGOs, media and researchers for an open dialogue about challenges to humanitarian engagement in Afghanistan. As the German representative of Médecins Sans Frontières, I would like to draw on the discussion at the colloquium and to share our concerns with you. Médecins Sans Frontières has brought humanitarian aid to the people of Afghanistan for the past twenty years. We have been working in all parts of the country and have concentrated on medical care and nutritional programmes, including in the camps for the internally displaced. Before September 11th, we were present in Afghanistan with around 70 international and over four hundred Afghan staff. While our international staff had to be evacuated from Taliban - held areas for several weeks due to insecurity, our programmes mostly continued, though sometimes at less than full capacity. Our local Afghan staff showed dedication and determination in maintaining our work often at considerable personal risk. At present, there are again around 60 international staff back in the country - in Kabul, Herat, Mazar, Faizabad, Taloquan and Jalalabad. While rehabilitation and reconstruction seem to be the dominant issues in many circles, we would like to point out that the humanitarian situation of a large part of the Afghan population is at least as desperate now as it was before September. The problems we face today in bringing humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable are not fundamentally different from the challenges we faced before. From the humanitarian point of view, today's priorities therefore are: 1) Humanitarian aid needs to reach the most vulnerable; many of them are not to be found in the cities where the majority of aid organisations are active. Humanitarian organisations need to be able to set up structures to reach these populations outside urban areas. 2) Humanitarian action is separate from political and military action and must maintain its independence. Médecins Sans Frontières as well as other organisations like the ICRC have proven that working in Afghanistan without military protection is possible—as is usually the case in the contexts where we work. For humanitarian organisations, security cannot be determined by military criteria. Even if humanitarian organizations and the military may need to work alongside each other, a clear and definitive division between their roles must be upheld. 3) The Afghan people need protection from violence, persecution and arbitrary treatment; displaced persons, asylum seekers and refugees should be protected against refoulement, forced repatriation and maltreatment in camps. In view of the currently desperate situation of the internally displaced persons in southern and western Afghanistan, the neighboring countries should open their borders and the international community should work to ensure adequate protection for populations in distress. If any military force should ever be applied in protecting people, our experience shows that it should focus on protection for the most vulnerable and not primarily on protection for aid agencies. 4) The UN agencies, including the WFP, must receive the means and the support from donor countries in order to be able to work effectively. They urgently need to set up functional, controllable distribution systems and to reestablish credible negotiation and coordination mechanisms in order to widen and strengthen humanitarian space, in particular for newly arrived aid agencies. The UN should do everything in its power to open transport routes to ensure the presence of sufficient supplies, as for example at the border at Termez in Uzbekistan. The UN and other aid agencies must demonstrate the ability to set up and render functional an efficient distribution system. Until basic needs are met, any consideration of repatriation is irresponsible. 5) Peace and stability are clear priorities for Afghanistan - but humanitarian aid must not be used as an incentive to promote these political goals. Such an approach would make humanitarian aid conditional and render it both partial and partisan – a breach of the universally accepted humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality. 6) The recurring notion that the armed conflict in Afghanistan is over is a dangerous assumption because it can lead to an inarticulate humanitarian aid policy. Rehabilitation and reconstruction will hopefully be possible in the future. Until such time, millions of Afghans will need humanitarian aid to survive. At least for the coming months, and probably for a much longer period, humanitarian aid will be essential and cannot be replaced by long - term development programmes. Yet, since development aid must be distinguished from emergency humanitarian aid, it may be an option to make aid for rehabilitation and reconstruction conditional on the observation of human rights—while ensuring that humanitarian aid remains unconditional and independent of political goals. 7) Drawing on our experience from field work in the region, I wish to highlight the intensified conflicts in neighboring regions of Afghanistan, as for example in Kashmir. These conflicts and the populations affected by them require the careful and ongoing attention of the international community. I wish you fruitful discussions and a successful conference. Sincerely, Dr. Ulrike von Pilar Executive Director