TRANSCRIPT OF THE SECRETARY-GENERAL’S PRESS CONFERENCE
ON THE HIGH-LEVEL MINISTERIAL MEETING ON THE HUMANITARIAN SITUATION IN AFGHANISTAN
Geneva, Switzerland – 13 September 2021
Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen of the media.
This conference has fully met my expectations in relation to the solidarity with the people of Afghanistan.
First of all, because of the massive level of participation, meaning that this is a matter that today mobilizes the interest not only of governments around the world, but of international organizations and civil society.
We have 156 participants, of which 96 are Member States and half of them speaking at the ministerial level.
We have 33 international and regional organizations and 22 international NGOs. It is a level of participation that shows how much this is a crucial issue at the present moment for the international community.
Second, it fully met my expectations because there was a unanimous support to the recognition that this is the moment to mobilize the international community to provide effective humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people, a moment in which the Afghan people is suffering an enormous, a dramatic humanitarian situation.
And not only this was recognized by all the interventions, but so was the idea that humanitarian aid needs to be provided safely, needs to be provided in full respect of humanitarian principles – impartiality, neutrality, independence, needs based – and at the same time, with a particular concern in relation to the participation of women and girls, and the rights of women and girls, in the context of the program of support and assistance to the Afghan people.
And third, because there was an extremely meaningful announcement of new commitments, of new financial commitments.
It is not possible to give you a figure about what was the amount – not all have spoken – and what was the amount specifically for the flash appeal. But considering the flash appeal, considering the support to neighboring countries and other programmes that several countries mentioned, today we already heard clearly more than 1 billion US dollars of pledges. It is impossible, as I said, to say how much of these will be for the flash appeal; but in any case, it represents a quantum leap in relation to the financial commitment of the international community towards the Afghan people.
But this conference is not an isolated act. This conference is a clear strategy of the United Nations to respond to the crisis in Afghanistan, and in particular to assume leadership in relation to humanitarian assistance.
I have to say that when I saw the tragic events that we all witnessed – the mass exodus, the chaos at the airport, the situation of panic that was shown by all televisions around the world, and even the pressure for many of our staff because they are seeing everybody leaving and expressing their own concerns, I decided that the UN should stay and deliver, with all the difficulties and all the unpredictable aspects of the future; that the UN should stay and deliver, and that it should use its traditional presence in Afghanistan – we are there since ‘47 and we were there in all moments, even during the other Taliban regime; that the UN should use its traditional presence in Afghanistan and its added value in humanitarian assistance to make humanitarian assistance the main factor of our intervention at the present moment.
To do so, we organized a programme of actions that we are implementing at the present moment.
First, it is impossible to provide humanitarian assistance inside Afghanistan without engaging with the de facto authorities of the country. And I do believe that it is very important to engage with the Taliban at the present moment for all aspects that concern the international community, be it about terrorism, be it about human rights, be it about drugs, be it about the nature of the government; our attitude is to engage.
And so, Martin Griffiths went to Kabul. If we can say that an Under-Secretary-General, in protocol terms, is equivalent to a minister, it was the first visit to Kabul to meet the Taliban leadership at that level.
And he went there clearly to establish the conditions for effective humanitarian assistance by the UN in Afghanistan, and for the guarantee that this could be done with the full cooperation of the Taliban, and with them taking fully into account our own concerns.
It is important to say that Martin Griffiths, beyond the discussions he had, received a letter in which – together with another received today – the Taliban have committed not only to guarantee our access to the whole territory, but also to provide security to UN convoys and reaching insecure areas; and so our main concern with the security of our staff was taken into account. They made some encouraging statements in relation to the important questions for us, which are the participation of women, in work in general and in humanitarian work in particular, and the right of girls in all areas, all levels of education – not to mention a number of other issues that are related, naturally, to the safety of our staff, to guarantee that our premises would be protected, and to another group of important questions.
Obviously, these commitments are commitments made; we will now have to see what happens on the ground. We know the situation is very complex. We know that in different parts of Afghanistan, there are different approaches to the most distinct areas, and we are, of course, very much concerned in making sure that humanitarian assistance is an entry point for an effective engagement with the Taliban in all other aspects of concern of the international community.
I was also very happy to see that the whole UN family came together, the whole one family came together for the preparation of our flash appeal – came together in assuming exactly the same strategy in relation to Afghanistan. Today, Filippo Grandi is in Kabul. Several other agencies will be going to Kabul to make sure that in their specific areas, we implement the different aspects that we have discussed during the visit of Martin Griffiths. And so there is a strong commitment of the UN to deliver, to deliver humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan, but at the same time to fully engage with the Taliban in relation to all the matters of concern that I have expressed several times.
But there is another observation I would like to make. Humanitarian aid will not solve the problem if the economy of Afghanistan collapses.
And we know that the risk is enormous, and that there is a dramatic lack of cash. We cannot even operate if the banks are not operating, even to pay the salaries to our staff. So, knowing that there are a number of complex questions in relation to these, knowing that different institutions have different obligations according to distinct aspects coming from past resolutions and things of the sort, my appeal to the international community is to find ways to allow for an injection of cash in the Afghan economy – allowing the economy to breathe and avoiding a collapse that would have devastating consequences for the people of Afghanistan, and possibly trigger a massive exodus with the consequences that you can imagine, in relation to the stability of the countries in the region. So, understanding all the problems and all the questions that many countries and institutions have raised, my appeal is for mechanisms to be found to make sure that we do not let the economy of Afghanistan collapse.
Correspondent: There have been some warnings on conditional humanitarianism, for instance, by the ICRC President Peter Maurer, and we could also hear from stakeholders within the UN system similar concerns in the recent weeks, for instance, WHO. Are you reassured about that after the conference today? And there have been also some calls for more inclusive humanitarian aid, and this morning the High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that there have been some attacks against, again, NGOs… How will the UN be able to be sure that the humanitarian aid will be inclusive now in Afghanistan?
Secretary-General: Well, that commitment was made. But I have to say that what Peter Maurer said today has my full support. Humanitarian aid abides by humanitarian principles. Humanitarian aid does not abide by political strategies; and in my opinion, if we want to protect the human rights of the people of Afghanistan, the best way is to move on with humanitarian aid and engage the Taliban and take profit of that humanitarian aid to push for those rights to be implemented.
Let’s have no illusion. We are not trying to transform Afghanistan into Sweden or Switzerland, but we know that there are a number of basic rights that are essential to implement and they are in the centre of our engagement with the Taliban. So, I don’t think that if the de facto authorities of a country misbehave, the solution is to do a collective punishment to their people.
I think we need to have a clear perspective of the primacy of the humanitarian principles, at the same time as a total determination to use them as a factor of engagement to make sure that the commitments that were made will be respected.
Having said so, I think that we have today in Afghanistan, in concrete terms, different situations in different areas. And, of course, we have in several areas very dramatic violations of human rights. You have, in others, a more secure and normal situation; but as you can imagine, what is news is not when a dog bites a man, what is news is when a man bites a dog. So obviously any incident, any problem gets much more attention than the things that are running a little bit better. So not discounting that we still face very serious problems of human rights, and being fully in solidarity with what today was affirmed by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, I think it is important to launch a strong program of humanitarian aid and to use it as a leverage in order to engage with the Taliban, make the human rights (inaudible) move forward.
Correspondent: You just said that more than 1 billion US dollars was raised, but can you tell me the specific amount by the end of the day?
Secretary-General: It is impossible. We still have more people to talk than those that have talked. So, it is impossible. As I said, this was not a pledging conference, this was an event, a high-level event, to mobilize solidarity with Afghanistan, and we launched the flash appeal to support it. But many of the interventions referred specifically to the flash appeal and many referred to support to countries in the region, which is part of an appeal that was launched by UNHCR just a few days ago. And many referred to other aspects of their support to Afghanistan. So, if you take what was said until now, more than 1.1 billion pledges were made, but I cannot tell you the exact number that corresponds to the flash appeal in itself. But, of course, all the money is needed for all the purposes.
Correspondent: Secretary-General, you were talking about the importance to talk with the Taliban and to engage with them. Would you be ready to go to Kabul, and under what conditions and when?
Secretary-General: This is something to decide at the right moment, when the right conditions are met.
Correspondent: Did the UN receive written assurances from the Taliban that aid agencies and their partners would be able to operate freely in Afghanistan and have complete control of their operations?
Secretary-General: The answer is yes… (inaudible). In the letter that you received there were two documents. One was guaranteeing the full humanitarian work of the UN and respect by the Taliban to that full humanitarian work. And the second, that they are available to provide security, to provide even escorts when there are situations of insecurity that would justify it. So, not only there is an attitude of acceptance but there is an attitude of support. That was what was written…. It is also important to underline that in that letter, the Taliban also made appeals to the international community to support Afghanistan in different other aspects in relation to development, in relation to drugs, in relation to questions of security. I mean, there is a clear interest of the Taliban also to engage with the international community, and I think this is what gives the international community some leverage. And it is relevant to say that — I mean, the Taliban can see that it would be important to also address the international community through this Conference.
Correspondent: Is the Taliban Government a deterrent or a facilitator of your operation in raising funds and delivering humanitarian support in Afghanistan?
Secretary-General: As I said, the visit that Martin Griffiths paid to Kabul was very useful and I believe it has helped to create the conditions for cooperation in humanitarian assistance.
Correspondent: Follow-up, there are reports that currently people were deprived from accessing food and other basic needs. However, the Taliban rejects these allegations; how are you going to make sure people in need in every corner of the country will equally access the assistance you provide? Do you trust the Taliban?
Secretary-General: By being there, by going everywhere, and by engaging with the Taliban to make it possible.
Correspondent: Secretary-General, how serious now is the possibility of a complete economic collapse in Afghanistan?
Secretary-General: It is serious. The financial system is, for the present moment, extremely limited in its capacity, which means that a number of basic economic functions cannot be delivered. And of course, for people: they had, as you know, the possibility to get a limited amount of cash but with enormous difficulties – we are having enormous difficulties. I mean, an economy does not work without the blood, and the blood of the economy is cash. So, as I said, I think it is important to avoid the collapse of the economy, and I think for the international community it is to find the ways to do it without violating international rules and norms. And there are situations in the past where similar things were dealt with.
Correspondent: Mr. Secretary-General, I would just like to ask you, you have spoken about the linkage between financial aid as a lever for human rights delivery. But isn’t this not going to make it incredibly difficult, from an economical point of view, when there is a de facto government, which is the Taliban, who are the ones who are going to be administering the situation?
Secretary-General: We deliver aid everywhere in the world, and we have delivered humanitarian assistance during the first period in which the Taliban were ruling Afghanistan.
Correspondent: I would like to ask a question regarding the guarantees related to the great achievements made for the last 20 years on the rights of women and on the access to health and on freedom of expression. What are the guarantees? Because this morning the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that there was a gap between what was said and also the facts in the field?
Secretary-General: It is exactly because there are no guarantees that it is important to engage, and to engage in a way in which, I would say, we are simultaneously providing an important service to the people of Afghanistan; and that gives us the moral authority to say that a number of things need to happen in relation to, namely, a matter of great, great concern for me in all situations around the world, which is the question of the rights of women and girls.
Correspondent: Secretary-General, I have a question: since the US and NATO troops left Afghanistan, is the UN actually now ready to play the absolute leadership role there? And do you get some support from Member States to do that? That is my first question. And I have a little question about the absence of Russia and China at this conference, could explain this?
Secretary-General: Russia and China will be speaking during the session. I think there are false expectations about what the UN can do. I mean we have no army. And we have seen even those with armies what they manage. We have not the financial capacity that countries have, both from the positive and the negative, because they can give money or freeze accounts. We have not that possibility. We are present in Afghanistan with our people having nothing else but our commitment to the Afghan people. To think that the UN has the capacity to solve the problems that during 20 years were not solved by hundreds of thousands of soldiers, I do not know from how many countries, is complete nonsense.
The UN will do its best because we are there. Because we never gave up; because we never went out; because we have been there from the beginning; because we are totally committed to support the Afghan people. But do not imagine that the UN will be able to determine how the government will be, how the government will rule, how the situation will evolve… I mean our capacity is what it is. I think what we do makes sense, I think what we do is necessary, I think what we do, namely in the area of humanitarian aid, has a leading role, it is clear. But to think that the UN is going to solve the problems that so many for so much time, with so many trillions, have not solved is obviously complete nonsense.
Correspondent: Secretary-General, you have been talking about engaging with the Taliban. Do you think it is time to delete the Taliban from the Security Council list of terrorist organizations?
Secretary-General: Those are decisions to be taken by Member States, where Member States can see that the conditions are met for those decisions to be taken. The Secretariat does not intend to interfere with those questions because, obviously, by interfering with those questions we would undermine our possibility of action. The appeal that I made was an appeal that a number of mechanisms or a number of waivers are introduced in order to allow for effective humanitarian aid to be delivered and at the same time for the economy not to collapse. This is, at the present moment, our priority. Of course, the Security Council, the Member States, will progressively evaluate the situation and, they will, I am sure, take the decisions at the right moment that are justified by what happens.
Correspondent: Secretary-General, could you describe how the UN agencies are ready to send especially international staff to Afghanistan in order to resume the full operation on the ground?
Secretary-General: UN flights have started from [Islamabad] to Kabul. They were already operating from Islamabad to Herat, Mazar and Kandahar. So, I think now we are creating the conditions to have the possibility of doing it when we consider it adequate, because there are logistical questions. Sometimes it is not to have too many people that we do the right thing, because of the difficulties in supplies and in other [areas] that are still present; but now I think all the conditions are met for the agencies to be able to progressively put in place whatever mechanism they will consider necessary. But they are now delivering according to what is needed; we have a total of 130 international staff in Afghanistan, of which 15 are outside Kabul, so the system is fully working.
Thank you very much.