New York

11 October 2021

Secretary-General’s press remarks on Afghanistan [as delivered]

Thank you very much for your presence.

Exactly four weeks after the humanitarian conference in Geneva, the humanitarian crisis is growing in Afghanistan — and so is the United Nations response to deliver for the Afghan people. 

The crisis is affecting at least 18 million people — half of the country’s population. 

Despite financial shortfalls, logistical challenges, and an increasingly complex geo-political situation, we are undertaking a massive humanitarian operation in the country.

I am particularly proud of the work of our colleagues, the vast majority of whom are Afghan nationals. 

In September alone, 

  • more than 3.8 million people received food assistance;
  • 21,000 children and 10,000 women received treatment for acute malnutrition;
  • 32,000 people received non-food items including blankets and warm clothes for winter;
  • 10,000 children were reached with community-based education activities;
  • 450,000 people were reached with primary and secondary healthcare;
  • 160,000 farmers and herders were provided with livelihoods support;
  • 12,000 people received emergency psycho-social and mental health support;
  • 186,000 drought-affected people received water;
  • and 150,000 people received hygiene promotion and hygiene kits. 

Last week alone,

  • WFP conducted simultaneous food distributions in Kabul, Herat, Mazar, and Kandahar in a single day;
  • WHO delivered medical supplies to treat 10,000 people with acute watery diarrhea — and opened two new COVID-19 labs;
  • More than 170 UNFPA-supported “Family Health Houses” in remote areas were provided medical supplies for services through the end the year. These facilities, on average, enable around 11,000 safe birth deliveries each year;
  • UNFPA also delivered Emergency Reproductive Health kits for 3,100 women to Kandahar Regional Hospital and Kunduz Regional Hospital;  
  • UNHCR, UNICEF and NGO partners reached well over 36,000 displaced and vulnerable Afghans during the week with core relief items and cash assistance;
  • FAO and NGO partners delivered more than 870 metric tonnes of concentrated animal feed.

This is one week alone of work.

UN agencies and humanitarian NGOs in Afghanistan are in a race against time to deliver life-saving aid to crisis-affected people and pre-position supplies ahead of winter.

They won’t let up.

They have been acting with the cooperation of the Taliban, who have progressively granted access to the areas requested and provided security when needed. The number of incidents during humanitarian operations has been in constant decline.

Humanitarian assistance saves lives. But it will not solve the problem if the economy of Afghanistan collapses. 

We also need to make sure we do everything we can to prevent the economic collapse of the country.

Already before the Taliban takeover in August, Afghanistan’s fragile economy -- which has been kept afloat by foreign aid over the past twenty years -- suffered from the impact of drought and COVID.

Right now, with assets frozen and development aid paused, the economy is breaking down. Banks are closing and essential services, such as healthcare, have been suspended in many places. 

We need to find ways to make the economy breathe again.

This can be done without violating international laws or compromising principles.

We must seek ways to create the conditions that would allow Afghan professionals and civil servants to continue working to serve the Afghan population.

I urge the world to take action and inject liquidity into the Afghan economy to avoid collapse.

Clearly, the main responsibility for finding a way back from the abyss lies with those that are now in charge in Afghanistan.

Since their takeover, the Taliban have – at various times – promised Afghan citizens — including women, children, minority communities, former government employees — that they would protect their rights.

Central to those promises was the possibility of women to move, to work, and to enjoy their basic rights — and for girls to have effective access to all levels of education, the same as boys. 

Gender equality has always been an absolute priority for me.

In my visits to Afghanistan, I was deeply moved by the courage, the resilience and determination of Afghan women and girls.

I am particularly alarmed to see promises made to Afghan women and girls by the Taliban being broken. 

Broken promises lead to broken dreams for the women and girls of Afghanistan. 

Since 2001, three million girls have enrolled in school and average schooling has increased from six years to 10.

Women and girls need to be the centre of attention.

Their ability to learn, work, own assets, and to live with rights and dignity will define progress. 

Eighty percent of Afghanistan’s economy is informal, with obviously a preponderant role of women.  

Without them, there is no way the Afghan economy and society will recover.

I strongly appeal to the Taliban to keep their promises to women and girls and fulfill their obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law. 

For our part, the UN is permanently engaging with the Taliban on the safety and security of our staff, humanitarian assistance and unhindered access for all, including female staff, and human rights with particular focus on women and girls’ rights. 

This is a make or break moment.

If we do not act and help Afghans weather this storm, and do it soon, not only they but all the world will pay a heavy price.

Without food, without jobs, without their rights protected, we will see more and more Afghans fleeing their homes in search of a better life.

The flow of illicit drugs, criminal and terrorist networks will also likely increase.

This will not only badly affect Afghanistan itself, but also the region and the rest of the world.

We all must do our part.

Thank you.

Spokesman:  Thank you. Edie Lederer, Associated Press. 

**Questions and Answers  

Question:  Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary‑General. You said that you were urging the world to take action and inject liquidity into the Afghan economy to avoid collapse. Are you calling on those western country that have frozen Afghan assets to release those assets to help bolster the Afghan economy?  

And in the next sentence, you said, clearly, the main responsibility for finding a way back from the abyss lies with those who are now in charge in Afghanistan. Are you also saying in your plea to the Taliban to keep their promise for equal rights, especially for women and girls, that that is a condition that they must fulfil in order to receive western aid, aid from many other countries? 

Secretary-General:  Well, there's one thing for me that is clear. The Afghan people cannot suffer a collective punishment because the Taliban misbehave.  

People should not die of hunger in any circumstance. And, so, one of my key messages is that the UN is in Afghanistan to deliver humanitarian aid and to deliver humanitarian aid [to] the people in need. And what we ask is unhindered access everywhere, and what we ask is for women and men to be able to deliver humanitarian aid in the same circumstances. This is one question. And humanitarian aid is based on the humanitarian principles:  independence, neutrality, and impartiality.  

Second thing, there are different questions related to the support, to Afghanistan. The questions of recognition or nonrecognition of a government, the question related to sanctions, the questions related to frozen assets. There are many questions of these that, obviously, the international community will be discussing with the Taliban and that will require that the Taliban abide by a number of important aspects, be it related to human rights and the rights of women and girls in particular, be it in relation to the question of terrorism, be it... so, there are a number... the inclusivity of the government. It's a second aspect.  

The third is the following:  Independently of those measures, there are forums to inject cash inside the economy through different entities, through NGOs, through UN agencies to allow for the people to receive assistance. And this is what we have been asking.  

We need to find ways - respecting international law, as I mentioned, respecting principles, as I said, we need to find ways to inject liquidity in the economy for the economy not to collapse and the people not to suffer tremendously.  

So, there are different aspects that need to be treated differently. And obviously, for me, as I said, personally, because this is a question that is very important for me personally, the question of women and girls is particularly relevant. 

Spokesman:  James Bays? 

Question:  James Bays, Al Jazeera. As you know, the G20 leaders are about to meet on this issue. Have the G20 so far been too hesitant? And how urgent is it that they take action now? 

Secretary-General:  I think that there has been a slow reaction of the international community in relation to what is a very complex problem, but I believe that there is a consensus in the international community about humanitarian aid, and I believe the UN is leading this process and, as you've seen, is doing a huge effort now.  

There is another question that is more complex, which is related to avoid the collapse of the economy. In relation to that, things have been slow.  

And then there is a more complex problem, which is the problem of a discussion about the future of Afghanistan and how Afghanistan relates with the international community. But that will be a lengthy, complex process.  

But in relation to the injection of liquidity in the Afghan economy, I think the international community is moving too slow. 

Spokesman:  Pam Falk, CBS. 

Question:  Thank you. Secretary‑General, a follow‑up on the liquidity question. That would imply, to some extent, the IMF and the World Bank. How do you inject this liquidity if the world doesn't recognize the Taliban?  

And since you said some of this is personal to you, do you suggest that countries now recognise the Taliban diplomatically since, as you said, they are in charge? Thank you. 

Secretary-General:  No, that's... those two things are completely different. The World Bank can create a trust fund and that trust fund can pay directly to people in need. UNDP has a trust fund that can then pay directly to people in need or organizations in need.  

So, we need to inject cash in the economy. I'm not saying that I'm asking the international community to give money to the Taliban or to the present authorities. No. We need to inject cash in the economy. We need to make the economy breathe. We need to allow people to survive. That is our concern.  

The questions of recognition and the questions of dealing with government are totally different and can be dealt with, of course, through the principles of international law and other principles.  

What I'm talking now is to find instruments to inject liquidity in the economy, to benefit the people.  

Spokesman:  Betul? 

Secretary-General:  And there are many non‑governmental organizations operating, as you know, in Afghanistan. 

Question:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary‑General. You have expressed concern about Taliban not keeping their promises to protect the rights of women and girls. We did not see that happening in the past. We're not seeing it happening now. Does the UN have a plan to make sure that Taliban will keep up with their promises? 

Secretary-General:  I can tell you one thing. This is a matter in which we are engaging the Taliban every single day. Results are slow, but I'll give you an example. We want our female staff to have full and unimpeded work in relation to humanitarian aid.  

Now, we have been engaging the Taliban province by province, day by day. And the result of that effort, in the months of September, is the following:  We managed to reach full agreement with the Taliban on this freedom in six provinces, against three in the beginning of the month; we have partial agreement in 20, instead of 16 in the beginning of the month; we have no agreement in four, against six in the beginning of the month; and there are four in which we have not yet had the possibility to engage, against eight in the beginning of the month.  

This is daily work, area by area, fighting for the rights of each woman, sometimes one by one. But this is our engagement to our staff and to the women and girls in Afghanistan in general.  

Engagement is not proclamation. Engagement is daily work.  

We might have difficulties. We might fail here and there, but one thing I can promise, we will not give up. 

Spokesman:  Majeed Gly, Rudaw Media Network. 

Question:  Thank you so much. Thanks, Secretary‑General. This is Majeed Gly, Rudaw Media Network.  

I want to ask... take this opportunity to ask you about another issue, which is a big day in Iraq today, a major milestone after the war against ISIS, which is a relatively successful election with the help of hundreds of United Nations observers. The election, according to non‑partial observers, went well. So far, it's going great.  

What's your message to the Iraqi leaders and the regional players in term of respecting the result of the elections and also not blocking the will of the Iraqis? Thank you. 

Secretary-General:  Well, first of all, I want to congratulate the Iraqi people for the way the elections took place. And, indeed, I'm proud of the work that the UN staff has done to support the process.  

My appeal is for the people of Iraq now to be calm, to wait for the results as they are proclaimed by the relevant entities, and to be prepared for a process of political dialogue, as it is normal, after an election takes place, for the formation of the government with different political parties negotiating among themselves and in an environment that we want to be an environment of peace, of security, and of tranquility. That is my appeal to the Iraqi people.  

But I think that the elections in themselves are a reason to congratulate the Iraqi people already. 

Spokesman:  Thank you very much. Thank you. [Cross talk] 

Question:  [Off mic] Any message for the regional powers? The regional powers, a message to them, to the neighbouring countries, the regional powers in term of not intervening in the political process...? [Cross talk] 

Secretary-General:  I think all countries should support Iraq according to the interests of the Iraqi people and with full ownership from the Iraqi authorities, instead of having agendas that have nothing to do with the interest of the Iraqi people. 

Spokesman:  Thank you very much. Thank you.