Tutoring the Taliban on humanitarian law

Foreign aid workers in Afghanistan report an openness by the Taliban to keep aid flowing. Is the group honoring the innocence of civilians?

A child who fled from fighting between Taliban and Afghan security forces in northern Afghanistan receives treatment in Kabul, Aug. 10.

This past April, when President Joe Biden announced that U.S. forces would be leaving Afghanistan, the aid group Geneva Call also announced a smartphone app in three languages for the Afghan people. Called Conflict Has Rules Too, the app was the latest example of international efforts to engage all Afghans – especially the Taliban – to respect humanitarian law and protect innocent people in the country’s fragile and violent environment. With chaotic scenes at the Kabul airport of civilians trying to flee the country, one might think that spreading the principles of the Geneva Conventions – safety for civilians in harm’s way – might not be sinking in.

Yet in mid-August, as the Taliban were taking over the capital, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said the group would work with existing institutions that have aided hungry and injured Afghans. He said U.N. humanitarian workers have remained in territory already under Taliban control.

Other aid groups have reported arrangements with the Taliban, especially those aid groups that have been impartial humanitarian actors and did not take U.S. money or work with NATO forces. “Many aid organizations that have operated in Afghanistan for 20 years or more say they are determined to carry out their missions across the country,” reports Devex, a media site for the global development community.

Doubts about the Taliban’s ultimate intentions remain high. That is why the U.N. chief also called on the group “to exercise utmost restraint to protect lives and to ensure that humanitarian needs can be met.” An estimated half of all Afghans, or 18 million people, are in need of aid, a result of not only two decades of war but also the COVID-19 pandemic and a drought. And keeping foreign assistance in place is important for another reason: Seventy-five percent of all social services in the country have come through international aid groups.

Efforts to persuade the Taliban to honor neutral aid groups – and humanitarian law in general – have not been easy. Yet a 2016 study of conflict zones by Geneva Call found that nonstate armed groups often come to appreciate humanitarian law after being exposed to aid workers.

Protection of such workers in Afghanistan could suggest the Taliban might be more protective of all civilians. Assisting innocent civilians – with food, education, shelter, and hope – can inspire an appreciation of innocence itself and dampen conflict.

“It appears that the protection of genuine humanitarians ultimately rests on the integrity of their actions, underpinned by a universal instinctive belief in the sanctity of humanitarian work,” stated the World Economic Forum in a piece for World Humanitarian Day on Aug. 19. Perhaps that is why so many Taliban, after taking over a district, approached aid offices with an eye to keeping their work going.

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