OTTAWA – The Liberal government introduced legislation on Thursday that would alter terrorism provisions of the Criminal Code that have blocked Canadian humanitarian aid from reaching Afghanistan.
“The message delivered by Afghans, aid groups and witnesses before Parliament is clear,” Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino told reporters in Ottawa.
“The situation in Afghanistan is dire.”
The proposed legislation, known as Bill C-41, would amend the Criminal Code to provide a carveout for Canadian aid workers to carry out duties in areas controlled by terrorists without being prosecuted.
If passed, it would allow aid workers to apply for an exemption that lasts five years, in order to help people in crisis “in a geographic area that is controlled by a terrorist group.”
Humanitarian groups say that more than a year ago, Global Affairs Canada warned them that purchasing goods or hiring locals in Afghanistan would involve paying taxes to the Taliban, which would be categorized under the law as contributing to a terror group.
The issue thwarted attempts by aid workers to reach the country, since even highway-usage fees and airport landing taxes would benefit the Taliban.
After the Taliban’s August 2021 takeover of Kabul, Canada’s allies moved much more swiftly to alter national laws and issue exemptions to ensure aid workers could keep working in Afghanistan.
Ottawa has helped fund United Nations efforts on the ground, but the Canadian aid sector says it’s been excruciating to not be part of the response to widespread malnutrition, an irregularly cold winter and daughters being sold to help families afford basic goods.
Groups such as World Vision Canada say they’ve held back on launching donation appeals because of the rules, despite Afghanistan being one of the countries for which Canadians are most likely to pledge money.
“What this is going to allow us (to do) is to unleash the power of Canadian private donations,” said the charity’s president, Michael Messenger.
“I have Canadians that are keen to support (this). We have goods that we’ve had to hold back, turn away or program elsewhere.”
The exemptions outlined in Bill C-41 would allow for “providing or supporting the provision of humanitarian assistance” as well as health care, education, “programs to assist individual in earning a livelihood,” promoting human rights and helping to resettle people.
Federal officials said during a technical briefing that an organization could apply for one permit to cover all its activities, instead of requiring separate ones for individual aid workers. They said there is no timeline for how soon exemption applications could be processed.
Under the proposed law, cabinet would grant the exemptions even if there is a risk that a terror group will try to seize goods or otherwise interfere, as long as the benefits of the activity outweigh that risk. The decision would be based on a security assessment or measures undertaken to mitigate the risk.
These proposed exemptions would be eligible to both Canadians abroad and people who reside in Canada. The minister could withdraw the exemptions at will, and the drafted legislation bars anyone who is or is likely to be involved in a terror group from being granted an exemption.
Under the legislation, annual reports by the minister covering the use of such exemptions over the previous calendar year would be due every July. The minister’s decisions would also be subject to judicial review.
Islamic Relief and Save the Children both said the legislation might help them deliver aid in other places held by terrorist groups, such as in parts of Syria and Nigeria.
“Increasingly, the humanitarian space is shrinking for agencies like ours. The world is becoming a place it’s difficult for us to work,” said Save the Children’s Canada head, Danny Glenwright.
“It’s better late than never. It’s a significant first step.”
Amid criticism of how long it took the government to table legislation, International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan stressed that Canada sent millions to Afghanistan through UN agencies.
“No dollar was ever spared when supporting the Afghan people. What this allows us to do is be able to broaden our scope and work with trusted partners who have (an even) greater reach,” he said.
“Let me be especially clear here. This is a gender apartheid, and it must stop,” he said, referring to the conditions for Afghan women under Taliban rule.
Sajjan added that the legislation will give Canada the ability to put “even greater pressure onto the Taliban to get them to countermand some of the edicts that they have brought forward,” he said, and push for unlimited access to education for girls.
Asked whether Ottawa would withhold humanitarian aid as a bargaining chip, Sajjan insisted it would not.
“It is our responsibility to advocate and fight very strongly for the rights of women all over the world, and especially in Afghanistan. So we need to be able to be creative,” he said.
Sajjan said that if the legislation passes, he would not rule out a donation matching program for Canadian charities working in Afghanistan.
The NDP is urging Ottawa to prioritize the prospective law.
“While this legislation comes 18 months too late, New Democrats will take a close look at this bill and work to ensure that Canadian organizations will have the tools they need to finally restart their life-saving work in Afghanistan,” foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson said in a statement.
“This legislation, and the resulting deliberations, must be prioritized to ensure more lives are not lost (as) the result of the Canadian government’s inaction.”
Conservative international development critic Garnett Genuis said the government’s slow response echoed its problems bringing Afghan military interpreters to safety.
“Conservatives believe that legislative action is required to address the challenges getting aid into Afghanistan,” he wrote in an email.
“We are studying this legislation and will be working with stakeholders to ensure that the promised and necessary changes are made.”