The Role of Sanctions in Afghanistan’s Humanitarian Crisis

Afghans walk on a road overlooking Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. The United Nations drummed up more than $1.2 billion in emergency pledges on Monday to help 11 million Afghans facing an escalating humanitarian crisis. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

As the international community grapples with how to approach the crisis in Afghanistan, many are questioning the role that international sanctions should play in seeking to encourage or pressure the Taliban not to revert to its ways of the past. This is not surprising given the limited diplomatic options on the table and the gravity of the Taliban’s earlier human rights abuses, particularly in relation to women and girls.

A concerted sanctions strategy will no doubt be in formulation in New York, as well as in Washington, Brussels, and London, particularly once other potential tools of leverage have been exhausted. Before proceeding, however, policymakers should ensure that these ever-popular tools of foreign policy do not place additional and unsurmountable humanitarian strain on the Afghan people.

On August 24, G7 leaders discussed a set of “sticks” and “carrots” including unilateral sanctions, counterterrorism regulations, and the provision or withholding of aid as leverage; a controversial action that is already raising significant concern in the humanitarian community. The United Nations (UN) and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) argue that humanitarian financing and assistance should be administered in a non-political manner, in line with the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence.

The United States (US) has so far frozen some $9.4 billion of Afghan government reserves held in US banks. It already lists the Taliban as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, equating to a ban on nearly all forms of contact with the group, and, by default, the new Afghan government.  The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and many more have halted hundreds of millions of dollars of financial support to the country over the past month. Banks and remittance providers have also started withdrawing or curtailing their services. Money is drying up. Panic is mounting.

Targeted UN sanctions have been in place against the Taliban since the UN Security Council (UNSC) passed Resolution 1267 in October 1999, which all members of the UN are obliged to enforce under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Broadly addressing a set of counterterrorism and armed conflict-related concerns, they were first imposed in response to the 1998 US embassy bombings in East Africa and tightened after 9/11, where the Taliban was seen as a critical enabler of al-Qaeda. Later resolutions addressed the Taliban’s reluctance to engage in a broader peace process, human rights abuses, and threats to Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.

The UN’s counterterrorism sanctions regimes were separated into two—Resolution 1988 and Resolution 1989—in June 2011 to facilitate political talks with the Taliban. They have included asset freezes against individuals and entities linked to the Taliban as well as a travel ban, diplomatic restrictions, an aviation ban, an arms import embargo, and restrictions on materials used in the heroin processing industry. The 1988 regime currently includes sanctions on 135 individuals and 5 entities.

Used judiciously, and in careful conjunction with other policy tools, such as mediation, peacekeeping, trade, and diplomacy, sanctions have helped the UN—as well as the US, the European Union (EU) and others acting unilaterally—to address a plethora of global security and normative challenges. These include armed conflict, terrorism, breaches of international humanitarian law, and the use of sexual-based violence in conflict.

While efficiency levels are generally low, sanctions can sometimes lead to changes in target behavior, constrain access to vital resources, serve a stigmatizing role, or contribute to the dismantling of illicit networks. They can also be used to signal to domestic audiences that something is being done. At the same time, they can exert disproportionate pressure on civilian populations and hinder the ability of humanitarian organizations to carry out their work. There are several reasons for this (all of which are relevant in the Afghan context).

First, many of today’s global sanctions regimes represent complex webs of overlapping measures. Numerous contemporary sanctions regimes now include a raft of autonomous sanctions overlaying those of the UN and a range of other regulations designed to tackle everything from terrorist financing to money laundering, often amplifying their collective impact. As a general rule, the more convoluted the crisis, the more convoluted are the ensuing sanctions imposed by a plethora of actors.

A second and related fact is that no mechanisms currently exist to monitor the collective impacts of the various unilateral, regional, and multilateral sanctions regimes that may be in place at any one time against targets in a given country; a figure which has been growing in light of the impasse among the permanent members (P5) of the UNSC—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom (UK), and the US—on agreeing a common approach in tackling some of the world’s most pressing security challenges. Indeed, several unilateral sanctions regimes (including those on Russia, Syria, Iran, Belarus, and Myanmar) are now planned and coordinated through ad-hoc coalitions between the US, the EU, and allies that may include Canada, the UK, Australia, and Japan or regional organizations like the African Union (AU) or League of Arab Nations. Nevertheless, sanctioning powers do not tend to assess the humanitarian impacts of multilayered sanctions regimes.

Third, the decline in more discriminating targeted sanctions over the past decade (particularly by the US and sometimes the EU) in favor of sweeping sectoral measures tends to impart negative impacts on ordinary civilians. Indeed, some have started to resemble the comprehensive embargoes of the past (Iraq, Cuba, Haiti, and Yugoslavia). US sanctions are particularly far-reaching, not only in their considerable breadth and depth, but also in light of their extraterritorial reach and the dominance of the US dollar in international finance.

Lastly, the phenomenon of “over-compliance” among private and not-for-profit sectors—also known as “de-risking” and the “chilling effect”—has become so widespread that many countries under multiple, broad-based sanctions regimes suffer from financial exclusion on a major scale and can be considered “unbanked”.  They can consequently face serious impediments in accessing basic healthcare and essential goods in light of constraints faced in supply chains and curtailed availability of functioning banking channels. This can be particularly serious for countries already suffering from humanitarian crises. Afghanistan is a case in point. Already one of the world’s poorest countries, its healthcare system, and wider social fabric are heavily dependent on foreign assistance. Prior to the current crisis, it was already reeling from a severe drought, armed conflict, and the pandemic, with half of the population already dependent on some form of humanitarian assistance when the Taliban resumed power.

The situation forces commercial companies and NGOs to curtail, or even withdraw, operations from “high risk” jurisdictions, often due to confusion, costs, and risks involved when navigating competing regulatory frameworks. Some countries, like North Korea, have faced complete isolation from the international financial system in recent years. There should be no reason to let Afghanistan fall into the same trap. Fortunately, the international community now possesses a wealth of expertise to help avert mistakes of the past.

First, strategic relief of some existing US and UN sanctions—while considered controversial in some circles—must first be explored both as a tool of leverage and in order to allow for political dialogue with the Taliban, as argued by UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres on September 9. Here, sanctioning powers can draw from some of the earlier modest successes in easing some UN, US, and EU sanctions measures in return for positive steps taken on the part of targets. It could also build on the UNSC’s delisting of some Taliban officials in 2010 and 2012 and provision of travel ban exemptions to move forward peace talks. A lesson may also be drawn here from the UN’s decision not to list al-Shabaab in Somalia (in its entirety) for fears over likely impacts on humanitarian aid deliveries. As such, US policymakers could consider listing individual members of the Taliban on a case-by-case basis (rather than the entire organization). The upcoming mandate renewal of the UN’s 1988 monitoring team at the end of 2021 could provide an opportunity for change in the UN’s longstanding Taliban sanctions.

Second, is the establishment of one or more safeguarded humanitarian banking channels into the country that would be exempted from US and UN sanctions (and any future regimes that come into force). This will not be easy but means protecting existing correspondent banking relationships (already in decline in the Afghan context over recent years) and providing adequate guarantees to banks.  As the process of over-compliance with US sanctions (in particular) is a global and rapidly-worsening phenomenon, the policy response needs to begin in Washington, but must also involve global stakeholders, including those in New York and across UN member states. Furthermore, they should ensure that de-risking does not hinder the already-beleaguered COVID-19 response in the country.

Third, all sanctions regimes, but particularly those in the US, should include far broader standing exemptions than have historically been the case. On 24 September, the US Treasury issued two General Licenses (GL 14 and 15) that permit the delivery of essential goods and humanitarian aid, including food, medicines, and COVID-19-related assistance. Lessons from other far-reaching sanctions regimes elsewhere in the world have shown that the current US humanitarian licensing system is not fit for purpose, however, and leaves vast swathes of the world’s population “unbanked”. A positive example can be drawn from the standing exemption included the current UN Somalia sanctions regime, last renewed in UNSC Resolution 2551 (2020) op. para.22, which seeks to allow for unhindered humanitarian assistance to the country.

Fourth, sanctioning powers should proactively ensure that trade in essential goods and humanitarian access can continue unhindered to Afghanistan (security challenges notwithstanding). If most of the new Afghan government remains listed in its entirety by the US, this will seriously complicate such activities. Furthermore, the current US General Licenses do not include certain important areas, such as education. Proactivity and clarity of guidance will remain key.

Fifth, the design of any new sanctions should include close input from public health and humanitarian professionals (something that is not currently the case across most, if any, international sanctions regimes). A common humanitarian monitoring mechanism should also be established to work across UN, regional, and unilateral sanctions regimes in the Afghan context.

Finally, countries hosting sizeable Afghan migrant populations should facilitate and safeguard their ability to send money home to family and friends in spite of sanctions, counterterrorism measures, and de-risking. Not least as remittances can act as vital lifelines to vulnerable populations, including in conflict zones—working in a countercyclical manner at times of severe economic stress. Lessons from other financially excluded countries working to meet UN Sustainable Development Goals will be important here.

Averting further (avoidable) suffering of the Afghan people should be a key priority when planning all future sanctions and counterterrorism regulations on Afghanistan and when revising existing measures. The past few decades have taught us that economic collapse and associated civilian pain do not equate to political gain. Indeed, such a strategy could help avoid the country becoming a failed state and terrorist safe haven again as well as averting a looming humanitarian catastrophe.

[i] Zuzana Hudáková, Thomas Biersteker, and Erica Moret (2021) “Sanctions relaxation and conflict resolution: Lessons from past sanctions regimes,” Carter Center (forthcoming, October).

Erica Moret is Senior Researcher at the Global Governance Centre and the Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies at the Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies (IHEID) and also serves as coordinator for the Geneva International Sanctions Network and independent advisor to the UN and EU.