I call this meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting number 11 of the House of Commons Special Committee on Afghanistan, created pursuant to the order of the House of December 8, 2021.
Today's meeting is taking place in a hybrid format, pursuant to the House order of November 25, 2021. I would like to remind those present in the room to please follow the recommendations from public health authorities, as well as the directive of the Board of Internal Economy on October 19, 2021, in order to remain healthy and safe.
Should any technical challenges arise, please advise me. We may need to suspend the meeting for a few minutes, in order to ensure that all members are able to participate fully.
I will briefly go over committee business before we go to the minister. For the meeting on May 9, the is scheduled. For the meeting on May 16, we will begin in camera for drafting instructions. The analysts will be providing a detailed outline for consideration prior to the meeting. Nothing is in stone until the committee considers and adopts the report, but, given our limited time on May 16, it is my hope that the document can help focus our discussions. Following the drafting instructions, we will resume in public on May 16 for two panels of witnesses of 45 minutes each. Then, on May 30 and June 6, we will consider the draft report. That will enable us to complete our work in time for presentation in the House on June 8.
If there are no questions from the members, I will proceed to the witnesses.
I would like to welcome, on behalf of all committee members, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Honourable Mélanie Joly. Accompanying the minister are associate deputy minister of Foreign Affairs, Cindy Termorshuizen; acting assistant deputy minister, consular, security and emergency management, Julie Sunday; and assistant deputy minister, Asia, Paul Thoppil. Joining us online are assistant deputy minister, international security and political director, Heidi Hulan; and assistant deputy minister, global issues and development, Peter MacDougall.
I understand, Minister, that you will be joining us for the first hour and that your officials will be with us for the second hour. Is that correct?
Good evening, respected colleagues.
I am pleased to be joining you today.
Thank you for the opportunity to appear before your committee to speak to the terrible situation in Afghanistan.
The Afghan people have endured decades of conflicts and instability, and it would be hard to overstate the difficulties they have been dealing with since the Taliban took power.
Although I was not the Minister of Foreign Affairs when Kabul fell, I can tell you that my predecessor and all members of government, including our public servants at Global Affairs Canada, invested tremendous efforts in an extremely difficult situation to evacuate Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their families, as well as Afghans.
Those efforts continue to this day. My colleague Minister talked to you about this in detail when he appeared last week. By the way, I would like to commend him on his hard work in this very important file.
I will start with the evacuation. The period leading up to the fall of Kabul last summer was a time of growing insecurity and uncertainty. By mid-July, a full month before the evacuation, all remaining allied military and intelligence assets in Afghanistan were confined to Kabul. Canada's embassy staff were also preparing for the prospect of a temporary closure of our mission in Kabul, as the Taliban moved towards the capital.
I want to underline the complexity and challenges of this task and the work that our foreign service, immigration and Canadian Armed Forces personnel undertook to make it possible. In July and into August, Canada implemented an immigration program for Afghans who were most at risk and undertook a large-scale evacuation.
We want to thank Afghanistan's neighbouring countries, such as Pakistan, Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar, for their support in welcoming the refugees. We remain in close contact with allies and partners in the region to help get as many people out as possible.
While recognizing the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, our government committed to resettle at least 40,000 Afghan refugees through special immigration measures. Interest in those programs has been unprecedented. So far, we have welcomed over 12,000 Afghan refugees, and more flights are arriving every week.
You have heard from witnesses who appeared before your committee that it is not easy to get people out of Afghanistan. Among the most difficult obstacles to overcome are the inability to find safe, secure and reliable ways to leave the country, the lack of stability in the country and exit requirements that are constantly changing at checkpoints and international crossings. We are working with local partners and neighbouring countries to overcome those obstacles and find solutions for Afghans who want to come to Canada.
Before the fall of Kabul, Afghanistan's humanitarian situation was among the world's worst. The Taliban takeover has only worsened the situation. It threatens to wipe away decades of progress. Afghanistan is today on the brink of universal poverty. We are particularly concerned about the growing food insecurity throughout the country and the backsliding of women's and girls' rights. My colleague, , is working hard to ensure that Canada is supporting humanitarian partners who are providing life-saving assistance in Afghanistan.
So far this year, Canada has committed more than $143 million in humanitarian assistance to help people in Afghanistan and Afghans in neighbouring countries. We'll continue to call on the Taliban to ensure that aid workers, including women, have unimpeded access to those in need.
I now want to speak to an issue that is very close to my heart.
While we continue to press the Taliban to respect international humanitarian law and human rights, particularly the rights of women and targeted communities, we have seen a significant step backwards in recent months. The situation that Afghans are facing, and particularly these vulnerable groups, is absolutely terrible. We're deeply concerned by the growing reports of violence and human rights abuses. Civilians, journalists, human rights defenders, government employees and former members of the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces are also being targeted.
We continue to call on the Taliban to honour its promise of amnesty. I cannot overstate our condemnation of the Taliban's decision to reverse their commitment on allowing all girls to return to school at the secondary level. Because of their actions, prospects for a better life are being denied to girls. Access to education is a human right to which every woman and every girl is entitled. Canada has been an advocate for a coordinated effort by the international community to pressure the Taliban to uphold human rights.
We're also exploring how to concretely continue our support to Afghan women and Afghan human rights defenders.
I've talked to David Sproule, our special envoy to Afghanistan. I've raised this matter with my counterparts across the globe, including Tony Blinken of the United States, many times, but also to the European Union, Germany, the Netherlands, Indonesia, Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, Egypt, Pakistan, Norway, Finland and Sweden. My deputy minister has also travelled to Pakistan, Qatar and Kuwait.
Obviously we've raised this, as a country, at the UN. In this area, Canada welcomes the strong human rights mandate of the UN mission to Afghanistan, following the Security Council's renewal of the mission on March 17. We also welcomed the appointment of Richard Bennett as the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan.
The Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan has had profound implications for regional stability and for global security. The Taliban is a listed—
Okay. Thank you. I appreciate that answer.
I'd like to raise an issue that was brought to the attention of this committee recently. There are about 40 signatories to a submission that we received. These were locally engaged staff on the ground in Afghanistan. They were given severance payments and pensions for the work they had done for Canada, but when they filed their 2021 taxes, they were hit with taxes as if they were Canadian residents.
It seems to me there's a question of fairness here, because the work they had done was in Kabul and in Afghanistan and not here in Canada, and the work was done before they were permanent residents of Canada, and residents of Canada for the purposes of the Income Tax Act. While the Canada Revenue Agency may be following the letter of the law, it doesn't seem to be consistent with the spirit of our commitment to Afghans who had a significant and enduring connection to Canada.
I'm wondering if you are working with your colleagues to seek a resolution to this matter.
Your question is definitely valuable, Michael, because the goal of this committee is to do better in a difficult situation, to be able to provide recommendations and to always do better in difficult situations.
I would say not only Canada, but also the world and, particularly, NATO allies, took note of what happened in Afghanistan when dealing with other issues, including Ukraine.
That being said, you have to compare oranges with oranges. As you well know, Canada left Afghanistan in 2014. We didn't have a very strong military presence on the ground, which was obviously different from the Americans and other NATO countries. That limited our capacity to get people out. That being said, we were able to work with some of these like-minded countries to get people out, while our presence was already limited.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20. At the time—and I was not minister—
Minister, thank you so much for being here today. You touched on this briefly in your remarks, but I wondered if you could just expand a bit.
One of the things that has troubled me deeply, which Canadians are not talking about, is what's happening to women and girls in Afghanistan. I don't know that Canadians are even aware of what's happening to girls. Schools are being closed. Women can't travel without a male escort. Secondary schools were closed. I'm not sure if they've reopened or not, but the curriculum has been changed to put a focus on religion, rather than academics.
What is Canada doing to speak out about this, Minister? Will these actions of the Taliban make it more challenging not only for Canada, but for other countries to engage with them?
Thank you Pam. That's a really good question.
Obviously, one thing that Canada from can be proud of is the fact that for two decades, and with successive governments, we were able to help educate women and girls in Afghanistan. This was a priority. The backsliding of women's and girls' rights is extremely preoccupying. When I say “extremely preoccupying”, it's that we're indeed seeing that they don't have access to secondary-level school.
Pam, you also mentioned the question of free movement. They are extremely limited in their movements. They are also being restricted in terms of their dress and the type of clothing they can wear. We know that they cannot have access—I mentioned free movement—without a male escort. These are just examples.
It was part of the amnesty negotiation conditions at the time, whereby women's and girls' rights needed to be respected. Ethnic communities needed to be respected. Overall human rights needed to be respected, which included the fact that public protests could be respected. Now we're seeing people being arrested and detained. Also, it was clear in the amnesty negotiation that there would be no retaliation against the people who were part of the former regime, but we've seen that more than 500 have been killed since the beginning in August.
Clearly, the situation is Afghanistan is even worse now than it was in August. Obviously, one of the biggest tragedies is what is going on with women and girls, but the overall human rights issue is a problem.
Now, what are we doing? We are raising it directly. Every time David Sproule, our special envoy, meets with the Taliban along with other ambassadors and special envoys, they raise it. We've obviously raised it at the UN and with many multilateral organizations. I've raised it bilaterally with many other countries, particularly the EU.
Minister, thank you very much for joining us today and for giving us some of your precious time for this very important study. We are extremely appreciative.
You said earlier that the Taliban is a listed terrorist entity and that, for this reason, Canadian non-government organizations, or NGOs, were struggling to do their work on the ground in Afghanistan.
According to the United Nations, or UN, Security Council resolution 2615, humanitarian assistance and other activities for meeting the essential needs of people in Afghanistan are not a violation of the sanctions regime targeting the Taliban and intended to freeze their assets.
Is Canada implementing UN's resolution 2615 in the Canadian context?
It would be my pleasure. You know how quickly I answer my telephone when you call me.
Mr. Thoppil, you were at the meeting of April 4, 2022, and I asked you a question you did not answer. When I looked over the list of guests for this evening, I was very happy to see that I would have an opportunity to put the question to you again.
I asked you whether your department had provided a legal opinion on amending the Criminal Code, as requested by NGOs.
This is very simple. If a legal opinion was provided, you can answer me with a yes, and if no legal opinion was provided, you can answer me with a no.
I yield the floor to you, Mr. Thoppil.
I am a person who doesn't often give up, so I want to come back to the question I asked you before, Minister. It is difficult for me to understand, as some are talking about ministerial privilege, while others are talking about national security.
I am actually under the impression that this is about politics. You don't want to answer the question because, if you tell us that an opinion was provided, you must tell us what it consisted of and, if you tell us that an opinion was not provided, we have to tell you that you are not taking the matter seriously.
You don't want to answer the question for political reasons, isn't that right?
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Thank you to the officials for being here. It's an honour for me to be subbing at this committee.
I serve as the point person for international development for our caucus. I want to focus my questions on that issue, picking up on some of what's been already discussed.
I really appreciate the challenges here. We have a very dire humanitarian situation. We want to do all we can to make sure resources don't end up in the hands of the Taliban. At the same time, I think, Canadian organizations, Canadians individually, and all of us here feel the imperative to see what we can do and if we can do more to help people who are in a really challenging situation.
I think one of the problems is that we have legal constraints that apply to Canadian organizations that may not apply to international organizations that we are funding. It seems to me that in these kinds of situations, Canadian organizations have constraints that relate to the possibility that any of their resources will end up in the hands of hostile actors. Large, multilateral organizations that taxpayers are also funding are not subject to the same constraints.
I'd just like to hear a bit more from officials about what they think can be done specifically to remove the impediments that we're hearing about from stakeholders that make it harder for them to confront this really dire humanitarian situation. I'm sure you're hearing about it as well.
It's a really important question. I think like all of the members of this committee, we're really seized by the seriousness of the humanitarian situation on the ground, and it is growing worse. I'm glad you asked the question.
Our preoccupation is getting aid and support, particularly humanitarian assistance, to Afghanistan in a way that complies with the Criminal Code. I know that all of the members are very familiar with that issue.
I should also mention that four multilateral organizations that are operating in Afghanistan and using funds that we supply also work very hard to ensure that funding does not go to the Taliban, through taxation, for instance, that Canada has provided.
Maybe I'll turn the floor to Peter MacDougall, who is our assistant deputy minister responsible for this area to follow up further.
Thanks very much, Mr. Chair.
Thank you to our officials for being with us today, in person and virtually, and for your service to our country on the issues related to Afghanistan and otherwise.
I'd like to ask you about the food shortage in Afghanistan. The , in response to one of my colleagues from the opposition, spoke a bit to this issue.
What I'm concerned about in particular—I want to build on what the minister was talking about—is that there are concerns that Russia's invasion of Ukraine could spark a global food shortage, in part because many countries in Africa and the Middle East rely on Ukrainian food exports, particularly wheat, but other food exports as well. Also, of course, the World Food Programme is reporting that since the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan, 50% of Afghans as it is are not receiving enough food.
How do you see Russia's invasion of Ukraine impacting countries around the globe in terms of the food supply, and specifically Afghanistan?
We still can't access Mr. MacDougall, is that correct?
I'm happy to respond to the question.
I think you've raised a very good point in terms of the serious impacts we are beginning to see as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
As all of the members know, both Russia and Ukraine are important food providers. Russia is also a major provider of fertilizers, so the impact is likely to be very significant. Some countries are much more dependent on exports of food items from Russia and Ukraine than others. In various countries in the Middle East in particular, we see a very heavy reliance on those exports. Lebanon, some countries in North Africa and some countries in South Asia are very heavily dependent.
This is a real concern. Minister Joly and many of our senior officials in the department have been working very closely with allies to look at what we can do to address this to make sure that there is as good a food supply as possible. We're looking at providing extra supports to some of these countries that are particularly affected.
With respect to Afghanistan, I am not sure what the percentage of dependence is that they have on, for instance, wheat from Ukraine. As Minister Joly mentioned, the food security situation in Afghanistan was already quite serious prior to the takeover by the Taliban in August last year. There was a lot of concern with respect to a drought. Those conditions—the impact of climate change and an ongoing food security situation—continue.
All that is to say the Government of Canada is intensely engaged with other countries around the world and with international organizations, particularly within the UN system, to look at anything we can do to ensure that those impacts are mitigated.
Mr. Chair, thank you for the question.
We are in discussions with our international law colleagues at the ministry with regard to that. It's taking some time just to get the jurisprudence in terms of the way forward, but it is definitely top of mind. We have been tracking for some time the persecution impact, particularly on the Hazara community but, quite frankly as my colleague has noted, broadly ethnic communities at large in Afghanistan. While the Hazaras have been the most noteworthy, it's not just them.
That's why David Sproule, together with like-minded special envoys, has been trying to encourage the Taliban to foster a way forward on inclusive governance that respects what is a country that is significantly diverse in terms of ethnicities, notwithstanding the fact that the Taliban, based on its Pashtun background, is the dominant. As we've seen through the ages, there are more than just Pashtuns in this country.
For a sustainable country going forward, we need a way forward for governance whereby all the ethnic minorities see themselves as part of that governance decision-making. That's what we are advocating for through the UN, through David and together, as the minister said, with many other countries.
First off, I'd like to thank our wonderful team from Global Affairs Canada for your incredibly hard work and for joining us tonight. It's not easy work, and the added number of variables and challenges make your job even harder. I just want to say thank you for that.
Our committee has heard about the difficulties that Afghans have faced fleeing Afghanistan and making their way to neighbouring countries before coming to Canada. As you are aware, Pakistan has welcomed a significant number of refugees. There are always humanitarian concerns with refugees fleeing areas of conflict.
Just the other day, 336 Afghan newcomers arrived at the Toronto airport from Pakistan. I was at the airport earlier, a few weeks ago, with to welcome over 300 Afghan refugees from another neighbouring country.
Can you speak to the work Canada is doing with Pakistan and other countries bordering Afghanistan to ensure that Afghans are able to leave?
As the minister noted in her remarks, there have been significant reach-outs beyond Pakistan. Qatar comes first to mind, because they played a pivotal role in staging, aircraft and logistical supports during that time, as well as Kuwait for the air bridge that the CAF had put into place. I think we also need to acknowledge that there have been myriad pathways for Afghans who have found their way out regardless of whether they had the right documentation. We have been trying to ensure that these countries are apprised of Canada's commitment to return them and ensuring that there is time for our embassies to engage with these individuals, to go through the screening and the application processing and, therefore, once approved, to then organize those charters beyond just Pakistan but from the different countries where Afghans have found themselves and have been trying to find a way forward if they have met the application process requirements in order to come here.
That has resulted in not just those countries in the region, but many countries where Afghans have been, beyond essentially the Persian Gulf.... That also has been further supplemented by the intelligence conversations that we have been having with our like-minded allies, who all have the same challenges going forward.
So it really has been an international diplomatic engagement that has been beyond the norm in order to share information and to understand what is succeeding and what is not working, and adjusting advocacy methods as we engage with a multitude of countries to ensure safe passage where possible.
I understood the difference, but I was just establishing a link that way.
This may be a shortfall at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, or IRCC, as well as at Global Affairs Canada, or GAC, but there doesn't seem to be an emergency mechanism that these two departments can call upon during an international conflict such as the ones currently taking place in Ukraine and Afghanistan, or during a natural disaster. The devastating earthquake in Haiti comes to mind.
Would you be supportive of us implementing a contingency process that IRCC and GAC could use during an international crisis?
This would allow you to exercise some form of leverage. It would be a bit like the Emergency Measures Act, but it would apply to international crises or conflicts.
In your opinion, could this be a worthwhile solution?
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and Madam Findlay.
I have a question about agriculture. I think it's safe to say that the largest humanitarian crisis in the world today is in Afghanistan. Mr. Baker was talking about the impact of the war in Ukraine, one of the world's great breadbaskets, on global food production and on the situation in Afghanistan.
Canada is one of the great food or breadbaskets of the world. Half of our global food production, many argue, comes from natural gas through the Haber-Bosch process, which produces the synthetic nitrogen that has allowed for significant increase in crop yields in recent decades.
A lot of the fertilizer we use in Ontario is Russian fertilizer produced through natural gas. The department is responsible for the tariffs that were recently announced, the sanctions on Russian fertilizer, of 35%. This is causing a lot of Ontario's farmers to raise alarm bells about the spring crop going into the ground. Many of these farmers purchased the fertilizer last year before the war in Ukraine broke out and they are asking the Canadian government to waive the implementation of the tariff on nitrogen fertilizers that were purchased before March of this year in particular.
I have two questions. First, are there plans by the department to waive the tariffs on fertilizer purchased before March of this year? That is an urgent question considering that spring planting is taking place as we speak. Secondly, what is the government doing to ensure that going forward, we have a replacement for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer from sources other than Russia?
I want to flag this as a concern. We seem to be seized, at the top line, about the potential food shortages that we could be looking at this fall, but we don't seem to be reacting to farmers on the ground in this country, who, through provincial and national organizations, are raising alarm bells about the huge tariffs being imposed on nitrogen fertilizer.
This is directly impacting farmers as we speak. The land is drying out. Wheat, soybean and corn crops are going in. Farmers are making decisions, as we speak, about what to do. The price of fertilizer, if it's 35% higher, particularly for purchases they made before the war started, will have a direct impact on how much they apply and how much yield they're going to get. Compound that with the fact that only about 20% of the corn crop in northern Ukraine has been planted and we could be looking at an intersection of a number of issues here that could have pretty devastating consequences for the people of Afghanistan and for people in other developing countries later on this year.
I have two questions concerning the process under the special immigration measures, or SIM. What is the process for someone to receive a referral from Global Affairs for the SIM program? Perhaps you could quickly describe that. What are the criteria for the referral to the SIM program? How are applications for referral assessed?
I believe I may have responded to that earlier, whereby we're trying to be very much consistent, given that significant volume, as I had articulated earlier, of over one million inquiries. They're not all the same. The challenge is to go through the duplicates, but then go through trying to track what are individual bona fides and what are linked to others in terms of a family dynamic.
Then we go through the identification through records that we may have, based on what we have available at HQ and what may have come back from our mission in Kabul, and then, from DND's perspective, what records they have in terms of former military interpreters. From our perspective, for the GAC ones, we then ensure that we do that check related to the criteria reference. Do they pass the test of the significant or enduring relationship to the Government of Canada—employee, former employee, contractors or so on?
Once we have enough information to validate that...that's only when we go over. It's a very methodical one. We're being very consistent. The challenge is that it does take time. It's very manual.
Okay. Thank you. Ukraine was mentioned earlier.
Mr. Chair, we are always concerned about unintended consequences of sanctions. I think that is fair to say. There is no doubt that in Afghanistan, sanctions on the Taliban, which remains a listed entity under the Canadian Criminal Code and also under UN sanctions, two sets of sanctions that are applied by Canada but that relate to one another as well, are having an impact on not only on business but also individuals and the ability to travel into the country and to deliver humanitarian assistance.
That is why we are working so hard with the organizations that we are supporting, as my colleague Peter MacDougall would have spoken about, in terms of our ongoing humanitarian assistance, to find mitigation measures to make sure that our support can continue to get into that country. Those mitigation measures can include contractual provisions and various forms of assurances and operational arrangements. In some cases, Canada's funding can support ongoing activities of those organizations outside of Afghanistan to free up extra money for them to use inside Afghanistan. Those are some of the mitigation measures that we have put in place.
Mr. Chairman, the reality is that although sanctions in Afghanistan are having a very serious effect, the Taliban has taken over as the de facto government of the country. It remains a terrorist group under Canadian legislation. Those sanctions remain in place and remain very important.