Merkley, Jacobs Lead Bicameral Push to Boost Humanitarian Assistance to Afghans in Need

Merkley, Jacobs Lead Bicameral Push to Boost Humanitarian Assistance to Afghans in Need

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley teamed up with U.S. Representative Sara Jacobs (D-CA-53) today to lead a group of 32 lawmakers in urging the Biden administration to take specific steps to ensure that humanitarian aid can continue to reach Afghans in need despite the takeover of the Taliban, a designated and sanctioned terrorist group. 

“Now that the ground operation to evacuate people from Afghanistan has come to a close, the United States must set our sights on the humanitarian catastrophe confronting those who have been tragically left behind, including women, LGBTQ+ persons, ethnic and religious minorities, and those allied with the United States,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter to Treasury Secretary Yellen. “Even before the recent violence, the number of Afghans in need of humanitarian assistance had nearly doubled since last year, reaching 18.4 million people—or about half the population. More than five million people were experiencing emergency levels of hunger, while nearly half of all children under five were expected to be acutely malnourished this year. With the chaos of the past few weeks, which has led to mass displacement, these numbers will undoubtedly increase.”

“The Taliban has been a Specially Designated Global Terrorist Group (SDGT) since 2002. Now, with the Taliban consolidating power, the legal restrictions that accompany this designation are having a chilling effect on the humanitarian sector and may significantly impede the delivery of vital life-saving aid in Afghanistan during this critical time,” they continued. “The United States has a moral obligation to continue the life-saving assistance it has long supported to the people of Afghanistan.”

Specific steps requested by the lawmakers include directing the Treasury Department to issue general licenses through the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) for the current counter-terrorism sanctions against the Taliban; and helping non-governmental organizations (NGOs) deliver desperately needed assistance in Afghanistan by making it possible for funds to be transferred into Afghanistan for NGOs’ activities, either by issuing protections and guidance for financial institutions or creating a safe payment channel.

In addition to Merkley and Jacobs, the letter was signed by U.S. Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Edward Markey (D-MA), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Alex Padilla (D-CA), and U.S. Representatives Jamie Raskin (D-MD-08), David Cicilline (D-RI-01), Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA-06), Ilhan Omar (D-MN-05), Joaquin Castro (D-TX-20), Gerry Connolly (D-VA-11), Gregory Meeks (D-NY-05), Juan Vargas (D-CA-51), James P. McGovern (D-MA-02), Ted Lieu (D-CA-33), Tom Malinowski (D-NJ-07), Jahana Hayes (D-CT-05), Jesus G. “Chuy” Garcia (D-IL-04), Karen Bass (D-CA-37), Jim Costa (D-CA-16), Cori Bush (D-MO-01), Albio Sires (D-NJ-08), Brad Sherman (D-CA-30), Norma Torres (D-CA-35), and Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR-01).

Full text of the letter is available here and follows below.

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Dear Secretary Yellen:

Now that the ground operation to evacuate people from Afghanistan has come to a close, the United States must set our sights on the humanitarian catastrophe confronting those who have been tragically left behind, including women, LGBTQ+ persons, ethnic and religious minorities, and those allied with the United States. Even before the recent violence, the number of Afghans in need of humanitarian assistance had nearly doubled since last year, reaching 18.4 million people — or about half the population. More than five million people were experiencing emergency levels of hunger, while nearly half of all children under five were expected to be acutely malnourished this year. With the chaos of the past few weeks, which has led to mass displacement, these numbers will undoubtedly increase. 

It is imperative for the United States to continue its support of humanitarian assistance to Afghans in need, and ensure non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have the legal protections necessary to operate in an increasingly difficult environment. The United States has a long track record, and an established process, under Presidents from both parties, of allowing NGOs to provide life-saving humanitarian assistance to people who are suffering under regimes that we oppose, even alongside existing sanctions regimes.

The Taliban has been a Specially Designated Global Terrorist Group (SDGT) since 2002. Now, with the Taliban consolidating power, the legal restrictions that accompany this designation are having a chilling effect on the humanitarian sector and may significantly impede the delivery of vital life-saving aid in Afghanistan during this critical time. And while we appreciate the initial step of issuing a specific license, this narrow authorization remains insufficient for all international NGOs, including U.S.-based organizations, and local Afghan organizations that provide essential humanitarian assistance to continue doing so.

That is why we urge you to direct the Treasury Department to issue a general license through the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for the current counter-terrorism sanctions against the Taliban under Executive Order 13224, as amended, and modeled after those general licenses provided for NGOs operating in the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. We understand that this model offers both precedent and applicable language that can be utilized to assist NGOs in their efforts to provide critical aid in Afghanistan. A broad general license specifically tailored to the Afghanistan context should include exceptions based on close consultations with the NGO community – consultations that should commence immediately.

In order for funds to be transferred into Afghanistan for NGOs, we additionally ask that you provide necessary protections and public guidance for financial institutions so that they do not opt out of working in Afghanistan out of an abundance of caution. In addition, we recommend the establishment of a safe payment channel into Afghanistan exclusively for NGOs to access cash given the precarious banking situation.

The United States has a moral obligation to continue the life-saving assistance it has long provided to the people of Afghanistan. The Taliban may quickly become an obstacle to the provision of humanitarian aid. United States policies should not become an additional obstacle.  We urge you to take this important step to ensure the continued delivery of this aid. Thank you for your urgent attention to this matter.

Sincerely,