Merkley, Jacobs Urge Administration to Lift Red Tape on Humanitarian Aid for Education in Afghanistan

Merkley, Jacobs Urge Administration to Lift Red Tape on Humanitarian Aid for Education in Afghanistan

Washington, D.C. – Today Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley and Representative Sara Jacobs (D-CA-53) are calling on Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to amend the Office of Foreign Assets Control’s (OFAC) general license on humanitarian assistance to authorize education programming activities in Afghanistan.

In a letter to Secretary Blinken and Secretary Yellen, the lawmakers emphasized the importance of accessing and maintaining an education for school-aged children in Afghanistan. America and its allies made clear that access to education must be a humanitarian priority in the wake of the Taliban gaining control earlier of Afghanistan this year, yet the Biden administration’s commitment to providing educational humanitarian assistance and support for young Afghans is under threat without legal safeguards in place to exempt education programming from sanctions aimed at the Taliban.

“Education is a basic need and right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights alongside those to food, housing, and medical care, and is a lifesaving intervention,” wrote the lawmakers. “It is a crucial component of every global humanitarian response and often one of the first services that communities demand.”

“Education provides a safe place for children to learn and play in otherwise violent contexts, and increases their access to critical services that support health and psychosocial needs,” they continued. “Children enrolled in educational programs have increased access to vaccinations, medications, mental health support, and nutrition through feeding programs. Participating in education can also help prevent the likelihood that a child will be engaged in child labor or recruited into armed groups, and can prevent early marriage and pregnancy. In this way, access to education from the onset of a crisis supports children’s wellbeing in the short term and contributes to longer-term recovery goals.”

Safeguards for education programming have been authorized in OFAC humanitarian licenses in Ethiopia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen. Without these critical carve outs for education in Afghanistan, NGOs working on education programming fear legal reprisals or, worse, are unable to assume the risk and opt out of operating in Afghanistan altogether. Amending the OFAC general humanitarian license will ensure NGOs can operate and school-aged children can continue accessing education.

In addition to Merkley and Jacobs, the letter is supported by U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Jack Reed (D-RI), Christopher S. Murphy (D-CT), Cory A. Booker (D-NJ), Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), Richard J. Durbin (D-IL), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), and U.S. Representatives Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA-06), Gerald E. Connolly (D-VA-11), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI-13), Jim Costa (D-CA-16), Ilhan Omar (D-MN-05), James R. Langevin (D-RI-02), Jesús G. “Chuy” García (D-IL-04), Vicente Gonzalez (D-TX-15), J. Luis Correa (D-CA-46), Jake Auchincloss (D-MA-04), Tom Malinowski (D-NJ-07), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR-03), Seth Moulton (D-MA-06), Lois Frankel (D-FL-21), Dinta Titus (D-NV-03), Mike Quigley (D-IL-05), David N. Cicilline (D-RI-01), Raul M. Grijalva (D-AZ-03), Grace Meng (D-NY-06), Jamie Raskin (D-MD-08), Ted W. Lieu (D-CA-33), James P. McGovern (D-MA-02), Karen Bass (D-CA-37), and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA-07)

The full letter can be viewed here and below.

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December 16, 2021

Dear Secretary Blinken and Secretary Yellen,

In September a group of 32 lawmakers called on the Biden administration to ensure that humanitarian aid can continue to reach Afghans in need despite the takeover of the Taliban, a designated and sanctioned terrorist group, by urgently issuing a broad general license for humanitarian activities implemented by NGOs in Afghanistan. We are grateful that the Department of Treasury issued two general licenses on September 24 to support the continued flow of assistance to the people of Afghanistan.

However, despite this critical step, the general licenses contain a critical omission: safeguards for education programming. This is in contrast to past and current general licenses authorizing NGO action in areas where sanctioned groups are present that do include these critical carve outs for education, including the licenses for EthiopiaSyriaVenezuela, and Yemen. As a consequence, NGOs working in Afghanistan on education programming do so with fear of legal reprisals or opt out of operating all together, unable to assume such risk. 

Continued access to education is a stated priority of the U.S. Administration and allies in the wake of the Taliban gaining control. But without the legal safeguards in place for education programming, the Administration’s laudable commitment to continue providing humanitarian assistance and support for at-risk Afghans is under threat.

Education is a basic need and right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights alongside those to food, housing, and medical care, and is a lifesaving intervention. It is a crucial component of every global humanitarian response and often one of the first services that communities demand. Education provides a safe place for children to learn and play in otherwise violent contexts, and increases their access to critical services that support health and psychosocial needs. Children enrolled in educational programs have increased access to vaccinations, medications, mental health support, and nutrition through feeding programs. Participating in education can also help prevent the likelihood that a child will be engaged in child labor or recruited into armed groups, and can prevent early marriage and pregnancy. In this way, access to education from the onset of a crisis supports children’s wellbeing in the short term and contributes to longer-term recovery goals. 

Despite ongoing and now increased humanitarian challenges, in the past decades Afghanistan has made marked progress in the education sector, especially in bridging the gender gap, in part due to impactful investments by the United States and other donors. Between 2001 and 2020, Afghan children’s enrollment in schools grew from 900,000 to more than 9.5 million students, 39 percent of whom were girls. But now under Taliban rule, where the authorities have sent mixed messages about the opportunities for female education, those gains are at risk of being wiped out without international support and safeguards for NGO-implemented activities that support education.

We urge the Administration to immediately take action to support Afghans’ right to education by amending the OFAC general licenses on humanitarian assistance to explicitly authorize education activities. Additionally, to forestall future misunderstandings the Administration should collaborate with NGOs and civil society organizations to develop a definition of “basic human needs” informed by the humanitarian cluster system and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights as a reference for future sanctions regimes.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent humanitarian issue.

Sincerely,