The Liberal government has tabled legislation to alter terrorism provisions of the Criminal Code that have blocked Canadian humanitarian aid from reaching Afghanistan.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino is proposing amendments to the Criminal Code that provide a carveout for Canadian aid workers to carry out duties in areas controlled by terrorists without being prosecuted.
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The new legislation introduced on Thursday 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.
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The issue paralyzed 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.
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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.
The exemptions outlined in the newly tabled Bill C-41 would allow for “providing or supporting the provision of humanitarian assistance” as well as health care, education, “programs to assist individuals 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 of its activities, instead of requiring separate ones for individual aid workers. They said there was no timeline for how soon exemption applications could be processed.
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Cabinet would grant the exemptions even if there is a risk that a terror group will try to seize goods or otherwise benefit, officials said, if the benefits of the activity outweigh that risk. The decision would be based on a security assessment or measures undertaken to mitigate the risk.
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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.
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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.
Mendicino is expected to hold a news conference at the Ottawa headquarters of the Canadian Red Cross later on Thursday.
The NDP is calling for Ottawa to prioritize the legislation.
“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.”
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