In the News: Afghanistan has the same righteous cause as Ukraine

CW4WAfghan Executive Director, Dr. Lauryn Oates, recently published an article on the Hill Times looking into the situation in Afghanistan and the subsequent international response one year after the Taliban’s brutal takeover of the country. In the article, Dr. Oates draws parallels between the conflicts in Ukraine and Afghanistan, emphasizing the importance of “[expanding] our emotional bandwidth” and committing as a community to support both crises.

Read the article below or by visiting the Hill Times.

Afghanistan has the same righteous cause as Ukraine

By CW4WAfghan Executive Director, Dr. Lauryn Oates, for the Hill Times

August 15 will mark a year since the Taliban re-took Afghanistan, plunging some 35 million people into a dystopian hell. With more than half the population now on the verge of starvation, their new rulers are more focused on coming up with ever more surreal ways to strip away the freedoms that Afghans had built with support from international allies since 2001. For those of us following the situation closely, it’s been like watching a massacre unfold in slow motion. Behind the numbers – millions of unemployed, millions of girls barred from classrooms, millions displaced, forced marriages of thousands of little girls, hundreds summarily executed, thousands in hiding – are real people whose suffering is deep and painful.

Despite the scale of this human suffering, nearly a year into the Taliban’s brutal takeover of Afghanistan, the international response has settled into passive acquiescence. There is some halfhearted occasional finger wagging at the Taliban from the White House and allied countries, about forming an inclusive government or respecting rights and pluralism. But overall, governments seem to be resolved that the best they can do is ignore the new de facto authorities, help a tiny fraction of the population resettle elsewhere, offer some humanitarian aid, and occasionally issue token statements of condemnation. In the case of Canada, even those steps have been marred by legislation that criminalizes efforts to transfer aid, lest it reach the hands of the Taliban, a proscribed terrorist entity – and globally, even these have receded as the crisis was eclipsed by another invasion, that came six months later, capturing the world’s attention.

It’s nearly impossible to ignore the divergent responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and to the Taliban’s capture of Afghanistan six months earlier.

Ukraine has managed to ignite an impassioned demonstration of values that we’ve been reserved about of late. It turns out that our collective cultural heart still beats for democracy, and the faddish view in Canadian academic and political circles that democracy is a bourgeois construct imposed as part of an imperialist project was suddenly more or less extinguished. Putin’s invasion of sovereign territory prompted a moral outrage that was absent when he took the Crimea in 2014 or invaded Georgia in 2008. When talking about Ukraine, people can again use the word “freedom” unabashed. As the blue and yellow flags were hoisted up on buildings all over the world, and institutions from governments to universities to corporations swiftly issued statements condemning the invasion and expressing solidarity with Ukrainians, there was visible a true, nearly global wave of unity of values. Something resembling internationalism seemed to be pushing its way through the insular focus on domestic issues we had settled into.

This has been a thing to behold. It is to be applauded, and I wouldn’t change a thing about the heartening reaction of the public to events in Ukraine. It is a righteous cause.

And it happens to also be the same cause as Afghanistan’s.

In both Ukraine and Afghanistan, authoritarian forces sought to overthrow an elected government and take a country by violent force, against the people’s will. In both cases, it was not the first time. In both cases, there has been unspeakable human cost as a result. Both cases were clearcut violations of self determination, contravening the UN Charter. The situation in both countries is fundamentally about freedom – of a people to decide their fate, and the rights they ought to have.

For some reason, it seems that people can see this more clearly when it comes to Ukraine. Perhaps publics have followed the lead of their governments, observing the notably more muted response to Afghanistan, where the US, Canada, the UN, and others accepted the overthrow of the government and subsequent events, including the re-instatement of gender apartheid in Afghanistan, as an irreversible, if distasteful, fait accomplis. 

Canada’s response to the plight of Ukrainians fleeing violence has seen them swiftly resettle nearly 70,000 vulnerable people since February, a laudable example of adaptive practice which can and should be extended to other vulnerable groups experiencing humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, IRCC’s resettlement of at-risk Afghans remains mired with backlogs, barriers the Government admits will take years to process: of a promised 40,000, only 17,000 Afghans have reached safety in Canada. If the government can go to such great lengths to find flexible measures to support innocent Ukrainians fleeing oppression, it is legitimate to ask why such measures cannot  be implemented for innocent Afghans too.

As stark as these numbers are, I suspect it’s not just about our governments’ behaviour. As social beings, we are incited to respond to the suffering of others, when we recognize ourselves in those others. It appears that there’s been a failure to recognize that Afghans, too, want dignity, democracy, and rights; that Afghan women happen to believe that they are entitled to those 30 rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that they too are part of the post World War II multilateral project, of an international community with a shared understanding of rights, a community of states that come to each other’s aid and defense when the people of one of those states are threatened with harm.

It should not need pointing out that the values and behavours of the Taliban do not reflect the values of the Afghan people. Indeed, a recent study shows that a mere 6.4% of Afghans support the Taliban regime, making the Taliban even less representative of the Afghan people than the January 6th insurrectionists are of the American people. By this measure, the Taliban are clearly as un-Afghan as the January 6th insurrectionists are un-American. A 2019 survey found that 87% of Afghans – of all genders, from urban and rural areas – supported the right of women and girls to equal educational rights, yet one of the most striking human rights violations currently enacted by the Taliban is a near total ban on education for girls over the age of 12, a restriction uniquely repressive among the world’s nations. 

The map of the world shows lines between countries. But those are lines drawn on paper. For the most part those lines do effectively keep people trapped behind them, stuck in their country of birth. But those lines don’t matter so much when it comes to the travel of ideas. Democracy, human rights, gender equality: these are not the possessions of any one country. They are the birthright of everyone.

I’m not suggesting that anyone ought to swap their concern and solidarity towards Ukraine for Afghanistan instead, or that there is any utility in ranking humanitarian and human rights crises, or value in cynically keeping tally of which tragedies garner the most attention.

The good news is that this not a zero-sum game. The solution is one of multiplication rather than division. What we need to do, at all levels of our society – from policy enacted by government to the display of flags in Canadian homes –  is expand our emotional bandwidth, and to recognize that Afghanistan is the same righteous cause as that of standing up for the integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. The crisis in Ukraine, the threat to freedom, to rights, and to democracy there, must galvanize us to commit to these ideals universally, that is, everywhere.

Ask your communities to expand their circles of empathy: to recognize that there is more than one epicentre in the war for democracy, for rights, for equality and equity, and that we all have room in our hearts and minds for every population that needs our solidarity right now; that these ideals don’t belong to any one tribe or nation; rather, their sacredness rests on their universality. Put up the Ukrainian flag, and the Afghan flag. Issue a statement of solidarity for the people of Afghanistan, and the rights they have lost, alongside the statements for Ukraine.

As Afghanistan approaches the grim anniversary of one year under Taliban rule, and a year of  damning silence in response from the world community, the least we can do, from our safe distance, is ensure our empathy includes everyone who needs it.