Let's take 25,000 Afghan Refugees
By Haroon Siddiqui, Toronto Star, 22 February 2001
SINCE AMERICA does not quite know what to do with Saddam Hussein, it keeps killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians through economic sanctions.

Nor does it know how to get at Osama bin Laden. So it is starving poor Afghan civilians through economic sanctions that have contributed to the displacement of more than half-a-million people so far. About 100,000 of them are huddled in six dusty United Nations camps in the city of Herat. About 150 have died there in recent days, mostly children, victims of the bitter cold of the surrounding barren mountains.

What kind of morality is this? And why is Canada supporting it?

When the strong squelch the weak like this, driven more by revenge or mindless exercise of power rather than logic or humanity, we must question our claims to being civilized and being champions of universal human rights.

Third World lives have always been cheaper than those in the West. It used to be said in the newspaper business that a cyclone sweeping away 5,000 Bangladeshis was worth a shorter story and lesser prominence than a Belgian nun killed in the Congo. We have come some distance from that colonial legacy. But not much.

If bin Laden indeed masterminded the crimes alleged by America -- the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, and last year's bombing of the USS Cole -- he is guilty of complicity in the death of a total of 29 Americans, among others. Add all the other attacks that could be traced to him, and you end up with about 50 American victims.

Their lives must be avenged. The guilty must be brought to justice, through the rule of law.

What we have instead is the spectacle of the strongest nation stomping over poor people who have had nothing to do with those crimes.

Bill Clinton bombed a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, claiming it was financed by bin Laden and making chemical weapons. It proved to be a false claim. The U.S. has not bothered to apologize, let alone help rebuild the facility that was making desperately needed antibiotics for the Sudanese.

Clinton also slammed cruise missiles into what he said was bin Laden's Afghanistan base, the "largest terrorist training facility in the world" hosting "literally thousands of terrorists from around the globe." The attack was said to coincide with a summit of "about 600 key terrorist leaders" there that day. None of those claims proved right. Bin Laden lived. A number of other Afghans died, though.

The U.S. demanded that the ruling Taliban hand over bin Laden for a trial in the United States. It refused, saying Afghanistan doesn't have an extradition treaty with the U.S. Or even bilateral relations.

The obscurantist Taliban has been its own worst enemy, persecuting women and murdering minorities. But such policies have had less to do with diplomatic isolation than regional geopolitics and America's post-Cold War fixation with terrorism (that kills far fewer Americans in a year than are killed by gunshots every day).

As The Economist, the prestigious London-based magazine, has argued, the Taliban should be recognized, for it controls 95 per cent of the country. If approval of a regime's domestic policies were the yardstick for international acceptance, we would cut off relations with half the world, including perhaps Russia and China, whose human rights violations are arguably far worse than the Taliban's.

At the insistence of the U.S., the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on Afghanistan in the fall of 1999. When that did not spring bin Laden, the U.S. led the charge last December in further tightening those sanctions. Ironically, the U.S. was supported by Russia -- against whom America and Afghanistan jointly fought the last great battle of the Cold War, and which produced mujahideen like bin Laden, who have since veered off into sundry jihads. Moscow has its own scores to settle, such as perceived interference in Chechnya and the central Asian republics.

The sanctions -- opposed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the entire humanitarian relief community -- have now effectively isolated landlocked Afghanistan, already among the poorest places on Earth.

After 21 years of war and two years of drought, the country with the largest number of land mines now has "the highest rate of infant, child and maternal mortality, the lowest life expectancy, the lowest literacy rate and the highest rate of hunger in the world," according to Afghan expert Barnett Rubin of New York University.

A million face starvation. The half-million displaced are not considered refugees by the United Nations because they have not crossed an international border.
About 170,000 have, to neighbouring Pakistan. But it does not want any more. It already hosts nearly two million, without much outside help. Iran looks after another 1.3 million, without asking for any foreign help.

Urgent U.N. appeals for humanitarian help elicit little response. Canada has given less than $6 million this fiscal year. The Chrétien government should give more.

Better still, it should open our doors to Afghan refugees. Perhaps 25,000 of them. That's not a huge number, considering we provided a haven for victims of various crises: 37,000 Hungarians, 12,000 Czechs, 7,500 Ugandans, 200,000 American Vietnam draft-dodgers and deserters, 160,000 Indo-Chinese "boat people," and 25,000 from the former Yugoslavia, among others.

The Afghans need not be a burden on Ottawa. Most can come under private sponsorships -- through churches, humanitarian groups, the small Afghan community here, and groups of citizens who may want to band together to help a family each.

Such an initiative by Ottawa will assuage the dishonour brought on us by the policy it is pursuing now: making Canada a partner in an American-led act of economic warfare that is killing innocent civilians in Afghanistan, just as in Iraq.

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