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Biden’s Friday Executive Order Reaffirms Economic Sanctions that are “Fatally Wrong, and Immoral,” CEPR Co-Director Says

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Human Rights Watch, Humanitarian Groups at Senate, Call for Change in US Policy in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON -

On Friday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and humanitarian groups responded to a presidential Executive Order and White House statement on Afghanistan that appeared to affirm the current US policy of confiscating more than $7 billion in assets that Afghanistan’s Central Bank has on deposit in the United States. 

John Sifton, HRW’s Asia Advocacy Director, described how “current restrictions on the banking system of Afghanistan are really intensifying the country’s already serious human rights crisis. And they’re driving populations into famine. And they are in famine in many areas already …

“It’s very difficult to send any money to Afghanistan, which makes it very difficult for these [aid] organizations to operate because the bank doesn’t work …

“And most importantly, for a country which imports a very large amount of its food and essential resources, needs to be able to deposit money into banks, turn it into dollars, and have those dollars be able to be used to purchase things outside the country for import. In addition, people need to make payroll. Whether you’re a humanitarian group or a business, you need to be able to withdraw banknotes to pay staff … And if the banks don’t have enough banknotes in the vaults because the Central Bank has been cut off from any capacity to settle accounts and act as a central bank, then none of that can happen … A country needs a central bank.”

Human Rights Watch researcher Fereshta Abbasi noted reports that people were selling their children in order to meet expenses for the rest of their family, and others selling parts of their bodies in order to buy food. 

Stories of such actions were also reported by former UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband in his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. 

Miliband, who runs the International Rescue Committee, told the Senate that “the proximate cause of this starvation crisis is the international economic policy, which has been adopted since August and which has cut off financial flows not just to the public sector, but in the private sector in Afghanistan as well.

“Bank branches lack cash, and sanctions, which are meant to be on the Taliban, end up freezing private sector activity,” he said.

Graeme Smith of the International Crisis Group, the other witness at the Senate hearing, concurred with Miliband regarding US sanctions as the main cause of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan: 

“I think he’s absolutely correct. You can send bags of food, but more than that, you need to address the reason why people are hungry, which is the collapse of the economy mostly due to Western economic restrictions …

“And it’s in the United States’ interest and it’s in Afghanistan’s interest to have a legitimate banking sector get going again … So you mentioned earlier the dangers of returning the reserves to the Taliban, I have to tell you Senator, nobody is proposing that. They’re proposing to return the reserves to the owner of the reserves, which is the Central Bank of Afghanistan.” 

Miliband noted: “We now have 3,000 staff across the country, nine of the most densely populated provinces. And our services, tragically, are more needed than ever before. But it’s not the local security situation that is getting in the way of us doing our work. It’s the economic collapse.”

Senator Chris Murphy, who chaired the hearing, noted: “With 9 million people just one step away from famine, this humanitarian crisis — and I shudder to think about this — this humanitarian crisis could kill more Afghans than the past 20 years of war.”

The Human Rights Watch event and the Senate hearing added to growing opposition among humanitarian groups to the economic sanctions imposed on Afghanistan by the United States since the withdrawal of US troops in August. 

David Beasley, the head of the World Food Program, called for an immediate release of the assets confiscated from the Afghanistan Central Bank. “If you don’t … we are going to need to be feeding thirty-five million people. . . . This country will absolutely collapse.” Amnesty International declared that Afghanistan “must have access to funds to avoid humanitarian disaster,” and “avert a mounting crisis that threatens the lives of tens of millions of people.”

According to last week’s report from the World Food Program, 22.8 million people — more than half the country’s population — is projected to be acutely food insecure in 2022. This includes 8.7 million at risk of famine-like conditions. 

Mark Weisbrot, economist and Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, noted that most people do not understand how economic sanctions overwhelmingly hit the civilian population and kill innocent people: 

“A country without central bank reserves is on a road to economic collapse. By confiscating these reserves, the US government is guaranteeing this collapse, and the resulting widespread death and mass migration.”

Weisbrot noted that children account for a disproportionate share of the deaths in such situations, because malnutrition can make them more likely to die from other diseases, even in cases where they have enough calories and nutrients to otherwise survive.

“This is fatally wrong and immoral, and it cannot continue. The only question is how many people will die before the US government changes its policy.”

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The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) was established in 1999 to promote democratic debate on the most important economic and social issues that affect people’s lives. In order for citizens to effectively exercise their voices in a democracy, they should be informed about the problems and choices that they face. CEPR is committed to presenting issues in an accurate and understandable manner, so that the public is better prepared to choose among the various policy options.

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