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Watchdog Calls For Policy Adjustments On Afghanistan To Prevent 'Widespread Famine'

Men wait in a line to receive cash at a money distribution organized by the World Food Program in Kabul.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is urging donor countries, the United Nations, and international financial institutions to "urgently adjust" restrictions and sanctions that affect Afghanistan's economy and banking sector and threaten to cause "widespread famine" in the war-torn country.

After the Taliban toppled the internationally backed Kabul government in mid-August, millions of dollars in lost income, soaring prices, and a liquidity crisis have deprived much of the Afghan population of access to food, water, shelter, and health care, the New York-based human rights watchdog warned in a statement on November 11.

It said decisions by governments and international banking institutions not to deal directly with the country's central bank because of UN and bilateral sanctions have increased liquidity problems for banks and shortages of currency in U.S. dollars and the Afghanistan’s currency, the afghani.

The lack of cash means most Afghan banks cannot cover withdrawals by private actors and aid organizations, and therefore money cannot flow into the Afghan economy.

As a result, the economy and social services "are collapsing, with Afghans throughout the country already suffering acute malnutrition," said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at HRW.

To address the humanitarian crisis, HRW said governments, the United Nations, the World Bank, and the Taliban should work to reach an agreement to allow the central bank access to the international banking system.

The U.S. Treasury Department and other financial authorities should first "issue licenses and guidance to allow the Central Bank to engage in limited settlement transactions with outside private banks so that the bank can pay its World Bank dues and process or settle incoming dollar deposits from legitimate private depositors, such as UNICEF, the UN Development Program, remittance banks, and other legitimate actors," according to the group.

In the absence of any agreements, the UN should "continue to use whatever means are at its disposal to continue shipments of money to Afghanistan for humanitarian purposes," while the Taliban should "cooperate in allowing these shipments, allowing deposits into independent private banks, and permitting the UN to utilize the funds independently and without interference."

Meanwhile, HRW urged the United States and other governments to "immediately undertake sanctions policy reviews, adjust current measures accordingly, and issue new licenses and guidance to facilitate liquidity and availability of cash to address the humanitarian crisis."

The UN Security Council should also take immediate steps to ensure that "legitimate financial transactions related to humanitarian activities and the provision of other essential goods and services are excluded from the scope of UN sanctions."

"Donor generosity and humanitarian pledges can't overcome the stark reality that UN agencies, humanitarian groups, and the Afghan diaspora cannot send assets to a banking system that isn't functioning, and account holders in Afghanistan can't withdraw cash that isn’t there," Sifton said.

"Widespread death and suffering from hunger are preventable if governments act urgently to address Afghanistan's economic crisis," he added.

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