As I write, the Taliban is consolidating their hold on Afghanistan. They have entered Kabul and the Presidential Buildings. The chaos, distress, and fear this is causing for Afghan people, those in the wider region and across the world is desperately sad, and I’m afraid, it was partly avoidable. This is a distressing reminder of the complexities of our international responsibilities and human rights obligations, which so many of you contact me about.
Although Women and girls in particular are scared of the consequences for their lives, so too are those who have been previously threatened by the Taliban or who have taken up roles the Taliban do not approve of.
Under the 1996 – 2001 Taliban regime, women’s and girls’ lived with danger and heavy restrictions. However, the history of women’s rights in Afghanistan is long. It pre-dates the 2001 improvements; this is not a value being externally imposed as some commentators have said, it’s a value which Afghan women themselves and their political allies inside and outside the country have campaigned for over the last century. The 1964 Afghanistan Constitution, for example, guaranteed equal rights for women and men.
Afghan people have a long history of developing their own democracy. I’ve read the Standing Orders for the Afghanistan Parliament and they are very different to our own. There have undoubtedly been many problems during this period, but there have also been significant gains for the people of Afghanistan, led by the people of Afghanistan.
As a result, Afghanistan had elected representatives and 25% of Afghan MPs were women. There have been ground-breaking new laws to tackle violence against women and girls, and most girls have been in school. For the last few months ever since the announcement of the withdrawal of NATO presence in Afghanistan, women’s organisations and Parliamentarians have been warning of the terrible consequences for democracy, the rule of law and rights for women, and of the Taliban regaining power.
Afghanistan civil society representatives have been saying for months that it matters hugely how troops withdraw. They were not questioning whether this was necessary at some point. But they were asking for consideration on the timing and processes, pointing out the devastating consequences that a poorly constructed deal, a fixed withdrawal date and lack of planning for continuity of civil society would have.
And here we are. The international community cannot claim there was no warning about the perils of a poorly planned withdrawal, and there is a duty to remedy as much as possible.
What action should the UK government take?
The government must accelerate efforts to get UK nationals and eligible Afghans out of the country. I’m pleased that there are UK troops on the ground at the airport to help facilitate this.
Sometimes people feel hopeless and that there is nothing we can do to help. However, there are things the government can and should do and which my colleagues and I will push them to do urgently:
- Reverse the cuts to international aid the government shamefully made recently – and work with NGOs and partners to ensure the money gets where it is most needed;
- Consult with our allies in NATO and key countries in the region about the implications of the collapse of the Afghan government.
- Help coordinate the response in the region to the changing situation on the ground; work with international partners and networks on a strategy to try to protect the gains made in the last 20 years on human rights, particularly for women’s rights.
This government has failed to act responsibly and honourably towards Afghans who have the legal and moral right to sanctuary in the UK. This is a shameful dereliction of duty. In my own constituency caseload, I know of Afghans who’ve faced unacceptable bureaucracy for months.
Our resettlement scheme must be urgently expanded, and every effort made to contact those in the visa process and help them to leave Afghanistan for safety. My constituents who have received refugee status here because of persecution from the Taliban have waited too long already to be reunited with their families, who are now at even greater risk in Afghanistan.
We can already see that the Taliban’s return is leading to a refugee crisis. The UK Government must put in place specific safe and legal asylum routes and help with support for Afghans fleeing to neighbouring states.
There is a real risk of a humanitarian disaster, particularly for women and girls. It’s tragic and shameful that knowing the departure of NATO was impending, our government ignored warnings from Afghan civil society about the need to do this in a coordinated and planned way. Even worse, they have chosen to slash development support to the country by 45%.
What action has Labour taken so far?
Our priority is challenging the government and proposing actions they could take. It’s extraordinary that senior government Ministers, including the Foreign Secretary, have been silent as Afghanistan collapsed. Under pressure from Labour, the Government asked the Speaker to recall Parliament and he has agreed that this should happen this Wednesday, 18th August.
I do not stop work during Parliamentary recess and my team also continues work. Over the weekend, as your MP and as Shadow Leader of the House of Commons I have:
- Prioritised trying to get relatives of Afghan constituents to safety if they already have visas to enter UK, and to get news for others.
- Written to the Immigration Minister, to UK Visas and Immigration and others to press them to escalate with urgency the commitments they have to people with visas or people whose visa applications the Home Office has dealt poorly with. My caseworkers and I have been raising these concerns for weeks and I’m angry that lack of sufficiently speedy action has put the families of my constituents at avoidable risk. We will be in touch with all those in my caseload and the refugee workers and volunteers working with them.
- Using the support of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) UK to make contact with women MPs in Afghanistan to establish what support they need from us.
- Working with Parliamentary colleagues to ensure the recall of Parliament this Wednesday 18th August and to enable colleagues to participate effectively and safely.
I will be taking part in the emergency Shadow Cabinet meeting tomorrow (Tuesday) and will represent the points I’ve made in this post. I will also be following proceedings closely on Wednesday.
On Wednesday when Parliament will be recalled, there will be a statement by the Prime Minister or other senior Cabinet Minister, followed by a response from the relevant Labour frontbencher (probably Keir Starmer or Lisa Nandy) and then interventions and debate involving other MPs. This will all be in person and therefore limited by Parliamentary guidance on numbers indoors.
The government must explain to MPs how it plans to work with allies to avoid a humanitarian crisis and lay out a strategy to prevent Afghanistan once again becoming an operational hub for international terrorism that threatens our national security.
The people of Bristol West have always said that internationalism and human rights are important values for us and I will continue to represent that on your behalf. I will report back later this week.