By Thalif Deen
NEW YORK (IDN) — As the US airlifts its diplomats and embassy staffers, along with thousands of local Afghan employees, from the chaotic capital of Kabul, the United Nations has followed in its footsteps by relocating some of its more than 300 international and 3,400 national staffers who were tasked with peacekeeping and humanitarian missions in Afghanistan.
UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said August 18 that some of these staffers were traveling from Kabul to Almaty, Kazakhstan, where they will continue their work remotely.
“We thank the Government of Kazakhstan for its offer to host a temporary remote office of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA),” he said, even though the exact number of staffers was not revealed.
“I’m not going to get into numbers, what I can tell you, that in light of the obviously volatile situation in the country, we’re not going to discuss exact numbers or locations of our colleagues. But, as I mentioned earlier, in the past, where we’re going, we’re projecting to allow up to about 100 personnel to operate out of Almaty. The office in Almaty will be staffed by a relatively small number of international personnel. The safety and well-being of all our staff, national and international, is a matter of paramount importance to the UN”.
Dujarric said the remote presence will provide close support to the UN family’s continuing work on the ground in Afghanistan.
“This is a temporary measure intended to enable the UN to keep delivering assistance to the people of Afghanistan with the minimum of disruption while at the same time reducing risk to UN personnel.”
The UN presence in Afghanistan will adapt to the security situation. In the light of security and other constraints in Kabul and other parts of the country at the moment, it was decided to move part of the UN staff out of the country. Personnel will return to Afghanistan as conditions permit, Dujarric said.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council August 16 the UN is committed to stay and deliver in support of the Afghan people in their hour of need.
The majority of humanitarian personnel will remain in Afghanistan, providing vital assistance to millions most in need, he said.
“This is a temporary measure intended to enable the UN to keep delivering assistance to the people of Afghanistan with the minimum of disruption while at the same time reducing risk to UN personnel”, he noted.
Meanwhile, a federation of staff unions, representing over 120,000 staffers, wrote two letters, dated August 15 and 17, to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, calling for immediate action.
In the letter, the Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations (CCISUA), the Federation of Staff Associations and Unions (FICSA) and the UN International Civil Servants’ Federation (UNISERV) demanded the evacuation of all national staff who wish to be evacuated.
They also asked Guterres “to use his good offices with the remaining foreign embassies in Kabul to assist in granting visas for those national staff and their families who wish to leave the country.”
“We are aware of the immense political complications and know that our requests might seem impossible, however we are sure that you will understand that we cannot just watch in silence our national colleagues who might risk their lives and the lives of their families, just because they, like many thousands of us, accepted to carry the UN flag,” the letter says.
Prisca Chaoui, President CCISUA, told IDN: “We understand the need for the Organization to continue the be present and we salute the dedication and commitment of all staff serving in Afghanistan, international and national”.
However, she pointed out, “the situation is very unstable and we would like to have international as well as national staff evacuated till the situation stabilizes”.
She said “national staff feel abandoned by an organization they have served. They deserve the duty of care that the UN has to exercise towards them”.
“We know that this pauses challenges to the organization, but as a staff federation we are responsible to ensure that the UN is doing all what it can in order to ensure the safety and well-being of our colleagues.”
In the UN rules, she argued, evacuation of nationals is foreseen in exceptional circumstances and only the Secretary-General can take this decision.
“For us, these circumstances are more than exceptional,” she declared.
There are several reports coming out of Kabul about house-to-house inspections in Kabul. The Taliban are apparently looking for government employees, soldiers, police, security forces and Afghans who are working with foreign governments and international organizations.
According to reports reaching New York, national staff are trying to hide to avoid answering as they fear reprisals against them and against their family members.
A major US television network, in an interview with US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield, raised issues of “terrified” female journalists and “anyone who has worked with international organizations” expressing fears of being killed by the Taliban.
“What more can the U.S.—the Biden Administration specifically—do now to try to save their lives?”
“We are working around the clock to get vulnerable Afghans who want to leave Afghanistan out of Afghanistan,” the US envoy said. “We have secured the airport and we are getting planes out 24 hours a day. In the past three days we’ve moved more than 3,000 people, and we will continue to take people out who are vulnerable as quickly as we possibly can until we finish the job”, she said in an interview aired August 17.
Meanwhile, the letter from the UN staff unions read: “Allow us first of all to thank you and your team for all the measures that have been taken to secure the evacuation of international staff and to secure the safety and security of those who are remaining in Afghanistan, including national staff.”
But the latest reports regarding the situation on the ground are very concerning, particularly in relation to national staff.
“National staff are in distress and are understandably fearful of reprisals against them and their families. Some are trying to leave the country by any means while others are waiting in the expectation that the UN will help them as part of its duty of care towards its staff.”
As things stand now, says the letter, nobody can predict how the situation will develop. “Whatever happens, we believe, and we are sure that you will agree, that national staff cannot be abandoned, and the UN has to exercise duty of care towards its staff, regardless of their category.”
“We are relieved to note that the evacuation of international staff is going to take place and that only 30 essential staff will remain in Kabul. However, we are very concerned by the risks of retaliation that national staff and the members of their families might be facing and that might endanger their lives.”
“That is why, we kindly ask you to take the immediate necessary measures to ensure that the remaining international staff as well as the national staff and the members of their families are being protected from any risk of retaliation.”
“We are aware that the situation on the grounds is very complicated, but we expect from the UN to exercise its duty of care towards all staff, be they international or national,” the letter adds.
The letter was signed by Prisca Chaoui (CCISUA President); Tanya Quinn-Maguire (FICSA President) and Steve Towler (UNISERV President).