Humanitarian agencies decry dangerous mixing of agendas in Somali war

01.12.2011 | Assisting Somalis, General

By Joe Belliveau

Somali Refugees at Dagahley camp, Dadaab © Yahya Dahiye/MSF

(This article first appeared in the East African on 28-11-2011)

As the African saying goes, “When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.” In Somalia, as the war once again takes on an increasingly international character, warring parties are jeopardising humanitarian efforts through a dangerous mixing of agendas.

Somalia’s humanitarian crisis continues to be one of, if not the, worst in the world. It is an emergency of massive proportions characterised by disease outbreaks, mass displacement and major food shortages causing severe malnutrition, against the backdrop of a non-functional healthcare system and major gaps in emergency assistance.

Underlying this crisis is violence, insecurity and ineffective governance. It is no surprise then that proposed solutions to the crisis are a mixed bag of increased humanitarian assistance and various political options including the use of military force. In recent weeks and months, military engagement by outside forces has been stepped up. In addition to African Union forces, and various Somali militia backed by Ethiopian and other international forces, the Kenyan army is now deeply engaged in the conflict inside Somalia against Al Shabaab. Its stated aim, similar to that of Ethiopia, is geared toward neutralising the threat posed by Al Shabaab and
creating a more secure environment in Somalia to head off the flow of refugees into its country.

In short, the objectives are security and stability. In contrast, the aim of humanitarianism is to reach people in need and provide them with emergency lifesaving assistance. These objectives, or more precisely the methods used to achieve them, do not mix well. International medical aid group Médecins Sans Frontières has provided emergency aid to Somalis continuously since 1991, working on all sides of the frontlines that have criss-crossed the country over the years. In order to reach people in need, we maintain neutrality and independence. Humanitarian assistance must operate, and must be seen to operate, entirely independently of military forces and the
governments that back them.

For that reason, MSF does not endorse military action in Somalia to facilitate the humanitarian response, nor does it endorse a
humanitarian justification for military action.

MSF does not judge the validity of military action per se, but it does not believe that using force — for example, to create humanitarian
corridors or safe zones, as some regional governments have recently proposed — will make it safer for humanitarians or the people they seek to assist.

It has not worked previously in Somalia, most notably during Operation Restore Hope in 1993, when the use of force to deliver humanitarian assistance resulted in increased insecurity and a worsening of the humanitarian situation for years to come. And there is no indication that it will work now. On the contrary, the creation of safe zones or corridors is likely to attract insecurity and those seeking safety in such places risk being seen as taking sides and thus being targeted by the opposition.

Moreover, the very act of using military force to create security can too easily go wrong, leaving civilians in the line of fire as occurred recently near an IDP camp in Jilib when an aerial bombardment resulted in the injury and death of more than 50 displaced civilians.

The use of humanitarian language to justify military action is equally problematic as it casts suspicion upon the agencies dedicated solely
to delivering humanitarian assistance. To state, as a Kenyan military spokesman recently did, that military action in Somalia is partly intended to “facilitate access by international aid organisations in the liberated areas” gives the false impression that humanitarian organisations are aligned with belligerent forces.

The only consistently effective tool humanitarians have for gaining access is negotiation, and the basis for negotiation is trust. If our
motives, as humanitarians, are put in question then our ability to negotiate is diminished.

MSF does not have access to all the crisis zones in Somalia. It operates 14 different medical projects in South Central Somalia in addition
to large-scale programmes in the Somali refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, but there are areas where needs are high and negotiation has failed to achieve access. We should not delude ourselves that we can negotiate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to every needy corner of Somalia, but waging war in the name of humanitarianism only makes it harder to reach that objective. (READ: Wham: Winning hearts and minds in Somalia )

The Somalia crisis is far from over. While hundreds of thousands of people continue to be extremely vulnerable to starvation, disease
and violence, it is imperative that all parties make every possible effort — short of using military force — to facilitate humanitarian assistance.

This means that neighbouring countries keep their borders open and provide relief to those seeking refuge, that access is granted to
humanitarians inside Somalia, and that military action is not conducted in the name of humanitarianism.

Joe Belliveau is operational manager for Médecins Sans Frontières and responsible for programmes in Somalia and Ethiopia.

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