Starvation in Somalia

Posted in: International Law

On the cover of yesterday’s New York Times was a devastating photo of what the caption, perhaps out of deference to readers’ tender sensibilities, called a “malnourished child.”  With stick-thin legs and an emaciated belly, the small, dark, naked child, lying on his back and cradling his head in his hands, appeared to be starving.

The accompanying article said that tens of thousands of people in Somalia had already died, and that more than 500,000 children were on the brink of starvation.  According to aid officials, the current situation in Somalia is one of Africa’s worst humanitarian disasters in decades.

Beyond the consequences of the famine, the New York Times described the multiple and diverse obstacles to aid delivery.  Few aid organizations are able to operate effectively in Somalia, given the continued fighting in the capital, Mogadishu; the aggressive tactics of Al Shabaab, the militant group that controls much of the country’s territory; and the chilling impact of U.S. federal laws that bar material assistance to Al Shabaab.

“This is worse than 1992,” a doctor in a Mogadishu hospital told the Times, referring to the country’s last famine. “Back then, at least we had some help.”

Terrorism Sanctions

How best to deliver aid to needy populations in areas controlled by abusive insurgent groups—or abusive governments, for that matter—is a humanitarian conundrum.  There is always the possibility, and often the high probability, that some proportion of the aid will be siphoned off to the benefit of armed groups.  Indeed, in some instances, there is reason to suspect that militants perpetuate the suffering of the civilian population in order to attract aid.

In Somalia, the ethical issues that humanitarian organizations must consider in such situations are reinforced by extremely broad U.S. legal restrictions on providing “material support” to terrorist organizations.  The result, as I described in a previous column, is that humanitarian groups are fearful of operating in Shabaab-controlled regions out of concern that any aid leakage could put them in violation of U.S. law.

The U.S. government formally named Al Shabaab to the State Department’s main list of terrorist groups in 2008, making it a federal crime to provide them with material support.  It also, at the same time, deemed Al Shabaab to be a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” under Executive Order 13224, barring any financial transactions with the group.

In the years that these rules have been applied, U.S. aid to Somalia has dropped by 88 percent, from approximately $237 million in 2008 to some $20 million in 2011.  Among the most dramatic consequences of these restrictions was the U.S. government’s suspension of funding to the World Food Programme’s operations in Somalia at a moment when the United Nations estimated that 3.2 million people were in need of aid.  In December 2009, lacking financial support and facing threats and attacks by Al Shabaab, the WFP suspended its work in Somalia.

Yet the most onerous aspect of the U.S. restrictions is not in limiting direct U.S. aid, it is in discouraging humanitarian organizations from using even outside funds in Somalia.  Because the U.S. legal rules are broadly written—and have been given a sweeping interpretation by the courts—even non-Americans, spending foreign funds on food and other humanitarian aid in Shabaab-controlled regions, could risk criminal prosecution for material support to terrorism.

Weighing Lives

Millions of Somalis live in famine- and drought-stricken areas in southern Somalia controlled by Al Shabaab.  If aid is not delivered there, countless people will die.  Given the high stakes, it is crucial that the U.S. terrorism restrictions not be interpreted to prevent the delivery of food, water, and other needed assistance.

“Avoiding aid diversion is a reasonable goal,” explains Jeremy Konyndyk, a policy advisor with Mercy Corps who recently visited Somalia, “But the U.S.’s overzealous approach to this challenge now threatens to write off millions of Somalis who face the very real risk of starvation.”

Yesterday, fortunately, the U.S. government issued new guidelines on Somalia indicating that it is relaxing the enforcement of sanctions relating to Al Shabaab.  While the new guidance does not alter the underlying legal rules, it is meant to give aid groups some assurance that they will not be prosecuted if some of the humanitarian assistance they provide ends up in Al Shabaab’s hands.

These new guidelines are a meaningful first step; they show that the government recognizes that a problem exists.  But they are a stop-gap measure, not a real solution.  In the future, Congress needs to seriously consider how to amend the laws governing material support of terrorism so that the provision of legitimate and necessary humanitarian aid is not a criminal offense.

Posted in: International Law

11 responses to “Starvation in Somalia”

  1. Srimbael says:

    “… Joanne Mariner explains the dire situation in Somalia, …, and a recent interpretation of a key U.S. law that is a first step in the right direction.”

    I followed the above link on to your article to learn about the “recent interpretation of a key U.S. law….” What I read in your article is that “the U.S. government issued NEW GUIDELINES on Somalia indicating that it is relaxing the enforcement of sanctions relating to Al Shabaab.” 

    How do you interpret the issuing of new guidelines as an interpretation?

    Aside from that, I am happy and proud that the U.S. has relaxed their restrictions on aid to Somalia. Considering the ways in which the Somali people showed their appreciation for aid from my country in the past, the repulsive and obscene murders of U.S. military fighting against the supposed oppressors of the Somalis, yes, I am proud. I’m proud that the American people still want to help starving people the world over. I am 65 years old, and I have been reading about the starving people in African nations since I was an adolescent in the 1950’s. I’m fed up.

    The world is responsible for helping these countries, not just the U.S. We are constantly accused of policing the world and of aggressive “occupation” of any and all lands that we go to; yet we are expected to come to the rescue in every crisis. We are expected to ignore the insults, ignore the murders of our people, civilian and military, ignore the cowardly barbarism of people still living in the dark ages, and  bring peace and prosperity to every corner of the world.

    Within the past 100 years, we have fought for WWI, Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Kuwait, and Iraq for humanitarian reasons. What did we get from those efforts besides thousands and thousands of lost lives? Is Bosnia a U.S. territory, is South Korea a U.S. territory? Do we get tons of free oil from Iraq or Kuwait? Have we been repaid the millions of dollars we have spent in Iraq for their recovery from the war? Have the people of Iraq received any monetary rewards from their elected government from the sale of their country’s huge stock of oil. Tell me what the U.S. has gotten from helping other countries in times of crisis. Pearl Harbor, Beirut, USS Cole, American embassy bombings, and September 11, 2001. That’s what we got.

    • Mad_Prof Mad_Prof says:

      American benevolence is a myth. The US is engaged in a policy of wiping out Somalis.
      The US funds Ethiopia,Uganda ,Kenya and the puppet Somali  government do it’s bidding.
      Somalis had a stable government in 2006, the US and Ethiopia invaded Somalia in the process removing the Islamic Courts. This event was the genesis of the group AlShabab.
      The US runs a mini  Gitmo in Mogadishu. The US would do  the world favor if it quit involving itself in everyone’s internal affairs and thankfully, it is about to come to an end since the US  no longer be able to afford  the cost involved in it’s belligerence.

    • Z_in_Texas says:

      Who says the U.S. Government is expected bring peace and prosperity to the world? 
      How about bringing peace and prosperity to the United States?
      Who was being “helped” in Beirut? 
      Who is “helped” by having their country occupied by U.S. military bases and installations? It’s not regular people yearning to be free. 
      Nope. Quite the contrary.
      The only ones “helped” by U.S. military occupation and “foreign aid” are the mass-murdering torturing dictator puppet regimes that are client states of and subservient to U.S. elite interests.
      This empire doesn’t benefit you or me, dude. It amounts to welfare for billionaires. All that stuff about democracy and bringing light is just the dumbest, most vacuous and meaningless propaganda out there.
      End the empire!

      • Sandra Estrada says:

        Dear friend from Texas.

        Our LORD is no respector of person’s. And I do agree with you. So many need help. We are prevledged in America. And many in America do fall through the crakes so much. Yes, were do we start. SOMEWHERE, right?? God bless you, Z.

  2. Srimbael says:

    Oh, and I forgot to include one of the most horrible, barbaric thank yous  in the list of what the U.S. has gotten for helping other countries in need:  Black Hawk Down – in SOMALIA.

    • Sandra Estrada says:

      So very true…and who were the ones who did this to our military?  They are the ones robbing the food sent to the starving people in Samalia, ( Bandito’s.) It is like being between stuck between a rock,  and a hard spot, I know. Really think about it from your HEART, my fellow American. I truly understand how you feel, though. But think about,  (The Children.)

  3. . says:

    American bribes, er, foreign aid, generated these mouths.
    Now they starve.

    Any questions? 

  4. . says:

    American bribes, er, foreign aid, generated these mouths.
    Now they starve.

    Any questions? 

  5. President Obama Donates to Help Starving Children « Blog says:

    […] the U.S. government as partly responsible for these starving children in Africa, see Joanne Mariner. Bookmark/Share | Suggest a Link « Previous: Will Criminal Charges Be Next for S&P […]

  6. Dawn Weaver says:

    Frankly, the situation in Africa is horrible, just as it has been horrible for centuries. Has any amount of aid really helped? Made any difference…at all? I think we need to examine a different approach because simply throwing money at the problem doesn’t seem to improve matters. In fact, in many cases, it seems to make it worse as it helps to fund more dictators, thugs, mercenaries, murderers, rapists, warlords, etc. Perhaps the best thing we could do for the people of Africa is leave them alone and stop meddling.

  7. Sandra Estrada says:

    Read this my friends, PLEASE,  and PRAY!!!! Prayer is powerful, so powerful.