By Stephen Kaufman
IIP Staff Writer
August 02, 2011
Washington — Because of the compelling humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa, including southern Somalia, the Obama administration is reassuring nongovernmental organizations and aid groups that they will not risk prosecution if their efforts to aid famine victims violate U.S. sanctions on the terrorist group al-Shabaab.
Speaking to reporters in an August 2 conference call from Washington, senior administration officials said that despite the possibility that al-Shabaab could divert or profit from food and medical assistance in areas under their control, the primary concern of the United States is to save lives, and it wants relief workers to feel they have the flexibility to move aid to wherever it is needed most.
Nearly 12 million people living primarily in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti need urgent food and medical assistance because of drought conditions, and Somalia is among the hardest hit because of an ongoing civil war and the difficulty of aid groups to gain access to areas controlled by al-Shabaab, which the officials said are the worst-affected areas.
In southern Somalia, there are 1.2 million children at risk, and 600,000 of them are severely malnourished and need emergency medical attention.
“This is just such a compelling crisis that I think we are deciding that it’s worth running the risk of some diversion. We’ll do everything we can to avoid that, but the humanitarian need is compelling,” an official said.
In April 2010, President Obama issued an executive order prohibiting Americans and U.S. NGOs from providing any kind of assistance to terrorist organizations and armed groups inside Somalia, including al-Shabaab, in order to prevent them from profiting from it. However, the U.S. government has not prevented the provision of assistance to those in need in Somalia, and the Obama administration has given $80 million to aid the Somali people in response to the current crisis.
The official said the restrictions and the concerns that aid could be diverted to al-Shabaab may have caused some humanitarian assistance organizations to feel constrained in their response to the emergency in Somalia.
“We’re trying to help them not feel constrained and trying to help them move the food to where it’s most desperately needed,” the official said. “In essence, what we’re doing here is working to reassure humanitarian assistance organizations and workers that good faith efforts to deliver food to people in need will not risk prosecution.”
Southern Somalia is “one of the most insecure operating environments on the globe” for relief organizations, a second official said. Al-Shabaab has imposed taxes, tolls and restrictions on aid workers, and 14 World Food Programme employees have died in areas under al-Shabaab’s control since 2008. The terrorist group banned humanitarian organizations in 2009, and many aid organizations were forced to suspend their operations.
But the administration official said some elements of al-Shabaab have been willing to allow aid organizations to provide the Somali people with relief supplies, and the United States wants to give those organizations “the flexibility and all the possible ways in which that assistance can be provided.”
“We don’t expect there to be a grand bargain where there’s unfettered assistance throughout south Somalia, but we do believe that there are very concerned leaders on the ground who will enable the kind of assistance that will save lives,” the official said.
(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)