Antiterror laws could impede US aid for Somalia famine victims

Al Shabab, an Islamist group with links to Al Qaeda, controls famine-stricken regions in Somalia. The US is looking for ways to help starving Somalis while not breaking antiterror laws.

Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP
Women from southern Somalia and their malnourished children arrived in Bandar hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia, on July 22.

Urgent discussions are being held in Washington to find ways to provide food to starving Somalis while not breaking strict antiterror laws barring aid to areas held by Islamists with ties to Al Qaeda.

Under rules from the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), no US government money may be spent on projects if there is any risk that it will “materially benefit” a listed terror organization.

That includes Al Shabab, an insurgent group linked to Al Qaeda that has taken control of most of southern Somalia, the area worst hit by the current Horn of Africa drought.

Since the Treasury rules came into force in 2009, US aid to Somalia – once the largest share of all world donors – has dropped by 88 percent, from $237 million in 2008 to $20 million in 2011. Washington argues that this is because aid cannot be delivered in places that are unsafe for agencies’ staffs, or where it might be looted by the Islamists.

Yet funding to Somalia from all other nations, channeled through local partners and the few UN agencies still on the ground, in fact rose between 2008 and 2010, according to UN figures.

"Avoiding aid diversion is important, but the US’s overzealous approach led to a damaging collapse in US humanitarian support to Somalia,” says Jeremy Konyndyk, policy director with Mercy Corps in the US. “While poor access limited the humanitarian community’s ability to address needs in the south, the broader collapse in US humanitarian support to the whole of Somalia since 2009 has undermined humanitarian response and preparedness across the entire country.”

The OFAC rules came into force after reports that Al Shabab was hijacking food, taxing aid convoys thousands of dollars, and threatening foreign staff. Dozens of other organizations pulled out of southern Somalia at the same time.

Now, Al Shabab has said it is willing to declare an amnesty to let relief supplies be delivered across territory it controls.

Already, UNICEF has negotiated unhindered access to boost its operations with the first airdrop of food and medicines into an Islamist-held area. More is expected to follow.

With Wednesday’s declaration of famine in parts of southern Somalia, humanitarian officials are hoping that fresh pressure will be brought to bear to force an exception in the OFAC rules.

"The conditions are now there to warrant discussions on extraordinary measures, including the responsibility to protect,” says Nicholas Haan, who helped design the UN’s official famine classification system. "That demands that the UN Security Council recommend to its members, including the US, that the urgent need to save lives overrides any political, logistical, or financial considerations.”

Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of State for African Affairs, told the Monitor that the US is “committed to doing all that we possibly can to assist the people of Somalia.”

Extra funding agreed in recent weeks included $28 million, announced on Wednesday, plus an earlier $14.5 million to ship Brazilian maize to the Horn of Africa and money to buy 19,000 tons of food.

But for now, that still cannot be spent or distributed in Islamist-held areas.

“We have not ourselves had any contacts with Al Shabab, and would not,” Mr. Carson says. “But we are talking to NGOs who operate in the area to determine whether they are being allowed deliver food unhindered, and without any loss of food and without the payment of any bribes. The thing that we are clearly not trying to do is to allow food that is intended for victims to be siphoned off by an international terrorist group.”

Mr. Konyndyk at Mercy Corps said the world’s efforts to address Somalia’s drought “will remain totally inadequate if legal restrictions force the US to remain on the sidelines.”

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