Famine as a crime against humanity

Abdi Ismail Samatar, “Famine as a crime against humanity,” Al Jazeera, 01 Dec 2011

Drought does not necessarily lead to famine: The catastrophe in Somalia was man-made.

The coordinator of the Monitoring Group recently published an article in which he claimed that the Somali famine is not only a catastrophe, but that identifiable individuals and groups engaged in the production of the famine and therefore have committed crimes against humanity. This bold statement by the coordinator of the Monitoring Group demands careful assessment.

It has been common wisdom for decades that droughts do not by themselves lead to famines, and the cause of the latter is the failure by national and international authorities to take action long before people run out of food. There have been 10 major droughts over the last 50 years in the Horn of Africa in general, and in Somalia in particular.

The evidence gleaned from this climatic record show that most droughts did not produce famine. …

I partly agree with the coordinator’s assessment that this is a man-made famine and, therefore, that those responsible have committed crimes against humanity. However, my disagreement with his claim is that he only offers a partial list of the perpetrators by ignoring some of the major culprits, while accusing others who had nothing to do with the making of the famine. …

Apart from these Somali actors, the Monitoring Group’s coordinator conveniently ignored more powerful actors deeply implicated in the famine. First, he ignores the fact that some of the famine victims are the people who were displaced by the Ethiopian occupation of southern Somalia during 2006-08. That occupation exacerbated conflict in the country which subsequently denied that population to return home and rebuild their lives. As such, the invaders are as guilty of crimes against humanity as al-Shabaab.

Second, the United States government has been the most important provider of food aid to the World Food Programme (WFP), which enabled the latter to sustain many of the displaced and dislocated people. The US withdrew its support for WFP programme in southern Somalia as a result of two parallel accusations made in the Spring 2010 Report of the UN Monitoring Group, which claimed that WFP transport contractors were diverting food aid to the black market as well as supporting al-Shabaab. …

In the absence of any credible evidence that validates any of the major accusations made in the 2010 Monitoring Groups, we need to examine the effects the report had on the delivery of humanitarian aid since March 2010, and then assess the politics of the Monitoring Group Report writing.

First, the WFP lost some $300m in overall donor funds for Somalia, mostly devoted to food security. This destroyed WFP’s capacity to provide for routine food support for the indigent, but more critically, to the growing food insecurity of large number of people in the major conflict zones in Somalia. The funds lost to Somalia because of this report have never been recovered as part of the funding envelope for Somalia.

As a result, slowly the malnutrition rates increased, and the population’s ability to weather the storm diminished significantly. Alarm rang among knowledgeable agencies and individuals, as a small stream of malnourished and deeply destitute people began to show up in cities like Mogadishu.

Second, as a result of the new pressure induced by the March 2010 Report, al-Shabaab tightened its control of its area. Meanwhile, a number of humanitarian agencies withdrew, fearing that they could not operate in those per Shabaab’s new restriction, and not wanting to be accused of materially aiding a terrorist organisation. …

Fourth, while the coordinator has blamed al-Shabaab for denying access to agencies like WFP, the timeline of events appear to point the blame on the Monitoring Group’s tabloid-like research and report writing. We think that al-Shabaab is guilty of condemning people to starvation, but those who used the United Nations Monitoring Group as the vehicle to deliver unfounded half-truths also played a vital role in inducing the calamity by illegitimately damaging the credibility of WFP, which directly contributed to the dearth of food deliveries to the population.

The gossip-based report also indirectly precipitated al-Shabaab’s cruel decision and appears to coincide with the US’ decision to withdraw support for WFP. Fifth, those engaged in the war on terror have been blinded by the ideology of this enterprise that they lost their human sensibilities and failed to separate fiction from fact as they heed unsubstantiated claims made in reports such as the 2010 UN Monitoring Report.

Finally, international policy towards Somalia has been hijacked by pseudo-experts who use the cover and credibility of international institutions to dish out reports that lead to flawed policies, bringing more misery and disempowerment to the population.

Read the full article here.