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The International Community’s Options in Somalia

The International Community’s Options in Somalia
Yesterday, twenty aid agencies called on the international community to put “people’s lives before politics” in Somalia. There are two very urgent problems in this war torn nation. First, aid dollars for famine relief are falling short. The head of Somalia’s National Disaster Management Agency claims the Somali government is only receiving 30 – 40 percent of the food necessary to respond to the crisis.

Arguably, the more important problem is the lack of access for humanitarian agencies. Both the Shabaab and the Somali government are part of the problem. The Shabaab reportedly blocks most aid groups and severely restricts the activities of those that are permitted to operate. Meanwhile, aid agencies have accused the Somali government of politicizing humanitarian aid, and sending confusing messages about where aid agencies can operate.

With a growing gap between humanitarian needs and international aid pledges, the United Nations warns that three quarters of a million people may be at risk of starving to death. What can be done?

Some aid agencies have called for giving up on some people, and focusing on those that can be saved. Last week, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi proposed that the international community intervene with military force to establish aid corridors in al-Shabaab controlled territory, where more than half of Somalis live. Others claim the African Union peacekeeping force of approximately 9,000 troops could be expanded outside the capital to forcefully ensure the delivery of aid.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad options in Somalia. Yesterday, the ENOUGH project published a report by Ken Menkhaus, an expert on the horn of Africa. In his analysis, Menkhaus discusses three options. First, the status quo; the international community continue doing what it is doing right now. Second, military intervention; the international community intervene as it did in the early 1990’s to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid by force. Finally, the international community could launch a robot diplomatic offensive, prevailing upon the Somali government and Al Shabaab to allow humanitarian agencies unimpeded access.

The first option isn’t working. Menkhaus rules out the second noting that foreign military interventions in Somalia haven’t worked. Somalia’s politics are too dynamic messy for outsiders to understand, and the international community’s efforts to essentially “play god” in Somalia never work. There also isn’t any appetite for military intervention in Somalia among the states that could do it.

Thus, Menkhaus argues for the third option – a united diplomatic offensive by the West, the Islamic World and African nations to press for unimpeded humanitarian access. Menkhaus writes:

The model in this case is the robust international diplomatic response to Kenya’s 2008 electoral crisis, when the country stood on the precipice of a civil war, and when leaders who would have pushed the country over the edge were put under such intense global and domestic pressure that they were forced to back down. Kenya still suffered from ethnic violence and displacement but was spared what looked to be all-out civil war.

Conditions are not as promising, but the same approach just might work in Somalia. As a short-term strategy it is certainly worth a try. Both Shabaab and the TFG must be put under the most intense diplomatic pressure the world can muster, led by eminent global figures and politicians from the Islamic world, Africa, the West, and beyond.

I agree with Menkhaus that a robust diplomatic offensive is the best option. However, I take a slight issue with him on the efficacy of military intervention. Operate Restore Hope, the initial U.S. led intervention in Somalia in the early 1990’s, was critical to establishing the necessary level of security for aid agencies to operate. Although only a temporary solution, the U.S. led intervention saved many people from starving to death. The problems started after Operation Restore Hope ended, operational control was handed over to the United Nations, and the international community expanded the mission beyond just ensuring the delivery of aid.

But, with the U.S. and NATO tied up in Afghanistan and Libya, I doubt that the capacity or political will exists for the kind of intervention necessary to provide security for humanitarian agencies to operate. So, that leaves the international community with the third option – a robust diplomatic offensive modeled on the international response to Kenya’s crisis. Will it work?

I am not sure. Kenya’s electoral crisis in 2008 was very different from the current crisis in Somalia. The parties in Kenya were already united behind the goal of ensuring the speedy delivery of aid as evidenced by the fact that it was a priority in the negotiations led by Kofi Annan. The same cannot be said about Somalia. Amidst the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world, both the Somali government and al – Shabaab have politicized the delivery of aid to hungry people.

However, Menkhaus is right that it is the best of bad options. There a couple ways to enhance the prospect for success based on lessons learned from the international response to Kenya’s crisis. First, key leaders from Africa, the Middle East, the Europe and the U.S. should select a high profile special envoy for Somalia for famine relief. The current U.N. special envoy for Somalia could act as his/her deputy on famine relief and maintain responsibilities over peace and conflict resolution efforts. The high profile envoy should be someone as notable as Kofi Annan with legitimacy and credibility in both the Muslim world and Africa.

It may not work. Negotiating with Kenyan politicians is one thing. Bargaining with armed groups in the world’s archetypal failed state is a whole different ball game. But, it’s worth a shot to prevent the most serious humanitarian crisis in the world from getting a lot worse.



Trevor Keck

Trevor Keck is currently a fellow with the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) based in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he is researching civilian casualty issues, and advocating for policies that will better protect civilians from the conflict in Afghanistan. Trevor holds a graduate degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, at Tufts University, where he concentrated in international security and public international law, and BA in peace and conflict studies from Chapman University. Trevor's writings on this blog may or may not reflect the views of CIVIC.

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