Crises in Africa Showcase Complexity of Humanitarian Access in Conflict Zones

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May 16, 2012

Several regions of Africa face significant man-made and natural disasters that are complicated by armed conflict and the presence of terrorist organizations. According to UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, several humanitarian crises coupled with the global economic downturn has created a “nightmare scenario” across the large continent. Regions like the Sahel and Horn of Africa have been confronted with severe food insecurity, while areas such as Sudan and Somalia have also faced violent armed conflicts.

In some cases, aid agencies are hampered by overly broad U.S. laws that make it a crime for charities to negotiate access to vulnerable civilians living on territory controlled by a terrorist organization. This has resulted in diminished aid to Somalia during the peak of its famine in 2011.   Without changes in legal rules for U.S. charities, the same problem could arise again in large portions of Africa in the summer of 2012. 

This article offers an overview of the humanitarian situation in several regions as of May 2012, including:


At least 15 million people are facing food insecurity in the Sahel region of Africa. The Sahel, located below the Sahara desert, is in the midst of a “deepening humanitarian crisis,” fueled by drought, food shortage and armed conflict, according to the World Food Programme (WFP). Nearly one million children are at risk of dying from severe malnutrition across the affected areas, including Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and other countries.
Further complicating the situation in the Sahel is the presence of armed groups, some of which are listed by the U.S. as terrorist organizations. In Mali, humanitarian relief has been impeded by a military coup and armed conflict. In March the government was overthrown by military forces seeking increased latitude in fighting rebels in the northern region of the country. Aid agencies have encountered difficulty getting aid to the 75,000 Malians fleeing from the rebel-controlled areas because of an influx of terrorists from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a large U.S. based charity, has faced roadblocks in providing food aid to displaced citizens. CRS is unable to negotiate access to areas controlled by listed groups due to U.S. material support laws. Other humanitarian organizations, such as the French medical NGO Medecins du Monde (MDM), and the International Coimmittee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are able to negotiate access. According to Olivier Vandecasteele, coordinator of MDM in Mali, in order to ensure access, “You need to spend a lot of time on the phone, and verify through all of your contacts how [and aid] convoy will pass.” Vandecasteel also urged other groups to try opening negotiations for access, saying, “They might just find they get it.”
In Nigeria the armed group, Boko Haram, has endangered civilians as its violence has forced many to flee to neighboring countries.  Boko Haram is responsible for attacking schools and killing nine people during an April attack on This Day newspaper. In response, members of the House of Representatives have called for the listing of the group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). A House Subcommittee on Homeland Security report said formally designating Boko Haram as a terrorist organization “would support U.S. intelligence Community efforts to curb the group’s financing, stigmatize and isolate it internationally, heighten public awareness and knowledge, and signal to other governments that US takes the threat from Boko Haram seriously.” It would also increase the difficulty of aid groups negotiating access to areas under Boko Haram's control. 
The Nigerian government, however, has chosen to pursue a diplomatic route, as several high ranking officials expressed their desire to conduct talks with Boko Haram. The Guardian- Nigeria commended this action in an editorial, arguing that; “Government on the one hand, and all militant groups on the other, for their own sake and for the sake of Nigeria must come together to address matters of disagreement." 
Though also in the Sahel region, the conflict in Sudan has primarily been the product of oil and factional disputes, rather than drought and disease. Since declaring independence in July 2011, the new state of South Sudan has been embroiled in violent disputes along its borders with Sudan, particularly in the Sudanese-controlled areas Kordofan and Blue Nile States.
The rebel group, Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement- North (SPLM-N) has been fighting with Sudan, a U.S. listed “State Sponsor of Terrorism,” for control of oil in the Korodfan and Blue Nile States. The fighting has displaced over 400,000 Sudanese citizens. SPLM-N has also accused Sudan of starving those residents who have not been able to flee to the south. According to an SPLM-N official, over half a million Sudanese are being held “hostage” by the government. He urged the international community to “remain focused on the issue of humanitarian aid” for those trapped with “no food, no medicine, [and] no shelter.” U.S. charities must get licenses from the Treasury Department to operate humanitarian programs in areas included in the state-sponsor of terrorism sanctions.
On March 27, 2012 the U.S. Senate backed the call for humanitarian relief with a resolution that urged “immediate and unrestricted humanitarian access” to the areas affected by the conflict.  The resolution calls on the government of Sudan and SPLM-N to come to a “mutually-beneficial agreement” to quell violence.  The resolution also supports the efforts of the Obama administration, which on April 4 called for nearly $26 million in emergency funding to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to assist those fleeing from the armed conflict.  
On May 14 Sudanese lawmakers accepted a resolution from the UN Security Council to end hostilities with South Sudan “with reservations.” The head of the parliament foreign relations committee, Mohamed al-Hassan, said that they would reject negotiations with SPLM-N because it was “an armed movement.” Al-Hassan also rejected allowing aid agencies that had “hostile activities” into the country. 
The famine in Somalia, which made headlines in 2011, was called as “the worst humanitarian disaster" in the world according to the UN. In total over 13 million people required humanitarian assistance in Horn of Africa. Like the Sahel region, Somalia also has a designated terrorist group within its borders, al-Shabaab.
Al-Shabaab, which controls southern regions of Somalia has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks on civilians, and, at times, has banned humanitarian groups from providing aid to civilians in their territories. Even when al-Shabaab has allowed aid groups, there are still many complications, as they require monthly "security" fees as part of permission to operate in areas they control. Peter Smerdon, a spokesman for WFP, said, “in November, Shabab gave us a list of 11 conditions for aid agencies to meet, including removing women from jobs in aid work. They also made a demand for payment of $20,000 over six months for security.” Such payment to a designated terrorist group would be a violation of the U.S. material support law.
Facing this challenge, aid groups called on the U.S. government to issue a license to allow them to be able engage with al-Shabaab when necessary to provide aid to those in need. In August 2011 the State Department announced that it would ease restrictions to create “more flexibility and to allow a wider range of aid to a larger number of areas in need.” However, the announcement gave no guarantees that a group would not be prosecuted for providing material support to al-Shabaab, and the announcement only applied to U.S. funded organizations. InterAction, an association of U.S. NGOs, asked the Treasury Department to issue a General License that would provide the same protections to non-U.S. funded groups. Treasury denied the request In November 2011.
Some improvements have been made in Somalia. But according to Catherine Bragg, an Assistant Secretary-General for the UN, “the number of people who need food aid decreased by 1.5 million, but 2.5 million people [are] still in crisis.” She urged that “all stakeholders [] recommit to protect the most vulnerable and ensure that their basic needs are met.”