IN-DEPTH: UK Somalia Conference Weak on Humanitarian Focus, NGOs Host Own Meetings

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March 5, 2012
Suraj K. Sazawal

A conference about Somalia held in London on Feb. 23, 2012 was supposed to set a new approach on issues like governance and humanitarian aid, but most analysts said military action rather than negotiating for peace remains the primary strategy.  Sponsored by the United Kingdom's Foreign Office, it was attended by over 40 world leaders including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.  Humanitarian aid issues were relegated to side meetings that aimed to meet the needs of the Somali people by de-politicizing the international response. 

In a country ravaged by lawlessness, conflict and famine for two decades, and perpetual international involvement that has produced few improvements for the people of Somalia, efforts to change course are long overdue. While the conference’s “final communiqué” (distributed the day before the conference began) did say stakeholders should demonstrate “full respect for the rule of law, human rights, and international humanitarian law… and to address the root causes of terrorism,” most of the talk at the conference concentrated on issues affecting the interests of the international community such as terrorism or piracy, rather than on ways to support a peace process or develop a plan for long-term food security.
The U.S. and its allies continued their refusal to engage with members of al-Shabaab, a U.S. designated terrorist group that controls nearly one-third of the country. Representatives of many countries, including the U.S., praised the recent surge in military strikes against al-Shabaab in or around Mogadishu, and supported UN Security Council Resolution 2036, passed the day before the conference, that expanded the capacity and mandate of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
Some participants tried to steer the international community away from its current policy of excluding al-Shabaab from all peace talks.  Italy's foreign minister, Giuliomaria Terzi, said the southern part of the country the group controls is home to millions of people and “their capacity to control that territory does not lie solely in coercion.” The Qatari minister, Dr Khalid bin Mohammed al Attiyah, said, “The exclusion of any party at this stage will disrupt these efforts and render any talk about security and stability unrealistic and inconsistent with the realities on the ground in Somalia.”
But Clinton “adamantly opposed” any engagement with al-Shabaab. “Negotiating with al-Shabaab would be the wrong path,” she said in short speech.  She also called for other countries to join the U.S. in cutting the group’s “financial lifelines”, recommending they apply sanctions such as “travel bans and asset freezes on people inside and outside” of Somalia. 
There is widespread skepticism among experts that military efforts will stabilize Somalia. Most military-centric plans hinge on the success of supporting a weak government with little legitimacy or control and exclude key regional actors.  Tsegaye D. Baffa, Senior Researcher at The Institute for Security Studies says:
“Interest in increasing military action appears to have been informed by a thinking that increasing the military pressure on Al-Shabaab will lead to an improvement in peace and security in the country and further decrease the space available to them. However, whereas this might hold true in theory, the more than two decades of conflict in Somalia does not support that assumption. Instead, the Somali case shows that military intervention in Somalia is hugely unpopular and can act as a catalyst to whip up Somali nationalism to unite Somali groups that had, hitherto, been sworn enemies.”
Military action not only disrupts opportunities for developing a peace process, but also increases the dangers to an already conflict-weary Somali population. Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, said in an op-ed in The Guardian, “In recent months an expanding international military intervention has intensified fighting in Somalia with ordinary Somalis caught up in the cross fire once again. Military action is worsening the humanitarian situation, endangering lives and denying vulnerable Somalis access to desperately needed life-saving assistance.”
In a document released at the end of the conference's official humanitarian side event, sponsored by the UN and the United Arab Emirates, participants agreed to deepen ongoing UN efforts to provide “timely and sustained” humanitarian assistance that support the recovery and development of Somalia. The statement also called on parties involved in the conflict to protect civilians and ensure that military action does not hamper humanitarian access. It said:
“We emphasized the importance of preserving the distinction between humanitarian objectives and political and security objectives, and that blurring the lines between those objectives jeopardizes the delivery of vital assistance to the Somali people. In this regard, we called on all parties in Somalia to ensure that humanitarian actors are given full, safe and unhindered access to those in need, and that they can access aid in safety.”
Ahead of the conference, humanitarian groups held a forum attended by 100 delegates from 78 leading Somali, international, and multilateral humanitarian agencies. After the meeting, a statement said, "There was strong consensus that Somalis need a greater voice in the diplomatic process and that there needs to be better coordination of support for Somalia in order to ensure that aid gets through to where it is needed most."  
Two publications focused on ways to improve the situation in Somalia. First, the Humanitarian Forum, in partnership with Islamic Relief and the Turkish Red Crescent Society, published Back from the Brink that outlines 10 ways the international community can effectively address Somalia's humanitarian crisis.
Second, Oxfam released a report, A Shift In Focus: Putting the interests of Somali people first, on Feb. 22 that said the counterterrorism policy by the West has worsened Somalia’s problems by prioritizing military objectives rather than focusing on humanitarian needs. “Internationally imposed state-building efforts have failed to deliver stability and the establishment of accountable government authorities. Instead they have at times exacerbated the humanitarian crisis and made it harder for those in need to receive assistance,” the report says.
Speaking at this event, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator for Somalia, Valerie Amos, said the need for a coherent approach to address the challenges in Somalia is urgent.  “As we deal with the immediate humanitarian needs of the people, we must also ensure longer-term sustainability in the country,” she said. “We cannot let the Somali people down.”