Report: Protect Humanitarian Space in Somalia

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November 29, 2012

Lack of access to Somalis in need was not only an obstacle to alleviating the extreme food shortages in Somalia but also a contributing factor in creating the crisis, according to an April 2012 report from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).   The authors argue that the political landscape in the conflict-ravaged country has become so complex and tainted that restrictions imposed on aid delivery have made it difficult for humanitarian actors to respond impartially and proportionately to the enormous need.  As a result, assistance has been limited to a handful of places, and responding to the threats facing the most vulnerable civilians have  been inadequate.  The combination of drought, escalating food prices, and nearly twenty years of conflict have left millions of Somalis displaced and in need of life-saving assistance.

According to the report, the concept of humanitarian space involves “agency/operational access, protection and assistance” to meet the needs of civilians caught in harm’s way.  This space, however, is constantly under attack due to overly-broad and burdensome counterterrorism measures that do not respect the principles and obligations found in international humanitarian law. 

In Somalia, the reduction in operating space for international aid groups created by political and security barriers has directly contributed to the massive food crisis.  For example, at least $50 million worth of American aid to Somalia was delayed in part because of State Department concerns about facing prosecution from Treasury for inadvertent capture or use of aid by al-Shabaab. U.S. law prohibits transactions with formally listed terrorist organizations, even if its incidental or for the purpose of accessing civilians in need.  (Click here for more about the Legal Roadblocks to Aid Delivery in Somalia.)  And while there has been some easing of restrictions by the U.S., Treasury refuses to issue a general license permitting all U.S. NGOs to offer relief to Somalis in need.

The shrinking space for humanitarians working in Somalia has been well documented, but less attention has been paid to the protection of civilians. This is largely attributed to the desire among humanitarian groups, especially the few remaining in areas under al-Shabaab control, not to draw unwanted attention toward their assistance activities.  In fact, some humanitarian agencies have begun exploring “quiet” ways to engage on issues of civilian protection. But “the fear of politicization or of retribution from parties to the conflict,” according to the report, “prevents a coherent and active response” by the sector.

This report argues that, while it may not be possible to fully disentangle humanitarian and political interests in the current Somali conflict, humanitarian space can only be enlarged and made more effective by reducing the deliberate use of humanitarian aid for overtly political purposes.