Legal, political, strategic and ethical dimensions of the 2011 famine

Elspeth Graham & Laura Snowdon

This is the second in a series on the use of Somalia in Crisis role play in a law school course on International Humanitarian Law. Read the Introduction.

The United Nations declared a famine in Somalia in July 2011. The humanitarian response to this crisis was slowed by the presence of al-Shabaab, and the famine ultimately claimed the lives of nearly 260,000 people. Six years later, five teams of law students representing various U.S. government departments participated in a simulation exercise to negotiate the legal, strategic, ethical, and political concerns that arose in relation to the crisis. The five teams represented the National Security Council, Department of Defense, Department of Justice, Department of State, and Office of the Vice President, respectively.

Legal concerns regarding issues of enforceability and a lack of clarity in U.S. material-support-to-terrorism legislation hindered consensus-building amongst the negotiating parties. The representatives of each group recognized that the legal landscape governing humanitarian workers in Somalia was complex and unclear, resulting in a chilling effect on the provision of aid. A majority of representatives concluded that a temporally- and geographically-limited humanitarian exception was a feasible path forward: it could potentially balance the U.S.’s moral obligation to provide aid alongside its important national security concerns. They were persuaded to agree on a humanitarian exception on the basis of moral arguments, namely the moral obligation of the U.S. to help save the lives of Somali citizens in crisis. However, the team representing the Department of Defense was the lone holdout, preventing group consensus on this point. Given its mandate to prioritize national security, it voiced concerns that any humanitarian exception—however limited—might allow al-Shabaab to financially benefit from U.S. humanitarian assistance.

The likelihood of consensus could have been increased if those teams favouring a humanitarian exception had considered arrangements more sensitive to national security. A strong attempt at this argument was that the failure to provide a humanitarian exception could actually pose a greater security threat for the U.S., due to prospects of radicalization in the face of an increasingly grave humanitarian crisis. While the Department of Defense team recognized this risk, it still insisted that directly supporting terrorist organizations posed the greater threat. Arguably, other stakeholders could have challenged this set of assumptions more effectively. After further rounds of discussion, the representatives of the Department of Defense finally appeared open to a very limited humanitarian exception so that food and water could be delivered to Somali citizens. However, they maintained the view that their obligations to protect American citizens prevented them from permitting humanitarian aid workers to pay access fees to Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) such as al-Shabaab.

In terms of political concerns, the teams also considered how a potential humanitarian exception to the counter-terrorism legislation might affect international relations. During informal discussions, some argued that it was in the interest of the U.S. to allow humanitarian assistance: this would preserve its image and status in the international community. Otherwise, the U.S. might be viewed as weak, and even callous, for failing to assist in the response when it clearly had the capacity to do so. Cutting against this was the fear that allowing for a humanitarian exception could cause the U.S. to be viewed as a state that supports terrorist organizations.

The 2011 Somalia famine was an exceptionally problematic crisis, due to the need for humanitarian assistance in the context of an armed conflict involving a terrorist group. As a result of the intersection of these issues, decision-making in response to the famine was rendered even more complex. Only time will tell if the U.S. can learn from its past mistakes to coordinate an effective humanitarian response when similar crises unfold elsewhere in the world. Read Part 3 and Part 4.

Written by law school students Elspeth Graham & Laura Snowdon as part of the Re-Imagining International Humanitarian Law course at University of Western Ontario Law School.

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