NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The United Nations has forsaken humanitarian principles and undermined aid efforts by throwing its weight behind the Somali government, the head of the Somali Red Crescent said.
The agency with the greatest reach in Somalia, the Somali Red Crescent was one of the few charities able to deliver food to famine-stricken areas controlled by the Islamist militant group al Shabaab in 2011.
"The problem of the U.N. is the two hats - one hat, humanitarian, and the other hat is political," Ahmed Hassan, president of the Somali Red Crescent said at an event organised by the Rift Valley Institute. "It cannot work."
Last year, the United Nations merged its political and humanitarian operations in Somalia under the U.N. Assistance Mission to Somalia (UNSOM) headed by the U.N. Special Representative for Somalia, Nicholas Kay.
UNSOM's mandate is to support the Somali government, which is backed by African Union (AU) peacekeeping forces (AMISOM). AU troops have pushed al Shabaab out of major towns in south central Somalia, although the insurgents are still able to launch bloody, guerrilla-style attacks.
"The donors are politicising the aid so I think the application of neutrality is becoming very complicated," the Red Crescent's Hassan said.
"Right now, people are talking of liberated areas – this is the jargon that AMISOM is using. We are not happy to use that because a number of our MCHs (mother and child health centres) are in areas still under the control of al Shabaab."
The Somali Red Crescent has 72 clinics across the country.
A senior official who works for the United Nations in Somalia said there is an internal debate about appearing to move into 'liberated areas' on AMISOM's coat tails.
"There is new access coming up, new areas. There are massive debates within the U.N. as to being seen to follow military action versus the humanitarian imperative," the official said, declining to be named.
"Do you wait because it's been liberated or recovered by AMISOM, or do you see their needs and you address them?"
During the 2011 famine, al Shabaab banned many U.N. and Western agencies from its territory. In contrast, the Somali Red Crescent was able to open an additional 23 clinics in 2011 and double the number of those treated compared to 2010.
"It actually had the most access across the al Shabaab-controlled areas in south-central Somalia," said Jane Backhurst, a British Red Cross police advisor and author of the report ‘Principles in Action in Somalia’.
She said the Red Crescent not only refused to pay taxes to al Shabaab, as some Western agencies had, but it also decided to close some clinics during the famine because of the demand for taxes.
The Somali Red Crescent treats combatants from all sides in Mogadishu's Keysaney Hospital, Hassan said.
Initially, al Shabaab fighters left the hospital immediately after receiving treatment. One even accused a doctor of implanting a microchip under his skin, Hassan said.
But now they feel safe enough to remain in the hospital for two or three days after being operated on.
"At a certain point, they trusted us. That's why we succeeded," Hassan said.
The main four principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are neutrality (not taking sides in a conflict), impartiality (non discrimination according to race, religion or political beliefs), independence (autonomy) and humanity (alleviating human suffering).
"The Somali Red Crescent survived because of adhering to the fundamental principles," said its director of communications, Abdulkadir Ibrahim.
"You have to be neutral, you have to be impartial and that has to be seen through your services."