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Put aside politics to save Somali lives, say aid agencies

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 21 Sep 2011 03:23 PM
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NAIROBI (AlertNet) - The international community must start “putting people before politics” to avert thousands of deaths from hunger and disease in war-torn, famine-hit Somalia, 20 aid agencies said in an open letter on Wednesday.

“The humanitarian imperative of saving lives must override any political considerations at this crucial time,” they wrote.  

Oxfam, World Vision, the International Rescue Committee and others called for more diplomatic engagement with "all parties to the conflict", “to ensure the unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid”. 

A fierce insurgency has been raging in Somalia since early 2007, pitting Islamist rebels against the interim government, which is backed by African Union peacekeepers.

The humanitarian agencies also urged foreign governments to remove legal obstacles to aid work in rebel-held parts of the Horn of Africa nation, which has been struck by a severe drought.

Large areas of Somalia are experiencing famine, with hundreds of Somalis dying each day. Four million Somalis are in need of emergency aid, with 750,000 facing imminent death due to famine, the United Nations has warned.

“Never before have we faced such acute suffering with so many lives at stake,” said the aid agencies in the letter, warning that the arrival of the October rains could lead to the deaths of many more weak and vulnerable Somalis.

“The spread of cholera, measles and malaria will have a devastating effect on malnourished men, women and children,” they said.

Food aid is only reaching around 1.4 million of those in need, according to the United Nations.

The worst-hit areas are in southern Somalia, which is controlled by al Shabaab, a militant Islamist group linked to al Qaeda. It has banned foreign aid workers from its territory.

The letter urges the warring parties in Somalia to cease hostilities, lift restrictions on aid delivery and allow humanitarian organisations to scale up their response.

LEGAL OBSTACLES TO AID

Among external obstacles, the United States and Britain have outlawed "material support" to al Shabaab, which they designate as a terrorist group. That means aid groups could be prosecuted if aid unintentionally falls into militant hands.

The agencies’ letter called for the removal of “any legal impediments to providing assistance in areas dominated by armed groups”.

It also requested that funding be made available on the scale needed. The 2011 U.N. appeal for Somalia for close to $1.1 billion is 64 percent covered.

“Despite our best efforts we know that many lives will be lost,” the 20 agencies wrote. “Yet we are faced with a window of opportunity, a critical period where a change in approach putting people before politics could save thousands of lives.”

Separately, a new policy paper published by the Washington-based Enough Project says U.S. President Barack Obama should lead an international diplomatic effort to open food aid corridors in Somalia.

“Unless the international response changes, the 2011 Somali famine will be to the Obama administration what the 1994 Rwandan genocide was to the Clinton administration - a terrible stain, an unforgiveable instance of lack of political will to push policy beyond incrementalism,” author Ken Menkhaus, a professor of political science at Davidson College, said in a statement.

(Editing by Megan Rowling)

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