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Countering Terror in Humanitarian Crises: The Challenges of Delivering Aid to Somalia


About this resource

Resource type:Research, reports and studies
Keywords:Accountability, Accountability and Participation, Conflict, violence & peace, Development & humanitarian aid, Disaster preparedness, resilience and risk reduction, Disaster risk reduction, Environment, Food and nutrition, Non-food, Protection, human rights & security, Refugees/IDPs, Remote Programming and Management, Shelter and housing
Date published:June 2012
Publisher:Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research, Harvard University


In the post-­--9/11 era, humanitarian organizations face a growing dilemma regarding
access to vulnerable groups in internal conflicts. On the one hand, international actors
have increasingly recognized the importance of engaging with non-­--state armed groups
(NSAGs) to ensure the timely delivery of humanitarian assistance in crisis-­--affected
territories. On the other hand, in recent years, political and policy actors operating at
domestic, regional, and international levels have pursued security policies and enacted
laws geared toward curbing relationships with NSAGs accused of executing acts of
terrorism. As a result of these two parallel developments, humanitarian actors are often
uncertain about how to implement aid initiatives based on international legal standards
while maintaining adherence to national laws.1
This dilemma is particularly acute in Somalia. Harakat al-­--Shabaab al-­--Mujahideen, or the
Shabaab (“the youth” in Arabic), is an al Qaeda affiliate that controls vast swaths of
territory in southern and central Somalia. The group has required humanitarian actors,
among other measures, to pay fees to deliver humanitarian aid to populations located in
territories controlled by the Shabaab. But the United Nations Security Council (UNSC),
regional organizations, and individual states — including the United States, the United
Kingdom, Australia, and Canada — have undertaken a series of coordinated actions
geared toward isolating and criminalizing engagement with the Shabaab. The resulting
counterterrorism legal framework has left humanitarian organizations with a
predicament: engaging with and potentially paying fees to the Shabaab may be
necessary for delivering lifesaving assistance to tens of thousands of civilians but may
also engender criminal liability. In light of the famine that began in 2011, a situation that
the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) dubbed the “worst
humanitarian crisis in the world,”2 the situation in Somalia has been particularly grim,
and the potential consequences of this unresolved dilemma to crisis-­--affected civilians
particularly adverse.
This paper examines the challenges that result from this quandary. Part I offers an
overview of the historical context of Somalia’s ongoing humanitarian crisis. Part II
describes the legal basis for humanitarian initiatives in Somalia, focusing on tensions
between different bodies of law that have led humanitarian actors to perceive a lack of
legal clarity. Part III details key challenges — either caused by or compounded by this
legal confusion — of delivering humanitarian aid in Somalia. And Part IV explores
avenues that humanitarian organizations and governments might consider moving

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