Tag: Ethiopia

Crimes in and of Famine

If you find the argument that famine is man-made to be credible, then famine is not just an inevitable outcome of the structural conditions of “failed states” but rather it is purposeful, systematic, and systemic human rights abuse and therefore criminal.

Those who make the argument that the current famine in East Africa is man-made place more blame on political problems of restricted access, entitlements and aid management than the environmental factors of drought, overpopulation, and food scarcity. That Somalia has been hit harder by famine than neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya underscores this point. If famine is, at least predominantly, man-made than by extension there are individuals or groups responsible for causing the famine or exacerbating its effects of death and displacement. As Charles Kenny argues for Foreign Policy, “In order to ensure widespread death by starvation, a governing authority must make a conscious decision: it must actively exercise the power to take food from producers who need it or deny food assistance to victims.”

The debate is not new. For example, in Famine Crimes (1997) Alex de Waal addresses the “political roots of famine” in Africa and the subsequent failings of the “humanitarian international” as an “obstacle rather than aid to conquering famine.” (pxv) More specifically on the question of crimes and responsibility, he argues:

“For war crimes, the challenge is to deter those who cause them. The Geneva Conventions contain strong provisions prohibiting the use of starvation as a method of warfare. Criminalizing the infliction of famine requires a further step, namely enforcing the prohibitions by prosecuting those guilty of the crimes. This it to put famine into the category of offences requiring justice, and in particular war crimes.” (p6)

Certainly civilians living amidst violence and in poorly functioning states are likely to become food insecure and displaced. But is the present famine, the worst in sixty years, an international crime in and of itself? Both Sarah Pierce and Jens David Ohlin explain the factual case that, technically, the famine is neither a war crime nor a crime against humanity but make the normative argument that it should be. Specifically starvation is a war crime but only in international armed conflicts. And for the famine to constitute a crime against humanity there must be intent and knowledge of a plan to cause “great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental and physical health” as part of a systemic and systematic attack on civilians. This is where the evidence is mixed and raises questions about determining intent and assigning responsibility to organizations and individuals. Those who breed corruption and war often to blame.

In Somalia, civilians are prevented from fleeing to areas, inside or outside its borders, to access food aid, medical assistance, and protection and aid agencies are deliberately obstructed from providing such assistance inside much of Somalia. Human Rights Watch just released a report, “You Don’t Know Who to Blame:” War Crimes in Somalia, accusing all warring factions in Somalia, particularly al-Shabaab but also government forces, of committing human rights violations and preventing access to aid. But most argue that the Islamic insurgency group, al-Shabaab, is primarily to blame. The report’s author told BBC that

“al-Shabaab carries out unrelenting daily repression and brutality in areas under its control, taxing the population for access to water, forcefully recruiting men so they cannot grow crops and restricting access to aid agencies…al-Shabaab must carry he burden of that responsibility for the way in which the fighting has led to human rights violations which have contributed to famine.”

Andrew Jillions, blogging at Justice in Conflict, also directly takes on the question of al-Shabaab’s responsibility or complicity in engineering the famine. And in Kenya too there is finger-pointing at political actors. One Kenyan activist claims “this is a governance drought. It is a situation caused by the government’s failure to plan…” and that big profits can be made from famine.

Whether those perpetrating violence and corruption have intentionally caused vs. exacerbated the famine in the commission of other abuses may matter more for identifying this as a crime and assigning responsibility, but on the ground the end result of either scenario is still increasing death and displacement with little allocation of responsibility.


Counter-Terrorism vs. Counter-Proliferation

National Security is all about prioritizing tough decisions. Often, an administration can get away with avoiding the really tough calls, but from time to time, issues arise that force policy makers into pragmatic trade-offs between vital values and interests. Those choices are very instructive and insightful as to how a President sees the world. The NY Times reports that the Bush Administration faced just such a choice between its key goals of counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation:

Three months after the United States successfully pressed the United Nations to impose strict sanctions on North Korea because of the country’s nuclear test, Bush administration officials allowed Ethiopia to complete a secret arms purchase from the North, in what appears to be a violation of the restrictions, according to senior American officials.

The United States allowed the arms delivery to go through in January in part because Ethiopia was in the midst of a military offensive against Islamic militias inside Somalia, a campaign that aided the American policy of combating religious extremists in the Horn of Africa.

The NYT story is quite clear about the central issue:

But the arms deal is an example of the compromises that result from the clash of two foreign policy absolutes: the Bush administration’s commitment to fighting Islamic radicalism and its effort to starve the North Korean government of money it could use to build up its nuclear weapons program.

The Administration has identified both counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation as vital national security interests. But when they happen to conflict, as in when fighting terrorists requires looking the other way on a major North Korean arms deal, we see where the Administration’s priorities lie. They would rather allow Ethiopia to purchase tens of millions of dollars worth of weapons from North Korea, providing North Korea with vital cash and circumventing UNSC sanctions limiting arms transfers out of North Korea in punishment for its nuclear test than not, so long as those weapons go to fight terrorists, and by terrorists we mean the Islamic militias in Somalia.

They had a clear choice–cut off one of North Korea’s few sources of cash on the international market or equip an allied government with weapons necessary to launch an attack on Islamist militias.

Its one of those tough choices that National Security policy-makers make that reveals their priorities and values. It is also one of those choices with real repercussions long into the future, many of which have real consequences for vital US national security interests.



Ethiopia launched an invasion of Somalia yesterday:

Ethiopia officially plunged into war with Somalia’s Islamist forces on Sunday, bombing targets inside Somalia and pushing ground troops deep into Somali territory in a major escalation that could turn Somalia’s internal crisis into a violent religious conflict that engulfs the entire Horn of Africa.

The coordinated assault was the first open admission by Ethiopia’s Christian-led government of its military operations inside Somalia, where — with tacit American support — it has been helping a weak interim government threatened by forces loyal to the Islamic clerics who control the longtime capital, Mogadishu, and much of the country.

This war has the potential to get rather dangerous rather fast, as Eritrea is sending troops to Somalia to buttress its neighbor against its rival, and the Islamist militias / government of Somalia calls for a wider, jihadist type of war.

While the US has not been officially in Somalia since the post-Blackhawk Down pull-out in 1994, the CIA had been funding some of the non-Islamist warlords, hoping to help them defeat and capture some other warlords.

[O]fficials said the CIA effort, run from the agency’s station in Nairobi, channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past year to secular warlords inside Somalia with the aim, among other things, of capturing or killing a handful of suspected members of Al Qaeda who are believed to be hiding there….

Indeed, some of the experts point to the U.S. effort to finance the warlords as one of the factors that led to the resurgence of Islamic militias in the country. They contend that U.S. support for secular warlords, who joined under the banner of the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism, may have helped to unnerve the Islamic militias and prompted them to launch preemptive strikes. The Islamic militias have been routing the warlords, and they now claim to have taken control of most of the Somali capital.

“This has blown up in our face, frankly,” said John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit research organization with extensive field experience in Somalia.

“We’ve strengthened the hand of the people whose presence we were worried most about,” said Prendergast, who worked on Africa policy at the National Security Council and State Department during the Clinton administration.

In a way, Somalia has eerie similarities to Afghanistan of about 8 or 10 years ago. A country in anarchy after a superpower pulls out, various factions and warlords vie for supremacy. None is strong enough to prevail, until an Islamic fundamentalist militia comes in, routs the feuding warlords, and imposes a sense of order over the country. The order is an improvement over the enduring warfare for the local people, but the government develops ties to a global Islamist jihadist network of forces, such as Al Qaeda.

So now, Ethiopia, with, it seems, more than tacit but not quite overt, US support, is moving in to tip the balance toward the non-Islamist warlords. I guess we’ll see how this turns out.

Oh, and for those of you who celebrate it, I hope you enjoy a nice holiday today.

I’ll be engaging in the very traditional Chinese food and a movie. I’m thinking maybe chicken and eggplant in garlic sauce and The Good Shepard.

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