Delivering humanitarian aid to desperate people in savage lands becomes even more difficult when thugs, warlords, and pirates get in the way.
From Afghanistan to Somalia, humanitarian aid held hostage
In 1859, a Swiss businessman named Henri Dunant witnessed the terrible suffering of the wounded and dying in the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino in northern Italy. What he wrote about his experience inspired the foundation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) four years later, and the Geneva Convention of 1864. From these beginnings a global movement has grown, which includes the national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies of almost every nation in the world.
International assistance to the victims of war, civil conflict and natural disasters is now a highly developed, professional and multi-billion dollar enterprise. But those who work in the field still confront difficult and often painful dilemmas, which no amount of regulations or international agreements can fully resolve.
The core principles of international humanitarian aid are humanity, neutrality and impartiality. These mean that assistance must be provided on the basis of need, that those providing the help must not take sides in the conflict that is creating the victims, and that all victims, whichever side they happen to be on, must be provided with the help they need.
Some of the most difficult dilemmas arise over this last provision, especially when leaders of armed groups attack or hijack aid convoys or try to use the aid to strengthen their military or political position in the conflict.
In Afghanistan, in the early 1990s, before the arrival of the Taliban, I was involved in the United Nations' efforts to bring humanitarian food aid to some remote and mountainous areas in the centre of the country. One of the local warlords thought he could make some easy cash by kidnapping three of our international staff and demanding money for their release.
Over the next three days I spent many hours talking to him over the radio through an interpreter, as he demanded millions of Pakistani rupees in ransom, and I explained to him that we could not and would not pay. I told him that the people who would suffer from his actions would be the ordinary people living in the area he controlled, who would not receive the aid that we had available for them, if our team was not released.
By great good fortune, the highly respected Afghan director of a mine-clearance operation was visiting a nearby town at the time. We contacted him and sought his help. He went to the local leaders and asked them to call a meeting of their shura. There he told them that the fate of their communities over the coming winter depended on them resolving this stand-off.
They saw the point and quickly dispatched a high-powered delegation to persuade the errant commander to relent. Our colleagues were released and the humanitarian programmes resumed. Fortunately, on this occasion, the dilemma for us was short-lived. We were able to use an implicit threat of halting operations to resolve a crisis.
On other occasions we were not so lucky and communities were deprived of help because their leaders would not, or could not, ensure a basic level of security for an impartial and needs-based distribution of aid.
I was reminded of this story when reading about donor organisations from the UAE and other Gulf countries that have to take into account the threat of attacks by Somali pirates when planning deliveries of desperately needed humanitarian aid to Somalia.
In Afghanistan in the early 1990s, the writ of the government in Kabul hardly extended beyond the city itself, just as the writ of the transitional Somali government extends only to some parts of Mogadishu.
In central Afghanistan, it fell then to courageous Afghan individuals to organise local power-brokers to understand the consequences for their people of the selfish actions of a few.
I hope there are similarly courageous Somalis who can persuade the pirate community in their country to take a well-publicised break from their activities while their countrymen are helped through this devastating crisis by the generous and courageous work of donor organisations from the UAE and other countries of the region.
Martin Barber is a senior adviser for the UAE Office for the Coordination of Foreign Aid