14 Apr 2024 - by A4ID

Somalia famine: holding those responsible to account

Over the last few weeks we have all seen the disturbing images of the impact of the food crisis on men, women and children in East Africa. In parts of Somalia the situation is especially desperate, with ever increasing areas being declared to be suffering from famine, the first time the ‘F’ word has been used since 1984.

Whilst drought has a part to play in this crisis, Charles Kenny argues that the situation in Somalia is “an intentional act of governance.” He claims that the famine in Somalia is a crime and that the group in control of the region should be held criminally responsible.

Somalia is a country devastated by civil war and a lack of infrastructure that many of us take for granted, which has helped create and exacerbate the crisis by hindering the effort of aid agencies in the region.

But as pointed out by Kenny and Edward Carr from USAID, the situation is exacerbated by Al-Shabab, the group in control of much of the South of the country where the food crisis is at its worst and who refuse access to aid agencies that have managed to navigate their way to affected areas.

By comparing the situation in areas controlled by Al-Shabab to neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia which have similar drought conditions but are not experiencing famine (although there are severe food shortages the situation has not crossed the threshold of famine constitutes a famine), Kenny concludes that Al-Shabab are to blame for the current situation in Somalia.

This was the topic of a presentation at my first A4ID staff meeting.As a recent law graduate, I was particularly interested in the legal basis for Kenny’s argument. But I also wondered whether a crimes against humanity prosecution at the International Criminal Court (ICC) was the best way to deal with the situation – what would it achieve in the long-run?

From a legal point of view, there isn’t much that can be done to prosecute Al-Shabab. The UN Security Council has the power to refer cases to the ICC, which has jurisdiction over international crimes. The problem is, causing famine isn’t considered to be an international crime.

An alternative route to accountability has been suggested by Jens David Olin of Cornell University. There have been reports that Al-Shabab has imprisoned individuals trying to flee the region in internment camps. Such behaviour – if proven – could amount to “imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law”, which is within the ICC’s jurisdiction.

Even if Al-Shabab leaders are brought before the ICC, what then?It doesn’t guarantee that other insurgents will not take their place. More importantly, such a course of action ignores the fact there are broader issues to consider alongside the legal ones.

In our globalised world, where the effects of actions taken in one part of the globe are felt in another, food security will continue to be an issue. The effects of climate change can be seen in reduced crop yields leading to increasing food prices. These hit the poor the hardest and are further inflated by speculation on the commodities markets. There are also question marks over the funding available for aid agencies and others to effectively tackle these kinds of crises

The famine in Somalia is undoubtedly “an affront to humanity”. While Kenny proposes that the group restricting aid to people in famine-struck Somalia should be held criminally responsible, the resolution and the prevention of similar situations in the future requires a more nuanced approach than just a criminalisation of famine itself.

Finding alternative routes to hold those perpetuating famine accountable is just one of the ways to bring about justice to an already politically aggravated situation. Although there may be skepticism as to whether or not prosecuting Al-Shabab will serve long term problems, for now it seems like an important route to help affected Somalis ensure they receive the aid they desperately need.

Researched and written by Vanessa Lam and Aba Idun-Edwards, A4ID interns.