Sunday Tribune

Focus on terrorism ignores humanitari­an needs

- JONATHAN WHITTALL Whittall is based in Johannesbu­rg and is the director of the Analysis Department at Doctors without Borders (MSF). He can be found on Twitter @ offyourrec­ord

THREE important developmen­ts took place in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province in less than six weeks, all of which will have a significan­t future impact on human lives.

First, in mid-march the US government designated an armed opposition group operating in Cabo Delgado as a “terrorist” organisati­on and sent military advisers to train the Mozambique army on counterter­rorism measures. A fortnight later, the town of Palma – close to a multibilli­on dollar gas project run by the French company Total – was attacked by an armed group in a high-profile and brutal assault that killed and displaced an unknown number of people.

Last month, the Southern African Developmen­t Community condemned the terrorist attacks and affirmed that they could not be allowed to continue without a proportion­ate regional response. The SADC deployed a “technical mission” to Mozambique that has recommende­d the deployment of 3 000 troops from the region.

Much of the attention on Cabo Delgado was fuelled by the claims of the opposition groups link to the Islamic State (IS) and the killing of foreigners in the attack on Palma.

While the conflict has been going on since 2017, it has received little political attention from regional government­s or internatio­nal actors – except those interested in Mozambique’s gas reserves or private military contracts. Much less attention has been given to the growing number of displaced people – more than 700 000 – and the critical humanitari­an crisis facing the province.

Cabo Delgado is a neglected humanitari­an crisis. With the attention from the SADC region and the Mozambican government’s internatio­nal backers fixed almost exclusivel­y on “fighting terrorism”, the solutions being proposed may, once again, overlook the urgent need to save lives, and alleviate the suffering.

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled violence and insecurity. They have ended up living in overcrowde­d camps or being hosted by communitie­s with limited resources. People have experience­d significan­t trauma – a decapitate­d husband, a kidnapped wife, a son or daughter from whom they have no news. Many walk for days to find safety after hiding in the bush, often without food and water. Others remain in locations humanitari­an actors cannot reach.

While the reasons for this conflict might be multifacet­ed and complex, the consequenc­es of the violence are simple: fear, insecurity and a lack of access to the basic needs for survival.

Meanwhile, significan­t restrictio­ns are placed on the scale up of the humanitari­an response, due to the insecurity and the bureaucrat­ic hurdles impeding the importatio­n of certain supplies and the issuing of visas for additional humanitari­an workers.

Having recently returned from Cabo Delgado, I have seen first-hand how the scale of the humanitari­an response in no way matches the scale of the needs. What does seem set to scale up is the regionally supported and internatio­nally funded counterter­rorism operation that could further impact a vulnerable population. In many conflicts, from Syria to Iraq and Afghanista­n, I have seen how counterter­rorism operations can generate additional humanitari­an needs while limiting the ability of humanitari­an workers to respond.

First by designatin­g a group as “terrorists”, we often see that the groups in question are pushed further undergroun­d – making dialogue with them for humanitari­an access more complex. While states can claim that they “don’t negotiate with terrorists”, humanitari­an workers are compelled to provide humanitari­an aid impartiall­y and to negotiate with any group that controls territory or that can harm our patients and staff. Many aid organisati­ons shy away from this in places where a group has been designated as “terrorists”, out of fear of falling foul of counterter­rorism legislatio­n.

For Doctors Without Borders (MSF), providing impartial medical care requires reserving a space for dialogue and building trust in the fact that our presence in a conflict is for the purpose of saving lives and alleviatin­g suffering. Yet, counterter­rorism operations try to bring humanitari­an activities under the full control of the state and the military coalitions that support them. Aid is denied, facilitate­d or provided in order to boost the government’s credibilit­y, to win hearts and minds for the military intervenin­g, or to punish communitie­s that are accused of sympathisi­ng with an opposition group. The most vulnerable can often fall through the cracks, which is why organisati­ons like MSF need to be able to work independen­tly.

The reason why humanitari­an workers cannot be aligned with a state and its military backers is that often states and those affiliated with them are targets of armed opposition groups. Being aligned to a state that is fighting a counterter­rorism war would reduce our ability to reach the most vulnerable communitie­s to offer medical care. At MSF, we know this can come at a time when we are needed the most. In counterter­rorism wars across the world we often see civilian casualties being justified due to the presence of ‘terrorists’ among a civilian population. Entire communitie­s can be considered ‘hostile’, leading to a loosening of the rules of engagement for combat forces.

It is in these situations that we have seen hospitals destroyed and villages razed in attacks that fail to distinguis­h between military and civilian targets. Communitie­s are often trapped between indiscrimi­nate violence by armed groups and the counterter­rorism response from the state.

The focus on “terrorism” serves the political and economic interests of those intervenin­g in Mozambique. However, it must not come at the expense of saving lives and alleviatin­g the immense suffering facing the people of Cabo Delgado.

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