Gareth Porter: Obama and Romney debate a false narrative about US foreign policy
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HELSINKI (IPS) – When war-torn Somalia was also ravaged by a drought-induced famine last year, which killed tens of thousands and displaced over a million people, international media was quick to blame the Islamist Al-Shabaab for blocking humanitarian assistance from reaching its zone of control in southern Somalia.
But according to Ken Menkhaus, professor of political science at Davidson College in North Carolina, the United States’ counter-terrorism laws played an equally central role in obstructing assistance from reaching famine victims in desperate need of aid.
Speaking here in an April 18 seminar, organized by the Department of the Study of Religions at Helsinki University, Mr. Menkhaus said humanitarian organizations suspended food aid delivery to drought-struck areas controlled by Al-Shabaab for fear of violating the U.S.A. Patriot Act.
Congress passed the Act in 2001 as part of its response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and under it, anyone who provides material benefits, even if unwittingly, to a designated terrorist group, could face the most severe penalties.
Given that Al-Shabaab—the Somali cell of the militant Islamist Al-Qaeda, fighting the Federal Transitional Government in Somalia and controlling vast swathes of the South except the capital Mogadishu—is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., humanitarian groups were fearful that an accusation of “aiding terrorists” could damage their entire organization.
Thus many reached the conclusion that they were too vulnerable to operate in Al-Shabaab-controlled areas.
Though the group undoubtedly prevented assistance from reaching starving famine victims based on its claim that food aid was a Western conspiracy to drive Somali farmers out of business, Mr. Menkhaus, a specialist on the Horn of Africa, believes that was not the end of the sordid story.
“There are plenty of western countries, including my own government, who would like to see the conversation stop right there and say it was all Al-Shabaab’s fault.” However, the other bottleneck was U.S. policy, which “de facto criminalizes any transactions in southern Somalia,” he said.
Other countries have similar laws, but since the U.S. supplies the bulk of food aid to Somalia, it has the heaviest impact on the country.
In a twist of tragic irony, “suspension of food aid into southern Somalia was the only thing that the U.S. government and Al-Shabaab could agree on, to the detriment of (millions) of Somalis,” Mr. Menkhaus told IPS.
In reality, the U.S. could have issued a waiver, protecting relief agencies from counter-terrorism laws; similar waivers have been issued for relief agencies in southern Lebanon and the West Bank of the occupied Palestinian territories, where Hezbollah and Hamas operate respectively.
But in the case of Somalia, Mr. Menkhaus believes the U.S. administration did not want to give its Republican opponents any political leverage on the eve of upcoming presidential elections by appearing too “soft on terrorism.”
Instead, the U.S. government prepared a document that purportedly gave relief agencies protection from the law but which, upon close examination by legal experts, was found to contain no such protections, leaving those humanitarian agencies vulnerable to attack under the Patriot Act.
Recent forecasts indicate that Somalia could soon be facing another drought, which could produce yet another food crisis in the country this year. There is now an urgent need for preemptive decisions, by the U.S. government in particular, to avoid another humanitarian catastrophe, Mr. Menkhaus said.
Abdi-Rashid, who did not want his full identity revealed, accused Western governments of exacerbating what he described as the “politicization of aid in Somalia,” whereby the humanitarian agenda becomes secondary to the political agenda.
Huge importance has been heaped on the civil war and the “security situation,” much of it with good reason: by 2008 Somalia was the most dangerous place in the world for humanitarian aid workers.
“One-third of all humanitarian casualties occurred not in Afghanistan or in Iraq but in Somalia,” Mr. Menkhaus said.
Still, this was no excuse to allow famine victims to perish en masse, he stressed.
“Long-term development work should still go on in spite of the conflict” to secure people’s basic human rights to tangible things like “schools and drinking wells,” Abdi-Rashid told IPS.
If such long-term issues are ignored much longer, there will be serious consequences not only for Somalia but for the entire region.
“These famines—the ones we had last year and the one we may have in 2012—are producing seismic changes (including) the loss of viable livelihoods in rural southern Somalia, sending waves of people across the borders into Kenya and Ethiopia,” added Abdi-Rashid.
The Kenyan refugee camp of Dadaab, with a population of 520,000, is now Kenya’s third largest city and completely unsustainable.
Meanwhile, destitute nomads and farmers who can no longer find livelihoods in rural areas are drifting into urban centers. These people, who come with no technical skills into a barren employment landscape, are forming huge slums of several hundred thousand people in villages that previous housed only a few thousand residents.
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Kambale Musavuli, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a human rights activist, Student Coordinator and National Spokesperson for the Friends of the Congo. Mr. Musavuli’s professional activities, publications, and public engagements reflect his unflagging commitment to realizing peace and justice in the Congo. Mr. Musavuli has written for The Washington Post, Foreign Policy in Focus, The Huffington Post and numerous other academic and news publications. He has also been interviewed on National Public Radio, Democracy Now, ABC News, Al Jazeera English Television, Radio France International and a number of other radio and television programs. He has been profiled in publications such as “Christianity,” “News and Record,” and a few other newspapers around the world. His film appearances in Iara Lee’s “Cultures of Resistance,” Martin Scorsese’s “Surviving Progress,” and “Crisis in the Congo: Uncovering the Truth” reflect his astute understanding of the economical, ecological, and political dynamics of the global age. His expertise in issues ranging from labor rights, to corporate accountability, international financial institutions, environmental justice, and social justice has qualified him to serve as a research consultant for a number of film projects, socially responsible investor groups, and government agencies at their request. While studying Civil Engineering at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, North Carolina, he developed a deep sense of community service and commitment to justice for all peoples. This experience strengthened his organizing skills by working with local activists on issues ranging from raising minimum wage, to ending police brutality and improving immigrant experience. This work taught him the importance of enabling youth to become change-makers in their communities. He continues such work by supporting organizations, like “Congo Leadership Initiative,” an organization that empowers young leaders in the Congo and provides avenues for them to succeed and to ultimately remove the barriers preventing Congo from reaching its potential. He also engages students and communities worldwide in “breaking the silence” about the ongoing crisis in the Congo by encouraging them to organize Congo Week, an annual global initiative that commemorates the lives lost in the Congo during the conflict and elevates the profile of the Congo. Mr. Musavuli has received awards and acknowledgments affirming the essential nature of his work and the energy and impact of his voice. In 2008, he was appointed by Greensboro Mayor Yvonne Johnson as a member of the International Advisory Committee for the City of Greensboro, a committee that assist the mayor in elaborating policy and procedures that reduce gaps between United States Citizens and immigrants in Guilford County and its peripheries. In 2009, he received a Congolese Hero Award from the Congolese Development Center National Awards Program, an award given to Congolese citizens for exceptionally successful initiatives or achievements benefiting the community. In 2011, the United States Army awarded him a Commander’s Coin for the educational workshop he conducted for military and government attorneys at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum profiled him in “Community in Action,” a campaign to bring public awareness to individuals who “take action to confront genocide and related crimes against humanity today.” Mr. Musavuli tours the United States, Canada, and Africa speaking to university students, religious groups, global leaders, community organizers and many others, educating and mobilizing them to work as partners with a Congolese civil society that strives to end the country’s conflict, control its enormous natural wealth, and build lasting peace and stability in the heart of Africa.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. This is the third in our series on the Congo. Now joining us again is Kambale Musavuli. He’s the student coordinator and national spokesman for the Friends of the Congo. Thanks for joining us again.
KAMBALE MUSAVULI, SPOKESPERSON, FRIENDS OF THE CONGO: Thank you.JAY: If essentially what you’re describing from U.S. and U.K. and Canadian foreign policy is essentially how to help our mining companies and how to get the riches of the Congo out, if that more or less characterizes the current situation, what would you like to see?MUSAVULI: Well, the people do not know that this is happening. So what I want the people to know first is to pressure the government to change the policy, one, by stop supporting dictators on the continent. It is not good for business. You know, chaos like we just shared in the previous segment does not allow people to be able to sell the product to the people. We do need the resources of the Congo, but you do not have to kill the Congolese to get to a shiny rock. You know, we could care less what these rocks are. So putting pressure on the governments of the West, specifically the United States government, to stop the policy of supporting strongmen. Second is to hold the companies accountable. It’s not a mystery. It’s not as [if] these companies, we cannot find their names. We do know who these companies are, because [crosstalk]JAY: The mining companies, particularly.MUSAVULI: Yes. It’s been documented who are these companies who gave rebels private planes, build houses for them, make payments to them. So we know that. What is the national [incompr.] State Department is going to do about it? Friends of the Earth and [incompr.] accountability and development sent a letter to the State Department [incompr.] Cabot and the OM Group for what they were doing in the Congo. The national [incompr.] did not respond on American companies exploiting the Congolese. So holding mining companies accountable, especially the ones that’s operating here in the US, will also play a role.JAY: And Canada is a big player in the mining business.MUSAVULI: Yes. But I always argue that the Canadian mining companies are Americans. They just have the office there.JAY: Many of them.MUSAVULI: Exactly. So they understand that Canada is a safe haven for mining companies, so they just move to Toronto to do that. Many of the mining companies that were operating in the Congo did that. And then they keep changing the names. You know, it was called American Mineral Fields, then changed to Adastra. Today it’s called First Quantum. And no one will ever know First Quantum was American Mineral Fields in the beginning. So the third one is support of the people. That means simply the West have to get out African affairs. We do have internal problems, because you see in my presentation I didn’t talk about corruption.JAY: And you can’t minimize the extent to which African corruption was the consequence of a Cold War which put these people in–put kleptocracies into power.MUSAVULI: Exactly. So a disengagement of the West on African politics will actually help all of us, because right now it’s not all of us who’s benefiting, it’s a small group of mining companies and elitist people benefiting, while the whole entire world suffers from it. Just think about it. Congo could feed the whole entire world until 2050, when the world’s population is 9 billion.JAY: How could the Congo do that?MUSAVULI: The agricultural capacity of the Congo. There was a Belgian agronomist who did a study of Congo’s agricultural capacity and found that we only use less than 5 percent of our agricultural capacity. But that could feed Somalia, which has a famine. But we’re not even seeing that. The Congo River could provide electricity [crosstalk]JAY: Well, as we said in the first segment, I think–what was the number?–$24 trillion of potential mineral wealth in the Congo.MUSAVULI: Exactly. So the disengagement in African politics will help. You know, the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, Congo still suffers from that action. The imposition of a dictator, Congo still suffers from that. The support of invasions of Rwanda and Uganda by the U.S., Congo still suffers from that. But if we can remove that external interference, that give the Congolese a chance to be able to deal with the internal issues.JAY: Now, just sort of a subjectively, how does this make you feel–which is a question I rarely ask, how does something make you feel–but the sense that five to six million Congolese can be killed or die as a result of war, mostly created in conditions by the West,–MUSAVULI: And some of them, I know them.JAY: –and barely on the radar of public perception?MUSAVULI: Yes. I mean, in the beginning, actually, it was really disheartening. You know, you start building this type of anger and say, why the world does not know, why the world doesn’t care. But what I noticed very quickly as I start sharing the news with people, any person that I share with this information wants to help. But the person who does not want to help is the person on Capitol Hill, who will give me defensive sentences, or even in the State Department. The many off-records meeting that we have there or on-the-record meeting, whether we share with us that we are doing this, we are collaborating, we are coordinating and making these big statement. And you wonder, what are you coordinating when 2 million women are being raped in the Congo? What are you negotiating when 6 million people have died in the Congo? So we understand that the government does not want to deal with the situation in the Congo, because of its foreign policy where it supports the nation causing the chaos.JAY: On the way to the interview, I was listening to C-SPAN, and there were congressional hearings by Senator Durbin being held on Africa. But the question they were discussing was how the United States can compete with China, not about the millions of people that have died and are still dying in the Congo and throughout Africa.MUSAVULI: And it was the same thing also at the G-8 in 2010. You know, Congo was discussed at the G-8. Did you know what they were discussing? First Quantum losing the mining contract. The first time the Congo is discussed at the G-8 is not about the 6 million people dead or the millions of women raped; the discussion was how the Congolese government canceled a mining contract of a Canadian company. And the person who brought it to the G-8 was Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister. And they passed a resolution. The 2010 resolution talks about how Congo should abide by international rules of business.JAY: Well, thanks for joining us.MUSAVULI: Thank you.JAY: So at The Real News we’ve made a decision, which is we’re going to start to cover the Congo. And, in fact, we’re going to very soon launch a fundraising campaign to finance a full-time journalist based in the Congo to cover the Congo. And we’re trying to have two, three stories a week on the Congo. And it’s going to be our way of strengthening and developing our coverage of Africa. So if you’re watching this and you want to help us cover the Congo, you can send a donation, and we’re going to–and just put a note–we’ll have a place where you can say, apply this to coverage of Africa. Thanks very much for joining us.MUSAVULI: Thank you.JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.