COMMENTARY: Would you negotiate with an enemy to save lives? Norway’s government would.
Two Norwegian ministers suggested speaking to al-Qaeda-linked militants to deliver humanitarian aid for the drought in Somalia.
I am researching such instances of “disaster diplomacy”. Disaster diplomacy examines how disaster prevention or disaster response might promote peace and reduce conflict.
The idea is that saving lives through dealing with disasters brings together enemies who then use that trust to solve their differences. A peace deal solved the decades-long civil war after the 2004 earthquake and tsunami devastated Indonesia's Aceh province.
Disaster diplomacy sounds nice in theory, but rarely works in practice. For Aceh, pre-tsunami negotiations created the peace deal, although the tsunami boosted the chances of those negotiations succeeding. But Aceh is a rare case. Two other disaster diplomacy outcomes usually manifest.
First, some disaster-related cooperation occurs, but then enmity continues as usual. Ceasefires were negotiated for vaccinations during Sudan's civil war. Afterwards, the fighting restarted, putting newly-vaccinated children in the firing line.
Second, the parties disparage any collaboration with an enemy--even to help innocent civilians.
Governments actively avoid disaster diplomacy sometimes. Cuba and the USA have purposely scuttled serious hurricane-related cooperation to prevent increasing political ties.
Disasters can even exacerbate conflict. Following the 2004 tsunami, disaster aid in Sri Lanka fuelled the internal tensions. Ultimately, military action ended the separatist fighting.
So does Norway's plan for Somalia bring hope? Some argue that aid should be given to the militants if lives will be saved immediately.
Yet no evidence exists that aid will reach the neediest. The people will be fed temporarily only to continue suffering under an oppressive government. Somalia's militarisation and poor governance caused the drought disaster far more than climate variations. Providing aid could perpetuate that situation, inevitably causing more disasters later.
The alternative is to stand by while people starve. No one supports that.
Disaster diplomacy creates severe moral dilemmas. What would you do for Somalia Knowing that disaster aid cannot bring peace and will support violent governments?
Dr. Ilan Kelman is aSenior Research Fellowat the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research - Oslo (CICERO).
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