Will the UN Enter Talks With Al Shabaab in Somalia?

As UN Agencies rally to raise $530 million for aid to Somalia, the country continues to raise the bar on the complexity of humanitarian emergency with huge swaths of land inaccessible for aid because of rebel opposition to the aid movement itself.

Facing this worst case scenario, UN Humanitarian Coordinator Mark Bowden has raised the prospect of direct talks with the radical rebel force known as al Shabab.

“We can’t afford to see a continual shrinking of humanitarian access in south and central Somalia. We have to try every means to address that,” said Mark Bowden, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia. “We need to call upon the insurgents, al Shabaab and others, for far better recognition of the need for humanitarian assistance.”

“We have to strive continuously to improve discussions, negotiations … to get people to accept responsibility, their own responsibilities, for the populations that live in the areas that they claim to control and that I think has to be our priority for the coming year,” he added.

On top of two decades of war, failed government, hunger, and piracy, Somalis face another season of poor rains. Over the past two years, criminal gangs and rebels have dramatically limited where aid agencies can go, killing 47 and abducting 35 aid workers. Shabab rebels have expelled 12 aid agencies from the hard hit south-central part of the country primarily because they perceive the UN as a conduit for Western political manipulation.

Still, from the sorghum valleys of the northwest region of Somaliland to the frankincense hills of the northeast state of Puntland, there are many parts of the country where the UN, aid agencies, and local rights pioneers have created some momentum for recovery. The aid community has long been working to secure operating bases in the calm parts of the country from which to launch campaigns to the less secure areas.

In potential talks with rebels in the south-central region, Bowden and his team will be negotiating for aid agencies based in those safer communities to be able to cross more freely into rebel-controlled territory. The success of such talks may hinge on whether the UN chooses to argue from the Western point of view, championing humanitarian access for the moral imperative of human rights, or from the Somali point of view, championing access for aid to repair traditional structures regardless of political orientation.

UN direct talks with al Shabab, which has attacked, expelled, and confounded UN-led aid, is perhaps a last resort and could ease tensions. But if not done carefully, the talks could potentially lead the rebel group to believe that they can trample on human rights as much as they want and still have the winning hand at the end of the game with the UN.

Bowden will have his work cut out for him.