Libya: The World Acts Amidst A Worsening Humanitarian Crisis

 In Alternatives to War, Hillary Clinton, Middle East, Stand Up

Refugees waiting at the Libyan and Tunisian border crossing of Ras Jdir. Tunisian border guards fired in the air and used sticks to control the crowds. Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

I want to offer a big thank you to the Peace Action West members who responded to our alert to address the crisis in Libya. The UN Security Council has acted — and they’ve done much of what we asked them to. This has been one of the quickest and most united UN responses to a complex political and humanitarian crisis in history. Already in motion are an International Criminal Court investigation into human rights violations, an arms embargo, targeted sanctions against the Gaddafi regime, and humanitarian aid and refugee assistance. These measures can help isolate Gaddafi and move other elements of the Libyan leadership into the camp of Gaddafi’s opponents.

The crisis in Libya is an opportunity for the United States to use diplomacy and aid to build goodwill with the newly empowered people of the region. The U.S. has just pledged a modest $12 million for humanitarian operations and evacuation and repatriation for foreign nationals. Humanitarian teams from the State Department are heading to Libya to assess the need for further aid and the U.S. should give generously once that assessment is completed.

There is far more our country can do. The State Department and USAID can work closely with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) as well as the neighboring countries of Egypt, Tunisia and Niger to provide field hospitals, food, shelter, ambulances, and emergency equipment and supplies. After the tragic Southeast Asian tsunami in 2004, the U.S. provided $350 in immediate humanitarian assistance. (That’s less than what we’re spending in Afghanistan in Iraq every day.) When faced with the tsunami crisis we rolled up our sleeves and responded to the tsunami generously: hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, 15,000 in U.S. personnel, ships, aircraft — all for peaceful assistance. In exchange for our generosity the U.S. received a bonus. The standing of the United States in the region grew and support for Al Qaeda and terrorist attacks plummeted.

The need for urgent action for Libya is growing. More than 180,000 frightened refugees have poured across Libya’s borders into Egypt, Tunisia and Niger. The UN refugee agency estimates that about 80,000 people have fled to Egypt, and a similar number have fled into Tunisia. Thousands have crossed the southern border into Niger. The exodus is not letting up. Tens of thousands of refugees are waiting at the border and the refugee camps will grow by thousands each day.

This is a food crisis, a health crisis, and a shelter crisis. Many of the refugees are wounded and need medical care. Water and hygiene are problems in the area. Libya relies on imports for over 90% of its food supplies. Food assistance is needed not only for refugees but within Libya where food stocks are becoming depleted. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said: “We need concrete action on the ground to provide humanitarian and medical assistance. Time is of the essence. Thousands of lives are at risk.”

There is so much we can do. But let’s not allow “just do something” urgency to create a rush to military action. U.S. led no-fly zones, which some Senators are calling for, could lead to wider military involvement. It’s naive to believe there is a simple airborne military solution to a crisis that is taking place on the ground. And Secretary of State Clinton pointed out yesterday, U.S. or NATO led military action could look like a oil grab, at a time when people are fighting for self-determination. In my next post I’ll lay out the less-than-effective history of no-fly zones and why they may not be appropriate for Libya.

The tragic events unfolding in Libya also remind us of the need for strong institutions and funding for humanitarian crises. Every day, somewhere in the world, lives are at risk. Sadly, the Republican leadership in the House is busy slashing the critical and underfunded programs that help deal with these crises. The House is seeking cuts for fiscal 2011 that include reduced funding for international food programs by up to 50 percent compared to 2010 levels. The cuts also propose that the State Department budget for refugees be 40 percent less than 2010 levels, while the International Disaster Assistance Fund be reduced by 67 percent. It will be up to the Senate to protect these programs. While the world’s eyes are fixed on the crisis in Libya, we must also work to turn back these attacks on critical humanitarian programs. Smart humanitarian aid strategies, based on international cooperation and a broad definition of human security, can do far more for world peace and security than the billions we have been spending on counterproductive wars.

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  • Mamadou Diakite

    “Horror in the Ivory Coast – Why is it that more attention is being given to the Libyan crisis than that of the Ivory Coast? Tension rise in the Ivory Coast as pro-Gbagbo militia men burn rival Alassane Ouattara’s supporters in the streets of Abidjan. Women are being killed with heavy caliber guns and opposition leaders’ houses are being robbed, ransacked and burned as well.
    Isn’t it time that the U.S. and its allies stop the psychopath dictator Laurent Gbagbo before it’s too late?”

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