Humanitarian Crises: The Lowdown

If I asked a Nottingham student their first thoughts upon hearing the word ‘crisis’, I think it’s fair to say that there’s a certain club night that would be the first thing to spring to mind for most. But what if I rephrase my question, and ask about a ‘humanitarian crisis’? A little more rocky terrain here, but most would probably be able to list a few of the global issues currently splashed all over the newspapers. Now for the big question: can you actually describe the causes and issues of any humanitarian crisis? I think many would struggle. So here goes my attempt to eradicate the awkwardness many feel when someone starts a conversation with the words “Did you hear the latest news on the war in…?”

First one must address the question of what constitutes a humanitarian crisis. According to every student’s favourite source of knowledge, Wikipedia, the definition is: ‘an event or series of events which represents a critical threat to the health, safety, security or well being of a community or other large group of people, usually over a wide area. Armed conflicts, epidemics, famine, natural disasters and other major emergencies may all involve or lead to a humanitarian crisis.’ It’s plenty simple and worrying enough. And now to the five key humanitarian crises that this beginners’ class will cover:

1. Democratic Republic of the Congo – ‘Africa’s World War’

The DRC has had a turbulent history since gaining independence in 1960. Their most recent war ended in 2003 and was fought for five years between Congolese government forces supported by various African nations and rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda. Despite the DRC being home to the United Nation’s largest ever peacekeeping operation, all the fighting, displacement, disease and malnutrition of Africa’s World War has led to the loss of 5.4 million lives since 1998. Today, the country is fighting a worrying about of Polio, and its Eastern regions are still ridden with conflict between the national army and various militia groups, each wanting control over the vast mineral wealth of the country

2. Somalia – ‘Black Hawk Down’

Somalia has battled with an ongoing civil war since 1991, and has been the target of several UN resolutions and interventions over the years. Although the country has been the subject of controversy over possible oil concessions in the past – and more recently as a suspected haven for Al-Qaeda terrorists – the main cause of fighting is between the UN-backed Transitional Federal Government and the African Union, against various militant Islamist factions. Since 2006, instability in Somalia has worsened, and last year the government declared a state of emergency, requesting further international support. Somalia today continues to fight the effects of an unstable government, whilst also facing mass violence and uncountable deaths nationwide, the abductions and killings of aid workers, the displacement of millions of people and the near complete collapse of health care. The country’s problems have been worsened in recent years by an increase in suicide bombers and infamously, piracy.

3. Sudan – ‘Africa’s Longest Civil War’

Sudan has been the victim of a 21-year, intermittent civil war. The country’s most recent crisis began in 2003 – troubles are centred in a region called Darfur, and are fought between the Government of Sudan and two rebel groups. The conflict has been caused by resources, race and religion differences between the African ethnic groups (South) and the nomadic Arab ethnic groups (North); many, including the USA, have argued that this war was a clear case of genocide. Despite numerous failed peace negotiations, UN sanctions and resolutions involving over 30 countries, the political climate is still unstable – the result has been the death of around 300,000 people, with a further 2.7 million people displaced. The International Criminal Court has charged Sudan’s President Omar al Bashir with crimes against humanity, war crimes, and in July 2010, with three counts of genocide. These led to the President expelling various humanitarian aid groups out of the country, further hindering Sudan’s recovery process.

4. Afghanistan – ‘The War on Terror’

After Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, Afghanistan’s government fell to Muslim fighters, the mujaheddin. Ever since, various groups of fundamentalists have been vying for control. In 1996, the Taliban Islamic Fundamentalist movement captured the capital and overran the vast majority of the country. Afghanistan was used as a base by Osama Bin Laden and the organisation Al-Qaeda to train jihadists and plot terrorist activities – after 9/11, security fears caused the US to wage war on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The civilian population have particularly suffered from the conflict, because of targeted violence at schools and elections. Meanwhile, warlords and those in the drug trade continue to submit people to further human rights abuse. 2010 has seen a reinforced war effort in the country, as recent peace talks were largely ineffective. The next problem Afghanistan faces is that the government and army would be ill-equipped to fend off Taliban forces if international support were to leave.

5. Pakistan – ‘Flooded with Displacement’

Pakistan has been involved in the War on Terror since 2001. In the Northwest region of the country, the Pakistan Armed Forces are fighting Islamic militants made up of local tribesman, the Taliban and the mujaheddin. Pakistan plays a key role in the War on Terror, as it provides the main fuel and supply routes to British and American forces in Afghanistan. Increased levels of violence since 2009 have only been aggravated by this summer’s severe floods, which affected 14 million people and damaged 720,000 homes. According to the International Rescue Committee, 1.8 million people have been displaced, making it the worst internal displacement crisis since partition in 1947. Today, basic assistance for civilians in the areas of shelter, water, sanitation and food is lacking, and civilians remain constantly under threat from suicide bombings and terrorist attacks.

Anyone feeling a little overwhelmed with facts? Let’s be honest – there is a lot to digest here. But feel proud in the knowledge that you’re now well armed with the knowledge to engage in a proper discussion on humanitarian crises when you next sit down with your fellow intellectuals. Instead of feeling the natural urge to bolt when faced with a news enthusiast, prepare to do battle.

So what lies ahead for these five nations? What happens when wars end and powerful states withdraw their troops and security? Who will be left to champion the citizens’ rights? It is in this unstable climate that new bodies emerge and use force to gain control of the weaker governments, and thus continue the cycle of violence. We need to consider their long term needs of these countries; if aid is to be sent, then it should come in the form of sustainable development. Although sustenance of the refugee camps is vital, what happens once people leave to begin new lives? It is here where aid falls short. More should be done to prepare citizens for their lives after such disruption. But now that you have the facts, I’ll leave you to form your own opinions on that…

Grace Beecroft

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