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November 08, 2012

Political, Military Insecurity Deepen Mali Humanitarian Crisis

by Lisa Schlein

Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), says the political and military insecurity in Mali is deepening the country's humanitarian crisis.  He says he is concerned that little thought is being given to the humanitarian situation in Mali by international political and military decision-makers.  

Mali is no stranger to humanitarian crises.  At the moment it is facing a long-term structural food crisis, which Maurer says is compounded by the breakdown of the political system.

The situation is particularly bleak in the north, where radical Islamist groups have ousted both the country's military and Tuareg rebels who have long waged war for an independent state.  The radicals' harsh brand of Islam is alienating and terrorizing the local population.  It also is creating huge problems for aid organizations trying to operate in the region.

Maurer says the ICRC has been working for months to improve its access to needy people in the north.  He says the agency is now distributing food to 420,000 people.  In addition, he says the ICRC is supplying medicines and other supplies to the hospital in the city of Gao and to communal health-care facilities.

But, he says, he is concerned that international political and military decision-makers may not be giving enough thought to Mali's humanitarian situation in their talks.  He says this was an issue he explored with senior government officials he met during a visit to Niger and Mali at the end of October.

"I tried to impress on them, that more consideration is given in whatever political and military planning they are doing to humanitarian concerns.  It is no secret, this is an extremely delicate situation where we have half-a-million people who cannot sustain their lives in the north.  Roughly half of the population remaining is dependent at the present moment on aid from outside," said Maurer.

The United Nations reports more than 200,000 people are displaced inside Mali and another 250,000 have fled as refugees to Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.

Ansar Dine, one of the Islamist groups occupying northern Mali, said this week it is ready to commit to a process of political dialogue with the country's transitional authorities and is ready to stop hostilities.  

Despite this, the drumbeat for war is growing stronger.  Regional plans to invade northern Mali and oust the Muslim extremists are being discussed by the United Nations, the African Union and Economic Commission of West Africa States.  

Maurer is carefully monitoring these maneuvers.  But, he notes that he, as president of a humanitarian organization, can not express an opinion on military and political strategies.  He says it is up to political leaders to decide on the actions they wish to take.

"My visit to Addis Ababa, then to Niger and to Mali was to get a sense of those discussions.  And, when listening to the leaders in the region and beyond, my conclusion is that there is a lot of talk on how to liberate the north, how to re-conquer the north," he said.  "But, there is little consideration of what the humanitarian impact of whatever scenario would be."

Maurer says it is his task to remind all the leaders engaged in this process, that the military decisions they make carry with them a humanitarian price tag, which have consequences and cannot be ignored.