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Afghanistan Starves Its People

Guest Column
Jason W. Black

Sanjay Basu claims that the United States is violating the Geneva Convention by dropping food supplies in Afghanistan. [“The Wrong Way To Break Bread,” Oct. 26] While I am certainly not an expert on the Geneva Convention, I did actually read the text of the relevant articles of that document pertaining to humanitarian aid. (Common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, and Articles 23, 55 and 59 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, for those interested). None of these contains a rule stating “that humanitarian action must be neutral, independent and impartial” as Sanjay states, or anything similar. Rather, Article 3 states: “An impartial humanitarian body, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, may offer its services to the Parties to the conflict.” It is incumbent upon occupying powers to provide food and medical aid to both non-combatants and captured/surrendered combatants (hint, hint -- the occupying power is the Taliban in this case).

Sanjay next claims that U.N. offices in Pakistan are being attacked specifically because of food drops by the United States. Huh? While I would not assert to know the direct motives for these attacks, it is highly unlikely that whoever attacked these offices did so because they were outraged that food was being dropped from the sky, and immediately blamed the United Nations for such a heinous act. As for his additional claim that food aid in Somalia was halted due to military action, he should recheck his sources and his history. The United Nations sent military forces to Somalia to protect the humanitarian agencies and prevent aid convoys from being hijacked by warlords. The warlords did not like this, so they attacked the U.N. military forces. After the U.N. military forces left Somalia, the humanitarian agencies were left without protection and so were forced to cease operations. It was not the U.N. military operations that prevented the humanitarian aid or confused the situation, it was the warlords ... interestingly enough, supported by one Osama bin Laden.

Next, Sanjay gives a litany of possible unintended consequences from the food drops, such as aid packages detonating mines, falling on people’s heads, or scaring people. He forgot to add that people could also choke on the food, have allergic reactions to the peanut butter, get into violent clashes over the unopened packages of raisins, or even trip over an unseen package lying on the ground and twist their ankle. While all are possible, plausible, and maybe even likely scenarios, they really don’t equate the act of attempting to provide food to hungry refugees to an evil act of war. (Examples of evil acts of war for those wondering what they may be: Stealing humanitarian food supplies from warehouses, using civilians as human shields, chaining prisoners to military targets, telling the suffering and hungry population that their food supply has been poisoned, and executing suspected dissidents, homosexuals, literate women, Christians, Hindus, etc.) There is no moral equivalence. It is interesting that if the planes were from the World Food Program, everything would be fine and all the problems Sanjay cites would apparently just disappear, although the WFP may want to watch out for Stinger missiles fired by the Taliban.

As for Sanjay’s calls that international relief organizations be allowed to operate in Afghanistan, he should be making this plea to the Taliban, not the U.S. government. For as the occupying power (in other words, the ones who are holding the people and the land), they are responsible for “ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population.” (Geneva Convention, Art. 55) And, according to Article 59, “If the whole or part of the population of an occupied territory is inadequately supplied, the Occupying Power shall agree to relief schemes on behalf of the said population, and shall facilitate them by all the means at its disposal.”

Sanjay somehow assumes that the United States can control the access of humanitarian agencies to Afghanistan. If the United States controlled Afghanistan as he apparently believes, then the Taliban and Osama bin Laden would have been handed over and the bombing would already have ended. If the United States does become an occupying power, I can personally assure Sanjay that the United States will facilitate humanitarian agencies and even provide humanitarian aid themselves, just as the United States was doing up until the start of the war.

Jason W. Black is a graduate student in the Engineering Systems Division.