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Women who fled drought line up to receive food distributed by local volunteers at a camp for displaced persons in the Daynile neighborhood on the outskirts of the Somalian capital Mogadishu, May 18, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh

Six United Nations Security Council members have blocked a bid by Kenya to impose additional counterterrorism sanctions on the Islamist armed group Al-Shabab in Somalia.

While Al-Shabab’s atrocities merit Security Council scrutiny, the Kenyan proposal would have jeopardized the delivery of humanitarian aid at a time when 2.2 million Somalis – more than one-fifth of the population – face severe hunger.

Al-Shabab continues to conduct deadly attacks on civilians and forcibly recruit children. Kenya, Somalia’s southern neighbor, has also been targeted by the armed group, such as the January 2019 assault on the Dusit hotel in Nairobi that left 21 people dead.

But Al-Shabab is already sanctioned by a broader Security Council sanctions regime – the so-called “751 Committee” – which includes an arms embargo, asset freezes, and travel bans. These sanctions contain an exemption for humanitarian assistance, vital for lifesaving aid to be delivered. In contrast, Kenya’s proposed sanctions could have allowed for criminal penalties for humanitarian aid as “support” for terrorists.

Humanitarian operations to deliver food and medicine in Somalia, a country affected by three decades of conflict and insecurity, are incredibly complex, restrictive, and dangerous – in part because Al-Shabab restricts access to many people who need help. Aid workers in Somalia have been warning for weeks that the additional counterterrorism sanctions could scare donors into suspending emergency funding, and banks into limiting transfers to fund aid groups.

While Security Council members Belgium, France, Germany, Kuwait, Poland, and the US commendably blocked Kenya’s proposal, the council could still do more to facilitate aid to civilians trapped in areas where armed groups operate. As a next step, the Security Council should amend a separate, overly broad April 2019 counterterrorism resolution so that it requires exemptions for humanitarian activities.

Cutting financial flows to extremist armed groups should not come at the price of denying aid to desperate populations.

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