Representative Chris Smith wants the U.S. government to do more to boost aid worker security, particularly in areas affected by conflict and severe hunger, he said, following a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, which he chairs.
The Republican from New Jersey called Tuesday’s hearing to discuss the growing food crisis in East Africa. The committee heard testimonies from witnesses, including from the U.S. Agency for International Development, Samaritan’s Purse, Mercy Corps and World Vision. Smith asked for their insights into what Congress might do to help ensure the safety of all aid workers, regardless of nationality.
Smith has been particularly active in aid worker security in South Sudan, where a member of his congressional district was among those assaulted in last year’s attack on the Terrain compound in South Sudan. One journalist was killed and a number of aid workers were raped and assaulted, when troops apparently loyal to President Salva Kiir forced their way into the compound on July 11, 2016.
“These people are on missions of peace to try to help the weakest and most vulnerable,” he told Devex. “[You need to] put sandbags around those people and make sure your troops are trained to protect not to persecute.”
Smith traveled to Juba last year, and met with President Salva Kiir and other top government officials, where he pressed them to issue a clear directive prohibiting violence, particularly sexual violence, among their troops. They promised to do so, he said, adding that he was disappointed that they still have not followed through.
In South Sudan, Smith views the issue as largely political: Whether government leadership will in fact make an effort to reign in troops and militias and let aid workers operate freely.
Added to that challenge, a growing number of factions have entered South Sudan’s conflict, decreasing the extent of central military control. Even if access is negotiated in one area, the agreement might not always hold in a neighboring area or if the situation changes, Ken Isaacs, the vice president of programs and government relations at Samaritan’s Purse, said during the hearing.
The U.S. government could take several steps to help address the situation, Smith told Devex. He urged robust government to government diplomacy on the issue. The U.S. could also consider imposing arms or other sanctions, though this would have to be done carefully, he added. The U.S. does not provide any arms to South Sudan, but there is no global ban, and a United Nations’ Security Council resolution aimed at installing an embargo failed to muster the required nine votes in December. Smith said this proposal could be revisited.
“The more AK-47s there are in the hands of militias, the worse the issues become in terms of threats to lives,” he told Devex.
Now may be an opportune time, as a new group of U.N. troops is preparing to deploy in South Sudan. Smith urged a careful look at their role. The force is governed by robust rules of engagement, although Smith said that when he met with the leader of the deployment in South Sudan last year, he was told the troops often stay garrisoned. A peacekeeping mission that doesn’t live up to its mandate gives people a false sense of security, possibly with dangerous consequences, he said.
The subcommittee hearing was held a day before a report published in The Hill, describing how President Donald Trump’s administration is proposing significant cuts to foreign aid, including food aid, for the rest of 2017. In 2016, Congress passed a continuing resolution that funded the government through to April 28, the deadline for approving further budget appropriations or risk a government shutdown.
Smith argued against slashing aid budgets, and said he would be shocked if the proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year was approved.
“I want to try to get out there how stark and compelling the humanitarian need is,” he said, adding that he plans to take the testimonies given and share them as a call to action.
Funding is critical for organizations, including the World Food Programme, which on Wednesday announced a new leader, former South Carolina governor and Trump supporter, David Beasley. WFP has struggled to raise the funds needed for the response, requiring the organization to scale back support or cut rations for needy populations.
Smith said he advocated an increase in funds in light of the growing number of crises, with a particular eye toward programs building long-term resilience and crisis prevention.
“The pool has to grow,” Smith told Devex. “For what we get out of our foreign aid — people who don’t die or are less sick — it’s worth every dollar we put in and it’s still a disproportionately small number of our tax dollars being used.”