One of the unacknowledged triumphs of the thirty years prior to the election of President Obama, was the conquest of great famines. A scourge that had killed an average of ten million people every decade, over the previous century, now caused the deaths of a small fraction of that number.

The reasons why famines have declined are numerous and complex. But one factor is directly under the control of the U.S. government: political conditionalities imposed on the delivery of humanitarian aid. In late 1990s and early 2000s, there were several occasions on which the U.S. set aside its political opposition to a foreign government and decided to provide famine relief, regardless. One case was North Korea in 1996, when the Administration could have decided simply, and correctly, that the famine afflicting that country was entirely the doing of the regime in power. Some in Washington DC made that case, and further argued that providing aid would prolong a doomed regime in power. In Darfur, Sudan, in 2003, the Bush Administration similarly decided to authorize aid, despite the fact that the Sudanese government hadn’t asked for it and despite real fears that it would abuse and manipulate the assistance.

In both cases these aid efforts save hundreds of thousands of lives, and gained the U.S. immeasurable credence and goodwill.

Under the Obama Administration, we have seen the humanitarian imperative compromised by counter-terror laws and the politics of alliances. In Somalia and Syria, aid agencies were hampered by the PATRIOT Act from operating in areas in which they might be deemed to be providing assistance, material or symbolic, to groups labeled as terrorists. Preventable humanitarian disasters followed. In Yemen, the U.S. has been party to economic warfare conducted by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, causing famine conditions. In each of these cases, U.S. counter-humanitarianism cost lives, to no political benefit.

I would like to see this issue debated. What steps can be taken to put the global emergency response system on a firmer footing? Should the humanitarian imperative override the PATRIOT Act, and if so, how?

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