Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

`Tough Relief a Must for Future Somalias

WHAT is especially painful about the suffering in Somalia is knowing that help is available but is often not delivered because a few thugs with guns threaten relief operations and then steal most of what does get through. Does this have to continue? Why can't the United Nations - or somebody - send in a few well-armed soldiers with shoot-to-kill orders to sort out the thugs, so that the nurses and other relief workers can get on with the business of saving lives?

In fact, something like a consensus is beginning to form for the creation of just such a "tough relief" force, and the current Somalia crisis might be absurd and painful enough to spur governments and international organizations to action on the matter. It will not be easy, because diplomats and bureaucrats have a curiously soft spot in their hearts for national sovereignty. History tells us that.

About these ads

In October 1945, when the first diplomatic meetings were held on the establishment of what came to be known as the Geneva Conventions, the governments involved had already decided that certain things which had happened in the war just finished had caused lasting damage to international peace and security. The death camps, massacres of civilians in occupied areas, and savage treatment of prisoners in World War II had been part of a pattern of behavior that violated the norms and threatened the futures of all peoples and nations. The hatred created by these excesses hindered recovery and often led to the next war.

In the 1970s, protocols strengthened the four original Geneva Conventions, particularly with regard to civilians caught in internal conflicts. But these same governments were very careful, in their humanitarian zeal, not to place limits on their own sovereignty. One particularly weak area of the conventions and protocols was, therefore, the lack of provisions assuring access to humanitarian relief for conflict victims. Aid agencies would not be able to barge into a situation unless they were wanted by th e national government in the affected country.

Not until the Gulf war did the international community have a set of circumstances which was thought to justify shoving emergency assistance down a sovereign government's throat. While a "no fly zone" and prohibitions on heavy weapons kept Saddam Hussein's army at bay, UN forces undertook an enormous relief operation in protected zones.

The trained manpower and impressive logistics capabilities of modern military forces were quickly and efficiently turned to the task.

Not long after the Gulf war, the British government proposed that the UN should replace its own weak and inefficient Disaster Relief Office (UNDRO) with something akin to the military/relief force which had worked effectively in Iraq. The armies of member states would be placed on-call to the UN secretary-general to quickly mount complex operations in places like Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia where drought, refugees, and civil conflict have had deadly consequences.

The French supported the British proposal, but the United States and several other Western governments weren't so sure. Most developing-country member states were negative. They had admiration for the Gulf operation - sometimes grudging - but the establishment of a permanent UN capability to intervene in their affairs seemed a bit too much like colonialism under a bright blue flag. And when that issue was raised, even indirectly, the relief reformers flinched.

There was, however, complete agreement about the delays and inefficiencies of the present system of international assistance, with private organizations, the UN agencies, and national-government units like USAID competing for funds and bumping into each other.

About these ads

In December 1991, after almost a year of wary debates and fevered exchanges of memos in the international emergency-assistance community, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 46/182, creating a UN "Department of Humanitarian Affairs." But DHA was given virtually no new funds or staff (these were to be borrowed from other UN agencies) and no mandate to decide when and where humanitarian intervention was necessary.

Somalia has shown just what a half-measure Resolution 46/182 was. During the run-up to the Gulf war, the regime of Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre fell in Mogadishu after decades of vicious misrule. Mr. Siad Barre's parting present to his country was to set clan upon clan and sub-clan upon sub-clan and then arm them to the teeth, as he had been armed over the years by his Soviet and American mentors.

By the time the UN General Assembly was giving birth to DHA one year later, the vacuum left by Siad Barre was being filled with break-away "governments," warring factions within those groups, and gangs of heavily armed youths who were answerable to no one. As power was fractured into ever smaller bits, and the fighting became ever more spontaneous and uncontrolled, the country's agrarian economy fell apart and the situation of its people became desperate.

As conditions in Somalia steadily deteriorated, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) found itself in an uncomfortable position. The UN and virtually all of the private relief agencies had temporarily withdrawn to Nairobi after a series of attacks on their personnel. So the ICRC delegates, who are trained to work in conflict situations and do so regularly to carry out their responsibilities as the implementers of the Geneva Conventions, suddenly were confronted with a logistics task of enor mous proportions: the feeding of several million starving Somalis with no help in sight from the UN.

The UN organizations, however, had problems of their own. Through the year after Siad Barre's fall and into the first few months of DHA's existence, the secretary-general (first Javier Perez de Cuellar and then Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali) sent high-level mission after high-level mission to try to arrange a cease-fire with the two thugs who controlled the major rubble piles in Mogadishu, ostensibly to permit relief operations to begin.

This was a false premise and a purely wasted effort, as any of those familiar with the situation could have told the secretary-general. Neither of the thugs involved in these many "negotiations" could guarantee their own safety 500 meters from their headquarters, let alone that of relief convoys heading into the interior of the country. There weren't two power centers in Somalia, there were 500.

Somalia was in a state of anarchy, and the only way to negotiate relief operation safety was one shipment - sometimes one truck - at a time. Frequently a bribe of food or money had to be paid. And when those arrangements were successfully concluded, the convoy or truck could proceed a kilometer or two to the next roadblock, where another gang waited.

The UN personnel, and sometimes those of the private relief agencies, were thus engaged in activities they were neither good at nor trained for. In a sense, the ICRC and the UN had switched their traditional roles; neither was having a particularly successful go at it. Meanwhile, Somalis were beginning to die in the thousands, particularly in the interior.

In March 1992, the Security Council again failed to address the security problems of the Somalia relief operation. The US government was unable to find a miserable $7.5 million, its share of the cost of the inadequate contingent of 500 troops recommended by the secretary-general to the council.

The proposal consequently fell through, and it was September before the first 500 UN troops set foot in the country. They are barely adequate to cover the Mogadishu port area. As this is written, relief operations in the rest of the country are still unprotected.

Somalia should be the occasion for the international community to complete the halting reform of UN emergency capacities that began more than 20 years ago. The Security Council should be prepared to invoke the UN Charter articles (Articles 39, 41, 42 and 48, for example) dealing with threats to international peace and security in situations like that in Somalia, which has sent close to 1 million refugees into nearby states.

DHA should be further strengthened, with new staff and functions drawn from the existing UN agencies, including the ability directly to assess needs and directly to supply major international emergency operations. Then DHA should be married to an expanded UN peacemaking reserve force, similar to that which President Bush proposed to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 22.

Other Somalias are in the making. Zaire, Mozambique, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and even Kenya come to mind. We may not have a great deal of time to create the kind of UN capacity needed. The next Somalia will be much harder to explain away.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.