Jeffrey Clark. Foreign Affairs. Volume 72, Issue 1. 1992.
Famine: A Collective International Failure
The drama of large-scale military intervention and the media’s fixation on looters and “warlords” now threaten to obscure the fact that, prior to late 1992, the international response to Somalia’s long agony was indeed abject failure. Inadequate and halfhearted multilateral measures contributed significantly to the very circumstances of anarchy, violence and starvation now being addressed—by necessity—by 31,000 U.S. Marines and combined international military forces.
Operation Restore Hope is likely to prevent marauding bandits from stealing relief supplies and to be viewed, in the near term at least, as a successful demonstration of the American commitment to humanitarian principles—at acceptable risk and cost. But worst of all the intervention exposes the acute dangers inherent in the collective failure to restructure international humanitarian assistance policies and multilateral relief and political organizations to meet the realities of the post-Cold War world.
Neither the operational responses of U.N. relief agencies nor the conflict-mediation efforts of U.N. diplomats were undertaken with visible professionalism. Various U.N. officials and others exaggerated security concerns early in the Somali crisis in order to excuse their own scant presence and deeply flawed performance, factors which in turn contributed to real levels of violence by mid-1992. Until shamed into action by U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Security Council’s early response to indicators of Somalia’s approaching tragedy was virtual inertia, and Washington’s own initial stance was strangely passive when contrasted with the sudden and forceful U.S. measures taken by year’s end.
The unvarnished history of the U.N. role in Somalia is one of tragic missed opportunities and strategic and operational blunders not justified by the situation’s realities. Donor and African governments did little better. Nearly 350,000 Somalis have already died, and starvation has ravaged 75 percent of children under five years of age in the country’s most afflicted regions—amounting to the loss of a generation. Such harsh realities demand stern and sober judgments of accountability and the candid appraisal of international systems in need of drastic renovation.
The ultimate success of international intervention will now largely be determined by whether the United Nations, the United States and other governments can seize new opportunities both to structure national reconciliation in Somalia and to forge a more coherent and forceful U.N. presence. Neither objective was achieved, nor even credibly attempted, prior to 1992’s genuinely unprecedented American-led military relief operation.
The Road to Debacle
The chief perpetrators of Somalia’s misery are, of course, Somali. It is a fractured country long molded by a culture of decentralization, where the basis for all political and societal structure is genealogy. The foundation of order in Somali society—the authority of clan elders—has today been undermined by the prevalence of modern weapons, the most significant legacy of superpower involvement during the Cold War.
After British and Italian colonies merged in 1960 to form an independent state, relative democracy survived in Somalia until Major General Mohammed Siad Barre seized power in 1969. Siad Barre’s concerted efforts to erode the clan system—in favor of “scientific socialism”—and to fashion a Soviet alliance led to an enormous influx of advanced weaponry and military advisers that greatly contributed to undermining the nation’s stability.
In 1974 when Emperor Haile Selassie fell in neighboring Ethiopia, the subsequent turmoil and intensifying Eritrean war weakened Ethiopia’s grip on the Ogaden, a border region largely populated by Somalis. An Ogadeni guerrilla campaign to drive out the Ethiopian army led to full-scale war between the two nations and, alongside shifting ideological alliances, a superpower swap on the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia’s long-standing relationship with the United States was ruptured as the new government of Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile-Mariam embraced Marxism; the Soviets in turn abandoned Siad Barre and rushed military advisers and equipment to Ethiopia instead. The Soviet exit set the stage for the first significant American involvement in Somalia—a modest amount of defensive weapons to check potential Ethiopian reprisals. But U.S. military aid to Siad Barre would eventually total over $200 million, and economic assistance would exceed $500 million.
Soviet support enabled Mengistu to crush Somali aggression, humiliate Siad Barre and send half a million refugees and guerrillas back across the Somali border, many carrying the next wave of modern weapons in a rising tide. The Ogaden disaster would unleash serious domestic discontent against Siad Barre’s increasingly brutal and discriminatory regime, leading to a 1978 coup attempt and the formation in 1981 of the Somali National Movement among northern Isaaq clans. The SNM soon began raiding government facilities, and in turn Siad Barre’s repression of the Isaaqs intensified.
By 1988 Siad Barre’s fragile grip on Somalia was paralleled by Mengistu’s own desperate attempts to keep the upper hand in a series of civil wars in Ethiopia. The two despots predictably struck a deal, abandoning support for insurgent groups waging war from their respective territories. Fearing forced isolation from border areas or outright expulsion, the SNM reentered northern Somalia en masse, initially overwhelming Siad Barre’s forces.
Siad Barre’s retribution was to raze the Isaaq’s regional capital, Hargeisa, killing thousands of civilians and pushing hundreds of thousands (along with the SNM) fleeing back to Ethiopia. Siad Barre’s demonstrated weakness, however, had encouraged other clans to take up arms, with the United Somali Congress (USC) forming in 1989 as the strife moved farther south. Increasing military and political coordination among his many enemies eventually eroded Siad Barre’s power. In a final desperate act, the president turned his army loose on Hawiye sections of Mogadishu, destroying much infrastructure and provoking a violent uprising.
Siad Barre finally fled Mogadishu in January 1991, and the despot’s absence split USC forces. Troops commanded by General Mohamed Farah Aideed gave chase to Siad Barre, while others under control of Ali Mahdi Mohamed, a wealthy Mogadishu businessman, remained in the capital and declared themselves the new government. In the north, the Isaaq clans formed an independent Somaliland Republic, a state still unrecognized internationally.
There has been no functioning government in Somalia since. Both Mengistu’s and Siad Barre’s crumbling armies and abandoned arsenals flooded Somalia with an unprecedented number of guns and advanced weapons, prompting the widespread looting that so effectively hindered international relief operations. Ali Mahdi’s claims to power were unheeded beyond his own followers, who now control only northern sections of Mogadishu. Various clan militias turned on one another, effectively dividing the country into 12 zones of control. By November 1991 the struggle between Aideed and Ali Mahdi escalated to full-scale civil war, which was finally ended by a U.N.-brokered ceasefire on March 3, 1992. Concurrently lingering drought forced increasing numbers of Somalis from their land in a futile search for food, exposing them more directly to violence.
Ethiopia To Somalia: The Lessons of Failure
The consequences of Somalia’s mayhem were described—as long as a year ago—as “the greatest humanitarian emergency in the world.” Yet the mechanisms designed to provide international humanitarian assistance grossly failed the Somalis. Relief that could have reached many was not delivered, not just because of looting, but because Somalia fell through the cracks of the international system. As Somalia’s famine developed over several years, Security Council members and U.N. officials, distracted by a series of crises around the globe, ignored clear signs of impending disaster. No longer a strategic flashpoint with the end of the Cold War, Somalia simply could not garner the political attention required for the scale of sustained and complex humanitarian assistance it needed to avert catastrophe.
By some measures the Somali tragedy is even greater than the 1984-85 Ethiopian famine—considered a benchmark for human suffering—in which nearly one million people died. Ethiopia has eight times Somalia’s population, and its famine was somewhat limited geographically. In contrast, the International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that 95 percent of Somalis suffer malnutrition—and that perhaps as many as 70 percent endure severe malnutrition. September 1992 ICRC estimates indicated that 1.5 million Somalis faced imminent starvation, and three times that number were already dependent on external food assistance. Well over 900,000 Somali refugees have fled to squalid relief camps in Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Yemen, and another 150,000 Somalis went to Saudi Arabia.
Yet the extent of the international failure in Somalia is more difficult to explain given the relatively long history of humanitarian intervention in the region. There is all too much experience in the Horn of Africa in confronting massive dislocations of people fleeing dictators, famine and civil conflict. A series of “special representatives” from the U.N. secretary general has long acted as powerful coordinators of external relief in Ethiopia and the Sudan, and billions of dollars have already been spent on relief operations.
The 1984-85 Ethiopian famine fueled recriminations that the United Nations, the United States and other donor governments (not to mention Ethiopia itself) were slow to respond to early indicators of catastrophe. Disaster relief officials, diplomats and politicians have since struggled to meet public expectations for swift, effective humanitarian assistance, breeding a discernable determination to avoid repeating costly errors.
The lessons of Ethiopia were political as well as operational. In the famine’s aftermath, President Reagan belatedly remarked that “a hungry child knows no politics,” expressing Americans’ hope that food assistance might depend on human need, not the political stripe of regimes. Reagan’s statement reverberated in 1987, when Ethiopia was again ravaged by drought. The United States responded quickly and generously, spurring the United Nations and other donors. The emergency was contained and famine averted, along with a repeat of the acrimonious political confrontation with Congress that marked the earlier episode.
Thus when famine began stalking Somalia in 1990, expectations for U.N., U.S. and other international involvement had long been established. For years the United Nations had assumed increasing responsibility for coordinating relief efforts and implementing the diplomatic and political strategies required to deliver assistance through zones of conflict. The United States had demonstrated more resourcefulness, generosity and determination in getting assistance to the Horn than any other donor—and was considered by some to shoulder particular responsibility given its long support of Siad Barre. Moreover, high-profile and highly successful American efforts in spring 1991 to mediate an end to Ethiopia’s civil wars also raised expectations, as did the United Nations’ protective response to Iraqi Kurds following Operation Desert Storm.
As Somalia’s famine developed, however, the expectations raised over the previous decade would be disappointed. The international community failed to achieve the very goal of humanitarian assistance: to ensure the most fundamental of human rights—that of survival—for populations temporarily unable to fend for themselves. The Somali people—victims of a withering barrage of dictatorship, civil war, drought and ultimately anarchy—would be left largely to fend for themselves, until a point where their suffering was simply too horrific to be ignored.
Damning the United Nations
What can support an assessment of the U.N. role in Somalia as grossly incompetent, undisciplined and unfocused? Damning assessments come from relief workers directly engaged in the Somali crisis, professionals in the humanitarian assistance field and even candid U.N. officials. Views from a range of other well-placed, experienced observers and participants are no less condemning. The chief complaints stem from a series of U.N. blunders and its basic failure seriously to engage in the Somali crisis at a time when early intervention might have diffused its intensity.
The United Nations was essentially absent from Somalia after the flight of Siad Barre, when it transferred staff to Nairobi. The absence of country expertise and qualified senior personnel directly resulted in a debacle for Assistant Secretary General James Jonah’s January 1992 mission to Mogadishu. U.N. efforts to broker a ceasefire between General Aideed and Ali Mahdi not only aggravated tensions between the rival clans but also eroded the neutral positions of other clans as well as that of the United Nations. That failure helped extend civil war for another two months and even today undermines U.N. credibility as it attempts to arrange a lasting peace.
Other U.N. failures also exacerbated tensions and violence among Somali factions. A high-profile U.N. delegation headed by Special Coordinator Brian Wannop in February 1992 failed to invite other clan leaders and elders to participate in discussions with Aideed and Ali Mahdi over peace talks proposed to be held in New York. The lack of perceived standing made it easier for Ali Mahdi to launch attacks against smaller clans, which he did the day after the United Nations issued invitations.
Another Jonah mission to Mogadishu in February finally led representatives of Aideed and Ali Mahdi to convene at U.N. headquarters in New York under the auspices of the United Nations, the Islamic Conference, the Organization of African Unity and the Arab League. Despite the exclusion of neutral Somali clans and members of the United Nations’ own operational units, the principles of the March 3, 1992, ceasefire were set out and finally accepted. While there have been violations, the basic ceasefire between Aideed and Ali Mahdi has for the most part held.
A central flaw of U.N. involvement in Somalia was the failure to exploit the United Nations’ own ceasefire, one of many missed opportunities. After the cessation of hostilities U.N. senior diplomats foundered in the field, the Security Council dithered and U.N. relief agencies squandered valuable time. The Security Council’s meekness was inconsistent with more forceful actions taken regarding concurrent crises in both Iraq and the Balkans. Great power reluctance to focus on Somalia was unmistakable, as for months tiny Cape Verde offered a more ambitious agenda for action in the Security Council than did the United States.
The Security Council’s initial political response was so timid, in fact, that an exasperated U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was eventually moved to charge that a naked double-standard was being applied by members more concerned with “the rich man’s war” in the former Yugoslavia—a charge that allowed for no plausible denial. That July outburst finally led to U.N. mobilization on the Somali famine, including the American airlift of food in August and the arrival of U.N. peacekeeping forces. But those actions came no less than seven months after the Security Council’s initial consideration.
UNICEF and other U.N. relief agencies were doing no better in the field. Repeated requests from private relief agencies for medicine and medical supplies went unheeded. Even Save the Children (U.K.), a relatively small private relief agency, delivered more food to Somalia than UNICEF did in 1992. The U.N. Development Program—the traditional coordinator of U.N. relief and development agencies—left untapped for nine months some $68 million earmarked for Somalia—for lack of a signature from a nonexistent Mogadishu government. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Program grappled from January through April with the particulars of a contract to truck food from Djibouti to Somali refugee camps in the Harage region of Ethiopia. In the meantime, more than fifty refugees a day were dying of malnutrition.
Months of U.N. negotiations with Aideed and Ali Mahdi over the placement of U.N. peacekeepers to protect relief shipments missed the opportunity to hire and train certain local militias—an initiative that not only might have weakened the positions of the two warlords but also moved more food. As crisis turned to catastrophe, the U.N. Department of Humanitarian Affairs played no discernable role in mounting an effective response to the famine—until Undersecretary Jan Eliasson’s first visit in September—despite the fact that the U.N. unit had been formed early in the year to prevent just such an ineffectual response.
Profiles in Courage and Incompetence
The organization of African Unity proved largely irrelevant as Somalia’s tragedy unfolded a few hundred miles from its Addis Ababa headquarters. Two years into the intensifying turmoil the OAU has yet to make a significant statement about humanitarian needs, national reconciliation processes or peacekeeping in Somalia. The OAU secretary general has not visited Somalia; no delegation of respected African elders has been dispatched to attempt a dialogue between conflicting factions; no concerted campaign has been launched to place or keep Somalia on the U.N. Security Council agenda.
Indeed one of the few OAU responses to the Somali crisis was to reject a plan for intervention proposed months ago by the Eritreans, based on Eritrea’s lack of OAU membership. Yet even the Eritreans, unlike the OAU, had sent a delegation to Mogadishu during last winter’s warfare.
When the final history of the collective response to the Somali crisis is written, the profiles in courage that emerge will be those of ICRC staff members and the four private relief agencies that stayed in Somalia even during its worst days of civil war and anarchy. The ICRC as well as the International Medical Corps, Save the Children (U.K.), Medecins Sans Frontieres and the Austrian nonprofit group, sos, assumed many of the responsibilities and obligations that should have fallen to the United Nations, and saved thousands of lives in the process.
Their professionalism in providing relief assistance under the most difficult and complex conditions stands in stark contrast to the failures of various U.N. agencies. Further, their capacity to operate in such a setting exposes the hollowness of U.N. claims that Somalia was too dangerous for its own personnel. Two expatriate relief workers have been killed in Somalia, while many more peacekeepers, relief workers and journalists have died in Bosnia as part of that multilateral intervention in the same period.
Washington’s Schizophrenic Response
Washington’s own policy responses to the Somali crisis provide a contradictory record at best. The incoherent reaction illustrates the lack of accountability in both U.S. and U.N. international relief programs. Weak congressional oversight and limited input from private relief groups continue to leave humanitarian assistance policies prone to executive branch manipulation. There are, for example, no standards, criteria or guidelines violated when huge sums of money are pumped through “humanitarian” channels for decidedly political purposes. Such was the case with aid provided to the former Soviet republics in 1992, at the expense of genuine catastrophes like Somalia.
Official U.S. relief agencies of the Agency for International Development in the Humanitarian Assistance Bureau—the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance and Food for Peace—have a quality record unmatched by the United Nations or other donor governments. Yet their operational achievements in aiding Somalia were not supported with necessary political commitment at higher government levels prior to President Bush’s personal involvement beginning in July 1992. American disaster assistance officials committed significant energy and resources to the ICRC and private relief agencies—with AID providing some $148 million to Somalia over two years by the end of August 1992—and also called for greater U.N. presence and leadership in Somalia. Yet the State Department’s International Organization Bureau, the U.S. mission to the United Nations and the National Security Council kept Somalia low on the Security Council agenda—avoiding any commitment to multilateral action.
Lack of media attention and an agenda already overloaded with humanitarian crises in the Balkans, Iraq and, ostensibly, the former Soviet Union distracted State Department officials from giving proper attention to Somalia prior to July 1992. The State Department’s African affairs bureau apparently failed in its attempts to get Somalia on Secretary of State James A. Baker’s agenda and to bring the crisis to White House attention.
The Bush administration initially showed little interest in an April Senate resolution calling for “active U.S. initiatives” and encouraging mobilization in Somalia by the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity. Indeed, the administration rejected proposals to put Somalia on the U.N. Security Council agenda. When the Security Council discussed Somalia on January 23, 1992, the U.S. delegation insisted on weakening the language of the resolution put forth by Cape Verde, sending the clear signal that Washington sought only low-level U.N. investment in the crisis.
A reluctance to take on expanding financial obligations for U.N. peacekeeping—not just in Somalia but also in other locations that such a precedent might imply—helped inhibit stronger U.S. pressures on the United Nations. Thus American policy worked at cross purposes. On the one hand AID funding was critical in enabling the ICRC to devote an unprecedented 50 percent of its worldwide emergency budget to Somalia; on the other a lack of U.S. resolve in the Security Council only prolonged the Somali crisis and contributed to U.N. balking at both humanitarian and peacekeeping opportunities.
Heightened media coverage and an emotional cable from the American ambassador in Kenya finally brought Somalia to President Bush’s attention in mid-July. Reacting strongly to reports of starvation, the president within days ordered a U.S. military airlift to bring food to Somalia and northern Kenya. The United States also began readying U.N. resolutions on additional relief and on Somali national reconciliation conferences. On August 13 the White House announced U.S. air transport for Pakistani troops constituting the first contingent of 500 U.N. peacekeepers in Somalia. (Yet earlier in the year the United States had forced the level of peacekeepers down to 50 from the proposed 500.)
The U.S. military deployment to move relief supplies to hungry Somalis was so rapid, in fact, that it caused serious concern among private relief agency workers fearing increased security threats, as well as a diplomatic incident with the Kenyan government, which chose to portray the arrival of U.S. armed forces as “an invasion.” Moreover the sudden turnabout in U.S. policy after more than six months of Somali ceasefire and a full nine months since Somalia had been labeled “the world’s greatest humanitarian emergency”—as well as the timing of the announcement on the eve of the Republican National Convention and the heels of increasing media coverage—raised skepticism among many observers. Regardless of its motivations, however, the high-profile American action changed the dynamics of the international response to Somalia, embarrassing European and other donor governments and shaming the United Nations into a more determined approach.
Yet by the time President Bush made the November decision to intervene militarily, 80 percent of relief goods in Somalia were being looted and famine was claiming in excess of a thousand victims a day. The president was receiving convincing reports that remaining relief operations would have to be suspended, as the risk to relief staffers was rising well above acceptable levels. More than 300,000 Somalis had already died of starvation, and vast numbers remained in peril.
America’s initial Security Council position underscored a willingness to weigh political benefits and requirements against the financial costs of multilateral humanitarian operations—an approach unchallenged until the U.N. secretary general’s tirade and media attention forced a change. At the time of the August airlift, conditions were no different in Somalia than they had been for six months. Neither political nor logistical factors were altered; no significant new information was made available. The only difference was that the Somali situation had deteriorated in large part due to inaction by the international community: more people were hungry or starving.
Reforming Humanitarian Intervention
The United Nations and Security Council members must examine the broad policy issues stemming from failure in Somalia if the same frustrations are to be avoided elsewhere. The question of a double standard must be addressed. Speedy humanitarian intervention in Iraq’s internal affairs to protect Kurdish populations contrasts greatly with slow international action in Somalia. How will the United Nations respond to inevitable demands for intervention elsewhere? Will the United Nations, for instance, protect persecuted and hungry populations in southern Sudan? What will be the criteria for future collective interventions?
The current U.N. requirement that a ceasefire be in place before introducing peacekeepers should be reexamined. The rule gives any number of minor players potential veto power over U.N. actions required to assist nonparticipants in civil strife. Failure to introduce international peacekeepers in Somalia in March 1992 eventually contributed to heightened levels of violence. Additionally, this criterion forced the United Nations to act as if all of Somalia were engulfed in Mogadishu’s extreme circumstances, which was simply not the case.
The Security Council should also construct guidelines concerning acceptable safety risks for U.N. personnel intervening in internal conflicts. Operations in Somalia were badly hampered by a lack of on-the-ground expertise due to the evacuation of U.N staff. Yet questions of safety in Somalia struck many as a disingenuous excuse for U.N. failures. The assertion, for example, that lack of casualty insurance for U.N. staff was a primary reason for vacating Somalia underscores the necessity of clear and reasonable guidelines in this area.
It is obvious that without securing adequate resources the United Nations can be expected to do little. Long neglect by the United States and other powers has taken a heavy toll on the professionalism of U.N. agencies. At the same time, the United Nations must rightfully look toward internal reform to recapture both credibility and savings if its budgetary problems are to be seriously addressed. The extent of U.N. ineptitude was dramatically exposed by its bungled response in Somalia. Yet clearly Somalia is but one example of the United Nations failing to meet its obligations for reasons other than financial constraints. World opinion may not be as forgiving as in the past as institutional shortcomings increasingly come to light.
In fact a public airing of all that went wrong with the U.N. response to Somalia is both warranted and desirable to achieve meaningful reform. The United Nations must address the issue of the lack of professional capability within its humanitarian agencies. Those officials who failed so badly in Somalia must answer for those failures if the confidence and credibility of U.N. agencies is to be restored.
President Bill Clinton can lead in reforming humanitarian policies by pushing to form two bodies to help map out a new set of guidelines for both U.S. and international relief programs now venturing into largely uncharted waters. Only Washington can lead in mobilizing the political will to form a U.N. commission to review humanitarian assistance reform. Beyond bureaucratic consolidation and coordination, that U.N. commission should also be charged with identifying which U.N. mandates and authorities require buttressing for collective involvement in internal conflicts, including the terms for asserting the right of survival over sovereignty. President Clinton should also convene a blue ribbon commission to review America’s own bilateral aid policies. That domestic body’s priority would be to bring more consistency to U.S. humanitarian programs by opening a system now lacking adequate public scrutiny.
The Need for Accountability
Ultimately the most important question is one of accountability. To whom are the U.N. relief agencies accountable? Who should determine when and how Washington extends humanitarian assistance in the name of the American public? What is the collective international responsibility to people in need who do not merit special political status or sustained media attention? What is America’s own responsibility if the president is not reached by reports of starving children?
Greater accountability needs to be established both at the international level and in America’s bilateral aid programs, which have such disproportionate impact on the efforts of the United Nations and the other players. Without improved accountability, there is no reason to believe that the horrible lessons apparent from the catastrophe in Somalia will be absorbed. The world will instead revisit the same stories of neglect, evasion of responsibility and lack of political determination that may lead to massive suffering in other lands due to be racked in the post-Cold War era.