Somalia: The U.N.'s Greatest Failure? By Rakia Omaar

The U.N.'s Greatest Failure?

Published on THE BALTIMORE SUN, 10 Oct 1993

Hailed last year as a model of what the United Nations could doin regions wracked by war and famine, today Somalia has become “the greatest failure of the U.N. in our lifetime,” in the words of one U.N. official.

Until we acknowledge that failure and take steps to correct it, sending more troops – as retired U.S. Admiral Jonathan Howe, chief U.N. representative in Somalia, recommends – will only add fuel to the fire.

At the root of the failure – and its enduring legacy – is the hatred most Somalis now feel for their would-be rescuer. That hatred is neither irrational nor fueled by nationalist loyalties. It is, instead, the result of a succession of bitter betrayals by the organization.


In Somalian eyes, the United Nations’ first betrayal came in January 1991, when the dictator Mohammed Siad Barre was overthrown after 21 years in power. As the U.N. forces hurriedly left, the country slid into civil war and famine. When full-scale war broke out a year later between the militias of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid and his arch-rival, Ali Mahdi Mohamed, the United Nations watched silently, not even offering humanitarian assistance. If one thing united Somalis from all walks of life in those dark days, it was anger at the United Nations for having abandoned the country.

Under mounting pressure from relief agencies, the United Nations returned, belatedly, in April 1992, having brokered a cease-fire in February. Promises of relief aid and the deployment of some 3,500 U.N. soldiers slowly restored Somalian hopes.

Especially encouraging were the efforts of a new special U.N. envoy, Mohamed Sahnoun, who quickly won respect among virtually all sectors. Most important to Somalis, Mr. Sahnoun admitted the failures of the United Nations and castigated his superiors for their continuing blunders and indifference to Somalia.

But even Mr. Sahnoun’s popularity could not overcome U.N. failures. Bowing to resistance from General Aidid, the United Nations never sent the promised troops. When some 500 Pakistani Blue Berets finally did arrive last October, after a painstaking agreement worked out by Mr. Sahnoun, they were ill-equipped, stuck to their barracks and relied on hired Somali guns to protect them – paving the way for what eventually became a lucrative protection racket.

When Mr. Sahnoun’s public criticisms finally cost him his job last October, most Somalis had reverted to their earlier suspicions about the U.N. role. Two months later they welcomed Operation Rescue precisely because it was an American, not a U.N., initiative.

But the United States proved little more effective. On the second day of the U.S. occupation, U.S. Ambassador Robert B. Oakley publicly embraced General Aidid and Mr. Mahdi Mohamed, conferring a spurious legitimacy on both warlords. Next Mr. Oakley announced that disarming the militias was not on the U.S. agenda – although this had been the Somalis’ top priority.

Compounding these problems was the United States’ preoccupation with the famine. As U.S. troops escorted aid convoys to starving villagers, thousands of Somalis expressed their gratitude. But by last December, as the famine eased and disease became the biggest killer, the U.S. obsession with food became counterproductive. Priced out of the market by the U.S.-inspired influx of cheap imported food, Somalian farmers were unable to sell their produce.

By now the single biggest error of the occupation had also become apparent: There were virtually no checks on the behavior of the troops, nor were there any procedures for redress. Even those Somalis who supported the U.N. presence in the country were deeply outraged by the soldiers who beat, harassed and even killed hundreds of Somalis with impunity. While no one questions that General Aidid’s forces killed 23 Pakistani soldiers, in Somalian eyes this crime is no worse than the dozens of innocent Somali deaths.

Today, in the name of pursuing General Aidid, U.N. forces have attacked hospitals, shot into crowds of demonstrators, bombarded political meetings and gunned down women and children. The United Nations justifies the deaths on the grounds that all people in the vicinity of combat are considered combatants.

As Somalian resentment at the United Nations and the United States deepens, some, like Admiral Howe, urge that more U.N. troops be sent. The United States and United Nations would do well to take a step they have steadfastly avoided, to their peril: consult with the Somalis.

Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Waal are co-directors of African Rights, a human rights organization based in London. They wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service. Sara Engram, whose column usually appears here, is on special assignment. Her column will resume Oct. 24.

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