The Desecration Of Somalia

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[Issues Of Principle]

The chilling facts about the humanitarian crises of Biblical proportions unfolding in Somalia as a result of the proxy war in that country are numbing.

Yet despite the facts about violations of important principles of international, humanitarian and human rights laws, there has scarcely been unequivocal outrage and robust action taken by individuals and organizations, which traditionally are regarded as being in the vanguard of raising and mobilizing public awareness about egregious violations of human rights and principles of the United Nations.

This is not to say there have not been some humanitarian or human rights organizations and individuals, who have nobly performed heroic work to save lives in otherwise objectively appalling conditions and tried to bring attention to obscene violence in Somalia. Outstanding examples of such organizations are United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

On balance, however, there has been at best anemic attention paid to the multifaceted tragedies in Somalia. This calls to question the criteria used by various organizations to put a spotlight on issues of human rights and humanitarian crises in Africa and elsewhere.

But before we pose some questions, it is necessary first to review the relevant known facts leading to and about the catastrophic humanitarian crises in Somalia.

On December 6, 2006, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1724 (S/Res/1725 (2006)) on Somalia that calls for the respect of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence and unity of Somalia. The resolution expressly prohibited the deployment of troops from neighboring countries, as peacekeepers in Somalia.

It specifically reiterates “its insistence that all Members States [of the UN], in particular those in the region, should refrain from any action in contravention of the arms embargo and related measures, and should take all actions necessary to prevent such contraventions.” In addition, it “calls upon all parties inside Somalia and all other States from action that could provoke or perpetuate violence and violations of human rights, contribute to unnecessary tension and mistrust, endanger the ceasefire and political process, or further damage the humanitarian situation.”

But within the month, at the end of December, the neighboring country of Ethiopia, traditionally a perennial threat to the territorial integrity of Somalia, sent an estimated 15,000 troops into Somalia. This was in direct contravention of important principles of the UN Charter, as well as in violation of the UN Security Council’s resolution 1725, which amplifies an earlier UN Security Council resolution on Somalia, S/Res/1724 (2006). Paradoxically and tragically, none of the powers on the Security Council stood up for the principles of the UN Charter and/or for the Security Council’s own resolutions.

What has transpired since the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia? Here are some of the notable facts: By April 2007, there were credible reports that the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia had set into motion unprecedented violations of human rights, on a scale that would qualify as war crimes. This occurred during a four-day offensive to eliminate insurgents in the Somalian capital, Mogadishu, at the end of March, by joint Somali-Ethiopian troops.

During the offensive the troops engaged in indiscriminate flattening of pro-insurgent neighborhoods with tanks, helicopters and artillery. It was reported that these were the heaviest onslaughts on civilian population in 15 years in a city notorious for bloodshed. The offensive triggered a massive exodus of people from Mogadishu. The U.N. estimated that in the month of March 2007, about 124,000 people fled the capital city.

The military atrocities committed by Ethiopian-Somalia’s transitional government troops did not go unnoticed. A European Union security expert who visited the country indicated that the joint Ethiopian and Somali troops may have committed war crimes during the offensive. The European expert is reported by Reuters to have said, "There are strong grounds to believe that the Ethiopian government and the transitional federal government of Somalia and the African Union force commander ... have through commission or omission violated the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court."

Human rights scholars and observers believe that at the very least, Ethiopian-Somali government troops have a case to answer for potential complicity in the commission of war crimes. However, to date, no clear public pronouncements have been made by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which in accordance with the Rome Statue has a duty to investigate and prosecute war crimes.

Five months later in September 2007, the UN human rights envoy to Somalia, Ghanim Alnajar, after visiting the country on a fact-finding mission, indicated that he was going to recommend a full investigation into alleged war crimes in Somalia.

By November 2007, the calamitous humanitarian crisis in Somalia had reached Biblical proportions. The intensity of the crisis in Somalia might be illustrated by highlighting the fact that, within a space of two weeks in November, for example, it was reported that an estimated 173,000 people fled Mogadishu, brining the total of displaced people by mid-November to more than 850,000.

Without the crisis abating and with hundreds of thousands of Somali on the verge of dying of starvation and lack of medical treatment and sanitation, the UN confirmed that the humanitarian catastrophe in Somalia was the worst in Africa. It was deemed far worse than the much rightly publicized humanitarian crisis in Darfur region of Sudan. In the words of Ahmedou Oud-Abdallah, the top United Nations official for Somalia, “The situation in Somalia is the worst on the continent.”

The general data on the scale of human suffering may not sufficiently capture and convey the plight of individual Somali. Yet in the figures, are thousands of human lives devastated for no good reason except that they were born Somali and grounded in the country.

We can get a glimpse of the type of personal suffering experienced by summarizing the individual stories of a couple of people that have been reported. Natheefa Ali, who escaped a bloodbath in Mogadishu to a market town of Afgooye, said that her 10-month-old baby was so malnourished she could not swallow.  “Look,” Ms. Natheefa said, pointing to her daughter’s splotchy legs, “her skin is falling off, too.” In Afgooye where Natheefa Ali escaped to, the United Nations report shows that the malnutrition rate is 19 percent, as compared with about 13 percent in Darfur. Malnutrition of 15 percent is considered the emergency threshold.

Another individual, Fadumo Abdullahi, aged 30, fled fighting in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, and trekked to a makeshift camp for the displaced on the outskirts of Bosasso, the commercial capital of the self-declared autonomous region of Puntland, in northeastern Somalia, which is nearly 1,000 miles northeast of Mogadishu. She fled leaving her four children with her mother, in the hope to undertake the arduous journey to Yemen and then Saudi Arabia. The trip to Bosasso took her 10 days, navigating around bandits checkpoints where people were shot routinely.

Interviewed in Bosasso, she said, "I have no relatives here, so I stay at the camp [for internally displaced people] during the night and during the day I go out to people's homes to take away their rubbish. They pay me 5,000 shillings [about 25 US cents] for every load of garbage I remove. On a good day I make about 25,000 [$1.25] but some days I get nothing. I know the danger I face going to Yemen, but what is the alternative? In Mogadishu, you don’t know from day to day whether you will see another sunset. You hear about women robbed or raped every day. My neighbor was raped and then beaten badly with a gun by soldiers. She was in hospital, not dead but not alive.

That is when we moved and my mother and I decided that I should take the risk of going to Saudi. I know going to Yemen I may die but only once. There are worse things than that kind of dying, and that was staying in Mogadishu." By mid December, it was estimated that that 60 percent of Mogadishu's residents had fled their homes.
The humanitarian situation had deteriorated so much that by mid-December 2007, children in particular were in exceptionally precarious conditions that UNICEF called for the creation of safe zones in Somalia for about 1.5m children whose lives have been blighted by the conflict. In a statement, the head of UNICEF, Ann Veneman, pointed out that not only were the children malnourished and at a high risk of disease, but they were also suffering from exhaustion and emotional trauma.

Ironically but not surprisingly, in December, United Nations officials conceded that the country was in better shape during the brief reign of Somalia’s Islamist movement before the Ethiopian invasion. Laroche, head of the U.N. humanitarian operations said, “It was more peaceful, and much easier for us to work.” He concluded, “The Islamists didn’t cause us any problems.”  Ould-Abdallah called those six months, when the Islamic Courts Union were in control of most of the country, Somalia’s “golden era”; it was, he said, “essentially the only epoch of peace most Somalis have tasted for years.”

It should be mentioned to avoid misunderstanding that Somali suffering and being used as pawns in geo-political power games did not begin with the invasion of Ethiopian troops, apparently sponsored by the U.S. Administration in December 2006. A review of Somali history shows that the Somali people have more often than not been sliced into pieces like a cake and divided up among various powers, without any regard for their interests and welfare. For instance, at the end of the nineteenth century, the Somali were partitioned into four colonies against their will.

The “share-out” of the Somalis during the high-tide of the new European colonial imperialism was among the following powers: Italy got one portion, which they named Italian Somaliland; the British grabbed another portion; and the French claimed Djibouti.

The African empire of Ethiopia also got a slice: it was allowed to enclose the Ogaden within its territory. Although it lost the Ogaden to Italy during the invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s, it renewed its control of Ogaden in 1941, with the sanction of Britain. In fact, it was the partitioning of the Somali and the mistreatment of the people in Ogaden by Ethiopia, which provided the impetus for the first pan-Somali resistance movement led by the charismatic and puritanical religious leader, Mohammad Abdille Hassan. For his unflinching nationalist fervor the British derogatorily referred to Hassan as the “Mad Mullah.”

Much later during the Cold War, in the 1970s, both the Soviet Union and U.S.A. jostled for geo-strategic position of advantage over Somalia, by changing sides whenever expedient. The latest Ethiopian invasion of Somalia with the connivance of external powers simply falls in a long established pattern of using the country and people as pawns in larger geo-strategic calculations.

It should also be noted that since the demise of the Said Barre regime in 1991, civilians in Somalia have been subjected to various cycles of violence and displacements. In fact, more than 800,000 people fled Somalia in 1991 and 1992, during the heat of the crisis in the post-Barre period. It was this, in effect, which set in train the nation's downward spiral. By the time of the Ethiopian invasion, close to 450,000 Somali remained internally displaced, and with about 150,000 people lived as refugees in other countries. In fact there was no semblance of effective central government, until Islamic Courts Union asserted authority in most parts of the country in mid-2006.

Nonetheless, despite the history of foreign powers and elites using Somali people as pawns and the continual nightmares to which they have continually been subjected to in the quicksand of clan politics, the current situation and context in the country is different. The fact that foreign powers can intervene and hemorrhage the people and country to virtual death in the context of the twenty-first century puts to pain the rhetoric of human rights and claims about human progress. Although it must be regarded as a triumph for cynical power-politics of geo-strategic calculations, it is also a severe indictment of the international community.

In terms of comparative analysis and without diminishing the enormity of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, it should be noted that, unlike Darfur where the suffering is being attended to by a billion-dollar aid operation and more than 10,000 aid workers, the UN estimates that the total emergency aid for Somalia to date has been less than $250,000. In effect, the Somalis caught up in the inferno of violence have more or less been left to fend for themselves, with the world barely noticing, leave alone caring about the magnitude of the humanitarian crises in this region of the Horn of Africa.

The difference in approach to, and of providing funds for, Somali and Darfur cannot be explained simply by reference to the insecurity in the former. A major factor might be the lack of interest in the very humanity of the Somalis.

Eric Laroche, head of United Nations humanitarian operation gave voice to the view of many fair-minded people with human hearts, regarding the attitude if not approach of the international community to Somalis, when he said: “If this were happening in Darfur, there would be a big fuss. But Somalia has been a forgotten emergency for years.”
In view of the calamitous humanitarian crisis in Somalia, we are entitled to ask a few probing questions, even if we cannot hazard or obtain answers. For in most cases, all that the powerless are entitled to is the right to ask questions.

The following are some of the pertinent questions: What is the purpose of the UN Charter, if its principles can be violated recklessly without consequence? Why should the world take seriously UN Security resolutions if they cannot be enforced; or if those violate such resolutions are not even simply condemned? Is it a case of selective morality, that some UN Security resolutions are enforced while others are conveniently ignored?

Or could the lack of robust response to the humanitarian crisis in Somalia be attributable to the particulars of the perpetrators and victims? Why is the international community not requiring both the occupying Ethiopian troops and its allies in the Transitional Federal government to fulfill their respective duties? Why is the ICC not approaching with vigor the allegations of war crimes in Somalia? And why is the African Union standing impotently while the great majority of the people of Somalia are being violated in broad day light?

Whatever our views, the human tragedies in Somalia, which has reduced a resilient people almost to despair and hopelessness, should prompt people with human hearts but who do not make fetish of naked power, to reflect seriously about the functions and relevance of the United Nations Security Council. It should also be a cause for concern about the virtual impotence of the African Union and the state of Pan-African solidarity.

Although we might not have military materiel with which to defend the great majority of Somalis, at the very least, we should speak out and up against the abominations being committed in that country. It is imperative that we speak up out of human solidarity, because the lives of the people of Somalia have been placed in purgatory for far too long by forces that have arrogated to themselves the power to determine the fate of an African people.

If we are not to repeat the grave error of history, we should remember the logic of the poem by Rev. Martin Niemoller, the German Protestant theologian, who after the Jewish Holocaust and the elimination of a great many innocent people by the Nazi military and scientific machines penned these lines in 1945: “First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me”.

As we see the human debris and blood pile up in Somalia, we should not act with indifference like the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, who, when faced with the menace of Hitler in the 1930s, played the power-politics of self-interests. He was reluctant to challenge Hitler so long as British interests were not directly threatened: he issued but anemic formal protests only when he saw the malign influence of the Nazis extended from area to area. He was compelled belatedly to condemn Hitler only when British spheres of influence were under threat of conquest.
With the unfolding human calamities in Somalia, we should not wait until it is too late to plead that it was a mistake not to have identified with the people in their hours of need, even if the powers that be might not care about the violations of principles of international, humanitarian, and human rights laws in Somalia.

The time is now for people of goodwill to be counted and to speak up against what is going on in Somalia and to demonstrate solidarity with the people, whose have for a whole generation lived in hellish nightmares.


Black Star News columnist Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu is UNESCO Chair in Human Rights, Executive-Director of the UConn-ANC Partnership and Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. His column appears bi-weekly online and in the newspaper.

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