Hopes soar for a big push on Somalia

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Displaced Somalis stand in a makeshift camp… “It is one of the starkest, most neglected humanitarian crises in the world.
Displaced Somalis stand in a makeshift camp… “It is one of the starkest, most neglected humanitarian crises in the world." —

Simon Tisdall

South Africa aims high as Somalia hits new lows.

South Africa will launch a bid this month to head off “impending humanitarian catastrophe” in Somalia, where aid agencies say one million people have been displaced, 20,000 new refugees are created each month, and escalating fighting, attacks on aid workers, looting and drought have left two million people in need of basic humanitarian assistance.

Using its month-long presidency of the U.N. Security Council, South Africa is planning meetings on conflicts in Sudan, Chad and Congo, and more broadly on the role of regional organisations such as the African Union (AU) in peacekeeping and conflict resolution.

But after NGOs briefed council members on Monday, expectations are growing of a big push on Somalia, including a new resolution to staunch the bleeding.

“The council has so far failed to take action to end horrific abuses of civilians. We hope the new resolution will cover four items,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “The four areas are improved security and civilian protection via Amisom [the nascent AU peacekeeping force] or some other mechanism; increasing accountability and ending impunity for military forces and armed groups, which has been a huge problem in Somalia; encouraging an inclusive political process and dialogue; and improving humanitarian access.”

The Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Somalia in 1992 after the fall of Siad Barre’s regime and the descent into lawlessness and warlordism. But little else was done in the years that followed to nurture political and economic rehabilitation and conditions worsened, aggravated by climatic change.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network is predicting that seasonal rains will fail again this month, exacerbating food shortages already facing millions in Somalia and Ethiopia’s neighbouring Somali regional state. “It is one of the starkest, most neglected humanitarian crises in the world,” Mr. Gagnon said.

Urgency has been added by fears that the west’s strategy in the Horn of Africa region is unravelling in the face of a rising number of successful Islamist and clan militia attacks on the transitional federal government (TFG) and its forces.

The Washington-based Refugees International warned this week that intermittent, often inaccurate U.S. “war on terror” air strikes, launched offshore at supposed Al-Qaeda targets inside Somalia, were radicalising local opinion and undermining humanitarian work.

Similar criticisms, vehemently rejected, about disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force in civilian areas have been levelled at the Ethiopian army, which toppled an Islamist regime in Mogadishu in late 2006 with post-facto U.S. support. Ethiopia has since reduced its troop presence and is battling to hold the line. The AU’s supposedly multinational Amisom mission is not much help: so far it only has troops from Uganda and Burundi.

Failed state

Interviewed recently in Addis Ababa, Seyoum Mesfin, Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister, said Ethiopia was effectively holding the fort in Somalia for a negligent international community that should give the region higher priority. “Somalia has become a phenomenal failed state. It is more or less a no-go area. It is a safe haven for extremist groups whose activities are not limited to Somalia,” he said.

More effective international intervention would enable Ethiopia to disengage. “In the next six months we want the Amisom force to become a U.N. one. But one way or another, the issue has to be addressed. Either provide resources for the AU to do the job properly or have the U.N. take it over.”

Therein lies the rub. The U.N. Secretary-General’s latest report on Somalia, published last month, speaks of a “window of opportunity” to end the conflict. But Ban Ki-moon was very cautious on the question of deploying a U.N. force that officials say would need to be 27,000-strong — similar in size to the severely under-strength U.N. force in Darfur. Ban’s prior conditions for any deployment included improved security and a more credible political dialogue — a Catch 22 scenario, given the anarchy of present-day Somalia.

U.N.-led efforts to broker negotiations between the TFG and the moderate Islamist opposition took tentative steps forward in Nairobi this week. But there is no timetable or venue and a viable peace process is so far wholly lacking. As South Africa’s diplomats face this mountainous task, Somalia continues to hit new lows for misery, with one in seven children under five acutely malnourished. According to Unicef, that makes it the world’s worst place for kids. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008



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