UNITED States officials are calling it the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. The International Committee of the Red Cross says that 500,000 men, women, and children are in imminent danger of starvation. Everyone agrees that Somalia is a tragedy of unprecedented proportion. But the United Nations and our own government are ducking the fundamental challenge that Somalia presents: a country with no government, fierce fighting between brutal and undisciplined warring factions, and a helpless civilian
population at risk of dying in cataclysmic numbers.
Relief groups have been struggling to provide food and medical aid to increasingly desperate civilians since the overthrow of the cruel Siad Barre dictatorship a year ago. By mid-1991, there were sobering reports that civil war had left Mogadishu in ruins, that tens of thousands had been displaced from their homes, and that severe malnutrition among children was high. Yet the UN, which had evacuated its relief teams when Siad Barre fled, has had virtually no presence in Somalia since. The UN's absence fr om the scene has been especially noticeable over the past three months, after the worst spate of fighting erupted in Mogadishu on Nov. 17.
Fortunately, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali made Somalia a personal priority when he took office in January. If the UN fulfills the promise and establishes an effective presence there, it could play a vital role in facilitating a dialogue with the leaders of the warring parties, aimed at promoting arrangements for large-scale relief.
The private humanitarian groups are attempting to communicate with the military factions so as to end the shelling of hospitals, establish a temporary cease-fire to permit deliveries of food and medicines, and respect the neutrality of relief personnel. However, both parties continue to shell civilian areas, loot relief supplies, and target relief personnel. Establishing a high-level UN envoy within the city could yield better results. Moreover, UN-facilitated dialogue with the warring parties on humanit arian matters would engage the organization in broader discussions aimed at establishing a cease-fire and long-term protection of human rights.
The UN has justified its absence from Somalia on the grounds that the situation has been too dangerous for its officials to carry out relief activities. After his brief visit to Somalia last month failed to produce a cease-fire, UN envoy James Jonah reported to the secretary-general that a massive relief effort would have to wait until hostilities had ceased. He has just recently returned from a second trip to Somalia with a second signed cease-fire, but with no let up in the violence to show for it. Ind eed, a UN shipment of food came under fire last week and had to turn back to Kenya.
The International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian groups have remained in Somalia, despite its dangers, by hiring local bodyguards to protect themselves and their supplies. The UN must also find a way to protect its personnel and relief operations. It should examine the possibility of engaging a limited police presence for the exclusive purpose of protecting UN officials and assisting in the transport and security of food and medical supplies. UN efforts, and its credibility, have suffe red badly from the lack of a permanent presence in Somalia. That has made it difficult for the UN to make informed decisions and to convey its concern to the people of Somalia.
Despite the obvious and desperate need, neither the UN nor the US government seems interested in considering a limited protective shield for relief personnel in Somalia. The State Department worries that a UN presence will be costly and that the US, which is already in serious arrears in its payments to the international body, will be expected to help pay for the force.
What is urgently required for Somalia today, however, are not the conventional (and costly) UN "peacekeeping forces" such as those that have been stationed in Lebanon or Cyprus for years. A small-scale, guardian force will give UN relief officials and negotiators the protection and confidence they need to stay in Mogadishu and carry out their humanitarian duties alongside the private relief organizations.
There is no precedent for the creation and deployment of such a force of UN bodyguards to protect humanitarian operations in conflict situations. Yet the UN has played an increasingly active and creative role in addressing difficult humanitarian issues elsewhere in the world. The urgency of the crisis in Somalia requires new thinking and new mechanisms to provide protection for humanitarian efforts. The international community must take up the challenge without delay.