UN Responds to Critics on Somalia

Many blame the UN for long delays in the world's response to the Somali crisis. Officials say lessons have been learned that promise quicker help in future emergencies.

BLAMED for being late in coming to the rescue of Somalia, the United Nations and a growing number of Western donors are trying to catch up.

Nineteen months after the start of anarchy and hunger, following the January 1991 overthrow of dictator Mohammed Siad Barre, the world response is growing quickly. In addition to a United States airlift to one Somali town, Germany and France have begun sending in large quantities of food. Italy and Canada are planning such help soon, according to the UN.

But the brunt of criticism for delays still falls on the UN. Most recently, the charity Save the Children-United Kingdom, blasted the UN for lack of coordination and slowness in mounting relief in Somalia. (Criticism of UN, at right.)

A UN official in New York called such criticism "irresponsible."

"The UN is the sum of its governments and the Security Council only recently authorized security forces. It is the countries themselves within the Council that have to put teeth into any kind of action," the official added.

UN relief officials in Nairobi say lessons have been learned that promise quicker help in future emergencies. They point to two causes of the delayed response to the Somali crisis:

* Key donor-member nations of the Security Council, including the US, showed little interest in mounting a major relief effort in Somalia.

* UN rules prevented UN relief personnel from working in a dangerous area.

The UN, along with all diplomatic officials in Somalia, were evacuated by early 1991, after rebels seized the capital, Mogadishu.

Under then-existing rules, the UN, including UNICEF, could not reenter the country as long as the UN's security office in New York considered the country unsafe. Meanwhile famine extended its grip throughout the country.

UNICEF officials like David Bassiouni, then director of the Somali program, and now the UN's relief coordinator for Somalia, began looking for ways around this impasse.

In March 1991 the UN allowed, on a one-time basis, Mr. Bassiouni, regional UNICEF director Mary Racelis, and UNICEF-Somalia information officer Saleh Dabbakeh, along with a free-lance photographer, to fly to Mogadishu aboard the first of a series of UN cargo planes full of relief food and medicines.

"It wasn't easy working around the system," Bassiouni said in an interview here Aug. 31. "We felt it was necessary to be inside the country. There is a certain degree of risk we accepted."

Before this flight, however, UN aid, along with aid from the US and other donor countries, had been reaching various parts of the country via private charitable organizations. Staff members of organizations such as Save The Children and the International Committee of the Red Cross worked under the constant risk of gunfire. A number of Somali and some international relief officials have been killed in Somalia since January 1991.

A few months later, Mr. Dabbakeh organized a Somali children's day in Nairobi, with Somali songs and dances, to try to call attention to the needs of Somali children.

In December 1991, Ms. Racelis called a press conference on the world's children. But, she recalls, "journalists were asking, as they had been for months, why wasn't the UN there in Somalia?"

Immediately after the press conference, she says, "I called Jim Grant [UNICEF director in New York], and said: You must speak to the secretary-general. It's unconscionable we can't go in to Somalia."

It's not clear why Mr. Grant, whose organization was also about a year late responding to the famine in southern Sudan, delayed almost a year in getting UNICEF personnel back into Somalia.

Later that month, then Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar, in his final days in office, agreed to allow UNICEF officials to return to Somalia to mount a relief program.

Three days later, on Christmas Eve of 1991, Bassiouni, Dabbakeh, and UNICEF-Somalia program officer Bruce Kennedy, flew to Mogadishu to begin laying plans for a UNICEF presence again in Somalia. There are currently nearly 40 non-Somali UN personnel stationed in Somalia. Though the exception for reentry was made only for Somalia, Bassaouni says, the case provides "a precedent that can be applied" elsewhere in future emergencies.

Responding to such pressure from UNICEF officials working on Somalia relief, the UN now allows exceptions for three agencies to start relief programs even when it is still dangerous to work in the country.

After being goaded into action recently by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Security Council is now fully behind the Somalia relief effort.

No longer are the UN's emergency relief agencies, including UNICEF, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees automatically locked out of disaster zones.

And the UN has just put its WFP in charge of coordinating the increasing flow of food to Somalia, where more than 1.5 million people are in need of immediate help.

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