The United Nations and Somalia


Timewatch: Dereliction of Duty
Screening on SBS Television
Monday, July 19, 7.30 p.m. (7 p.m. in Adelaide)
Reviewed by Norm Dixon

BBC reporter George Alagiah examines the United Nations' callous and wilful disregard for the plight of the people of Somalia in the almost two years immediately prior to the UN-sanctioned "humanitarian" invasion by 30,000 mostly US troops in December 1992.

Alagiah asks why the UN retreated from, then refused to return to, the front line of the famine as its true extent was becoming obvious to many. Why did the suffering of Somali refugees in Kenya go unchecked for a year? And why did the massive military intervention come only after the worst of the suffering was over?

While the program asks these vital questions, and does an excellent job of detailing the UN's insensitivity, neglect, incompetence and confusion, which led to the chaos and misery stated as the reason for the US "Operation Restore Hope", there are few clear answers.

Following the fall of the US-backed Siad Barre dictatorship (which the documentary never mentions) in January 1991, all aid agencies pulled out of Somalia. The smaller private agencies returned within weeks, but the hugely resourced UN agencies stayed away for most of 1992. The NGOs appealed to the UN to return.

By April 1991 even the UN's own agencies, such as UNICEF, demanded that massive aid be sent to prevent famine. It was seven months before the UN sent even a token presence; this was withdrawn again within a month.

The health system had collapsed, and the country's infrastructure was shattered. The World Health Organisation did not return until October 1992, claiming its mandate allowed it to work only with governments.

The NGOs carried the burden of providing food, medicine and other forms of aid until December 1991. By then hunger had become full-blown famine. Somalia was divided by warring factions struggling to control the few resources left.

After December 1991, what aid was promised often never arrived, was much less than needed or was months late. Essential medicines never arrived. The UN could not guarantee that the food would be distributed to the countryside. Much of the UN aid was looted by the people paid to protect it.

Having finally convinced Somalia's factions to allow 3000 UN troops to protect the shipments, UN representative to Somalia Mohammed Sahnoun resigned because the UN in New York continually delayed their arrival and opposed agreements he made with local leaders. Only 500 troops arrived after a two-month delay.

Contrasted sharply with this tragic foot-dragging, once the US decided to invade, 30,000 troops descended on Somalia in a matter of weeks. This documentary is less than helpful in explaining what changed.

Much is made in the film of the UN's undoubted incompetence, bureaucratism and inefficiency. But it is assumed the UN actually wanted to help the Somalis.

The truth is that Washington, through the UN, simply took advantage of the desperate situation it had helped to create to boost its ability to use military might abroad. The awful suffering of starving children offered the perfect opportunity for the imperialist powers to establish the precedent of unilateral intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign nations on "humanitarian" grounds.

The documentary warns that the UN is repeating the "mistakes" it made in Somalia, this time in southern Sudan. This view is naive.

As in Somalia, the people of southern Sudan are being used as pawns in the US world power game. The US government dislikes the regime in Khartoum for its support of anti-US fundamentalist movements. It seems likely that the US is manipulating the misery of the

Sudanese people to justify another "humanitarian" invasion.