Debacle in Somalia

Courtesy Reuters

Famine: A Collective International Failure

THE DRAMA of large-scale military intervention and the media's fixation on looters and "warlords" now threaten to obscure the fact that, prior to late 1992, the international response to Somalia's long agony was indeed abject failure. Inadequate and halfhearted multilateral measures contributed significantly to the very circumstances of anarchy, violence and starvation now being addressed-by necessity-by 31,000 U.S. Marines and combined international military forces.

Operation Restore Hope is likely to prevent marauding bandits from stealing relief supplies and to be viewed, in the near term at least, as a successful demonstration of the American commitment to humanitarian principles-at acceptable risk and cost. But worst of all the intervention exposes the acute dangers inherent in the collective failure to restructure international humanitarian assistance policies and multilateral relief and political organizations to meet the realities of the post-Cold War world.

Neither the operational responses of U.N. relief agencies nor the conflict-mediation efforts of U.N. diplomats were undertaken with visible professionalism. Various U.N. officials and others exaggerated security concerns early in the Somali crisis in order to excuse their own scant presence and deeply flawed performance, factors which in turn contributed to real levels of violence by mid-1992. Until shamed into action by U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Security Council's early response to indicators of Somalia's approaching tragedy was virtual inertia, and Washington's own initial stance was strangely passive when contrasted with the sudden and forceful U.S. measures taken by year's end.

The unvarnished history of the U.N. role in Somalia is one of tragic missed opportunities and strategic and operational blunders not justified by the situation's realities. Donor and African governments did little better. Nearly 350,000 Somalis have already died, and starvation has ravaged 75 percent of children under five years of age in the country's most afflicted regions-amounting to the loss of a generation. Such harsh realities demand stern and sober judgments of accountability and the candid appraisal of international systems in need

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