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Human Rights Developments

Somalia experienced the most tragic year in its modern history in 1992. Riven by conflict, devastated by famine, and ignored by most of the international community, Somalis living at home and as refugees have been undergoing traumatic suffering with apparently no end in sight.

The year began with intense fighting on the streets of Mogadishu between the forces of self-appointed Interim President Ali Mahdi and his rival, General Mohamed Farah Aidid. Both are members of the same Hawiye clan and of the same political party, the United Somali Congress (usc). The fighting, which broke out in November 1991, arose from a number of factors, including rivalryfor the position of President and the symbols of sovereignty that go with it (particularly money), sub-clan loyalty (President Mahdi's Abgal versus General Aidid's Habr Gidir), competition for the commercial exploitation of looted property, and the need for unpaid soldiers to steal in order to eat. The fighting saw an extraordinary level of indiscriminate brutality as all the weapons of the former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre's arsenal were deployed. Field artillery, anti-aircraft guns, heavy machine guns, mortars, the ubiquitous AK-47 and even air-to-air missiles mounted on jeeps were used in the capital of Mogadishu. Most were fired by untrained teenagers merely in the approximate direction of the "enemy." Residents referred to artillery rounds fired across the city as "to whom it may concern" shells, because of their wholly indiscriminate targeting. In addition, the breakdown of civil authority, the lack of legitimate employment and the scarcity of food led to a serious problem of freelance banditry, with looters and thieves displaying a near-total disregard for human life.

According to calculations made by Africa Watch and Physicians for Human Rights, 14,000 people were killed and 27,000 injured in Mogadishu between November 1991 and the end of February 1992. An unknown number were permanently disabled. Tens of thousands more were psychologically scarred and will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and varieties of pathological grief, not only because of the horrors they have suffered, but also because of the failure to observe traditional rituals to respect the dead.

The city's medical facilities were swamped. On the southern side, in General Aidid's area, four hospitals, staffed by Somali doctors and nurses who have not been paid since before the fall of Siad Barre in January 1991, worked extremely long hours, often without electricity and adequate clean water, and with few drugs, to tend the wounded. Week after week, the physicians were compelled to use triage, neglecting those who would almost certainly die to allow the possibility of caring for those who might survive. In the northern part of the city, controlled by Mahdi, there was no functioning hospital, but on the second day of the fighting, a group of Somali doctors came together and formed the Health Emergency Committee. They requisitioned a seafront villa to serve as an operating theater and casualty ward, and gradually requisitioned dozens of other houses to serve as post-operative wards. For several months, "Karaan Hospital," as this was known, was the only medical service available on the northern side of the city, until February, when the International Committee of the Red Cross (icrc) opened an emergency hospital in a former prison just outside the city perimeter.

In March and April, the fighting in Mogadishu began to subside somewhat, although chronic insecurity remained. The lull followed the failure of a major attempt by the Aidid forces to overrun the Mahdi enclave at the end of February. It also coincided with the threat of a renewed offensive by the forces of the former dictator Siad Barre, the Somali National Front (snf), composed mainly of Siad Barre's Marehan clan. General Aidid patched together a coalition of forces to confront the snf, and succeeded in drivingit into Kenya in April and May. Aidid also defeated forces belonging to the Somali Patriotic Movement (snm), consisting mainly of the Ogaden clan, and captured the southern port of Kismayo. The military campaign saw widespread abuses against civilians, including the selective killing of scores, possibly hundreds, of Marehan in the towns of Belet Hawa and Luuq.

The rout of the Siad Barre forces meant that the Bay, Gedo and Juba regions were accessible to journalists and relief workers for the first time (only the icrc already had a presence there). What came to light was apocalyptic-a famine of perhaps unparalleled proportions. The farming populations of these regions had traditionally been disadvantaged in Somali society; the Rahanweyn farmers had been considered second-class citizens, and the Bantu descendants of slaves living in the lower reaches of the Juba Valley had even lower social standing. Under Siad Barre, they had suffered a gradual erosion of their economic position, and in many cases, forcible confiscation of their land. They had few firearms and were easy targets for looters. There had been chronic war in these areas since late 1988, and the armies of Siad Barre, the snm and the usc had crossed the region numerous times in 1989, 1990 and 1991, on each occasion looting as they went. The final straw was the 1991-1992 occupation by the snf, which had engaged in systematic and comprehensive looting of food, livestock, household possessions and even clothes. One relief worker reported that Rahanweyn women, robbed of even their clothes, were so destitute and demoralized that they would not leave their houses despite imminent starvation.

The Rahanweyn towns of Baidoa and Baardheere became the sites of some of the most appalling famine camps seen in Africa. Death rates reached extraordinary levels, and starvation was common. By the end of November, death rates were reportedly dropping in Baidoa but had risen sharply again in Baardheere, due to a new outbreak of fighting.

The final factor in the creation of famine has been the blockage of relief. In a destitute country, food is a vital resource which people are prepared to fight and kill for. Delivering food relief under these circumstances is a difficult and hazardous business. While no warlord will claim that he opposes humanitarian relief, few are prepared to allow it to be distributed in areas not under their control. The negotiations needed to ensure effective delivery and distribution have therefore been long and difficult. If one local warlord or clan believes that it has been left out, it may decide to claim its share by force. There is also always the chance of undisciplined soldiers or freelance bandits seizing the food to save themselves.

Along with the Rahanweyn and Bantu farmers, several other groups were severely hit by the famine. They included those displaced by the fighting, urban people who had lost all their possessions in the war or who had been reliant on trade, and Ethiopian refugees. The displaced were affected not only by hunger but also by epidemic disease brought on by overcrowded squatter camps and the lack of sanitation facilities and clean water.Nomadic cattle and camel herders from the powerful clans were less hard hit; their herds remained intact and they possessed the firepower and political influence to protect themselves and lay claim to food resources.

Conflict and scarcity of food fed on each other in a vicious spiral. High food prices compelled soldiers to steal to eat. Food aid was the target for looters because it was a precious commodity. Merchants also hoarded food to drive the price up. Meanwhile, the fighting caused more food shortages and population displacement. Fortunately, these processes also operated in reverse. As food became more widely available (and, equally important, people began to have the confidence that it would remain readily available) prices came down and merchants released stored grain stocks onto the market. By the end of November, the cycle of famine feeding war seemed to have been broken in some parts of the country, allowing attention to turn to ensuring that the marketing system can be rebuilt and not damaged by food aid supplies.

In October, the security situation deteriorated sharply as Aidid's alliances began to unravel. His coalition of Hawiye, Rahanweyn and some Darod groups had lasted only a few months before beginning to come apart. The snf, with support from the Kenyan army, launched a counter-offensive and succeeded in capturing the town of Baardheere. In Mogadishu, Aidid's power perceptibly weakened as freelance banditry increased, and speculation mounted that out of desperation he would resume full-scale war in the city.

The Somali National Movement (SNM), the Isaaq-dominated front controlling northwestern Somalia, unilaterally declared independence in May 1991, to create the Republic of Somaliland, an entity not recognized by any other country. During 1991, the Somaliland government of Abdel Rahman Tur appeared to be making progress in establishing peace and security, rebuilding the shattered infrastructure that had been destroyed in the war of 1988, and encouraging the return of the 400,000 refugees who had fled to Ethiopia.

Still, enormous problems faced the government: it had virtually no resources, and international assistance was slow in coming due to the lack of diplomatic recognition. Land mines were a major problem in both the towns and countryside, killing and injuring hundreds of people, but also blowing up livestock and discouraging the use of water-reservoirs, the lifeline of the largely nomadic population.

In January 1992, a battle between the fighters of two subclans of the Isaaq at Burao left over 150 dead, and forced tens of thousands to flee to the countryside. In late March, fierce fighting broke out in the port of Berbera, Somaliland's economic and commercial capital, and unrest spread to Sheikh and the city of Hargeisa, the political capital. Most civilians had to flee Berbera.

The Right to Monitor

As Somalia descended into complete anarchy and chaos, human rights monitoring as well as international relief efforts faced extremedangers. The threat of violence came not only from the various armed factions but also from freelance bandits and looters.

U.S. and U.N. Policy

Despite the enormity of the human rights disaster in Somalia, it did not receive the attention of the White House or the top echelons of the State Department until well into 1992. Officials at the State Department's Africa Bureau, including Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen, as well as Andrew Natsios and James Kunder of the Department's hard-working Bureau for Food and Humanitarian Assistance, were clearly concerned about the Somalia tragedy and pressed for a more active U.S. response. But they were largely ignored by the National Security Council and President Bush's political advisors, who sought to minimize foreign policy issues in the course of the U.S. presidential campaign throughout much of 1992. By year's end, the Bush administration had made Somalia a priority, but by that time the disaster had reached such cataclysmic proportions that options for dealing with it were limited.

The decade of generous U.S. support to the Siad Barre dictatorship-hundreds of millions of dollars in military and economic aid were provided throughout the 1980s-placed a special burden on the United States to respond quickly when the collapse of the regime predictably ushered in civil war and widespread famine. Rather, following assaults on the U.S. embassy in Mogadishu at the time of Siad Barre's ouster in January 1991 (necessitating a dramatic helicopter rescue of the ambassador and his staff) and the subsequent sacking of the embassy by insurgents, the U.S. presence in Somalia ended. For most of the next two years, U.S. involvement with Somalia was limited to providing generous humanitarian assistance to the few, superb humanitarian organizations working within the country-the International Committee of the Red Cross, Save the Children (U.K.), the International Medical Corps and the French Médecins Sans Frontières. U.S. aid to Somalia in fiscal year 1992 was composed of $26 million to support humanitarian organizations in Somalia, $51 million in food donations and $23 million to support refugee programs.

But humanitarian assistance alone was not enough. Although the relief groups pleaded for greater involvement in Somalia, the international community dithered and temporized for all of 1991 and half of 1992. The Bush administration largely avoided the issue of Somalia when U.S. leadership at the United Nations was most needed. In particular, the U.S. could and should have insisted that the United Nations play the role that was required of it by providing humanitarian assistance and assisting in the political reconciliation of the country in the months following Siad's departure in early 1991.

But the United Nations ignored Somalia in 1991. And despite the passage of three separate Security Council resolutions on Somalia in the first half of 1992, U.N. humanitarian agencies failed to implement the U.N.'s own relief program or to play thekind of leadership and coordination role with other groups that is expected of them in crises of this kind.

Indeed, there is some evidence that for months the United States actually held back U.N. efforts. The New York Times reported on December 29, 1991 that "[s]enior Administration officials rejected the suggestion, made by some at the State Department, of putting Somalia onto the Security Council agenda at the United Nations." And when Somalia did first come up on the Security Council agenda on January 23, 1992 at the instigation of Cape Verde, the U.S. changed the text of the resolution to weaken its call for U.N. involvement in a political settlement of the conflict. The U.S. apparently also weakened a second resolution on Somalia considered by the Security Council in March. When questioned about the U.S. stance at hearings in April before the House Subcommittee on African Affairs, John Wolf of the State Department's International Organizations Bureau confirmed that the U.S. had pressed for a change in the resolution because of concern over the safety of a peacekeeping force. He added that "at the very senior level" of the Security Council there was "a lot of appreciation for the position the United States took."

The effect of the Bush administration's dithering at the U.N. was to signal that Somalia was not a priority. Absent another strong patron, Somalia remained an orphan until July 1992. The U.N. agencies continued to resist appeals by private relief groups to establish programs within the country, and famine and disease spread.

One bright spot in an otherwise dismal picture was the appointment by U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali of special envoy Mahmoud Sahnoun on April 28. Sahnoun, an experienced Algerian diplomat, quickly became engaged in painstaking and comprehensive political negotiations with Somalia's warring parties, and demanded the immediate involvement of the U.N.'s humanitarian agencies. Although the response by these agencies to sluggish, Sahnoun nonetheless was able to provide badly needed leadership and coordination to relief efforts within Somalia. Officials of private humanitarian agencies working within Somalia are unanimous in their praise of Sahnoun's efforts.

However, the situation in Somalia worsened over the summer as tens of thousands died from hunger or disease. The civil war's disruption of crop planting, animal herding and market activity, the interference by armed bandits with relief efforts, and the continued severe drought were a deadly combination that claimed as many as 300,000 lives by mid-1992. In July, U.S. Senator Nancy Kassebaum helped to galvanize international attention to Somalia by undertaking a trip to the country. Until the senator's visit, not a single prominent official from any country had visited Somalia. Spurred by Kassebaum's example, by extraordinary press reports of the Somalia disaster, and by mounting criticism of U.S. inaction by members of the U.S. Congress, top Bush administration officials at last focused on the crisis in mid-August. On the eve of the Republican National Convention, the administration announced that it was commencing an airlift of supplies to Somalia.

The airlift, though hastily conceived and executed, was nonetheless an important and highly visible demonstration of U.S. interest in Somalia. It had an immediate effect on the creaking U.N. bureaucracy. Within a matter of weeks, the director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), James Grant, and the U.N.'s humanitarian affairs coordinator, Jan Eliasson, made their first visit to the country and promised the kinds of large-scale programs that Sahnoun had been pleading for since May. In another important development, the State Department's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance sent a team of relief experts to help coordinate the entire relief effort, in clear recognition of the U.N.'s neglect of this badly needed role. In addition, the team introduced important relief innovations, such as the revitalization of traditional Somali markets, in an effort to speed the provision of relief and bolster the authority of the country's clan elders and civilian infrastructure. The U.S. also offered to transport U.N. troops that had been authorized to be deployed to protect relief efforts.

The heightened U.S. attention was welcome but many months too late: despite the new efforts, famine worsened in Somalia. The forced resignation of U.N. special envoy Sahnoun in October brought efforts at political reconciliation to a full stop, and the relief community was left demoralized and overwhelmed. Increased fighting in the area along the Kenyan border (exacerbated by Kenyan logistical support for one of the warring parties) disrupted relief supplies to very fragile communities of displaced people, and the death toll mounted. Many in the U.S. Congress and some in the humanitarian relief community appealed for a more vigorous response, and on November 25, Acting Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger notified the U.N. of the U.S. willingness to provide a battalion of troops (including up to 20,000 U.S. soldiers) to be employed as part of a multinational force to help protect relief supplies and officials.

The offer of U.S. troops to the United Nations appeared to be a recognition of the U.N.'s failure to employ its own forces successfully in Somalia. A force of 3,500 U.N. peacekeeping troops had been approved for Somalia in August but has yet to be fully deployed. By late November, only 500 of the U.N. troops were stationed in Mogadishu, with plans for the deployment of the additional 3,000 repeatedly deferred. According to press reports, President Bush decided to offer U.S. troops to the U.N. on the condition that they be incorporated into a broader multilateral effort under U.S. command with enough authority to carry out their mission.

As of November 30, the issue of an expanded international military presence in Somalia had not yet been resolved. President Bush's offer of troops heightened international attention to the crisis further, and clearly indicated that Somalia is now a top U.S. priority. The tragedy is that the magnitude of the crisis and the years of neglect by the U.S. and the international community have assured that even extraordinary efforts at this point may notsave millions of Somalis from death, or facilitate the rebuilding of Somalia's devastated society.

The Work of Africa Watch

The disaster in Somalia has been the highest priority of Africa Watch in 1992. Africa Watch has devoted unprecedented resources to the country, and achieved a significant impact on policy in the U.S. and at the U.N. As of November, Africa Watch had participated in 101 radio and television interviews on Somalia (92 of them after late July), published 19 articles in the press, and received innumerable mentions in the media. Africa Watch sent two missions to Somalia in 1992, one to Mogadishu in January and February, and one to the north in June and July.

For the first half of 1992, Africa Watch sought primarily to draw attention to the crisis in Somalia-both the scale of human rights abuses being committed and the need for a greater international response. Africa Watch produced two newsletters in February and March (the second jointly with Physicians for Human Rights) detailing the fighting in Mogadishu, including the armaments used, the military tactics, the number of casualties, the types of medical treatment available, the social and psychological impact, and the impending famine.

In Mogadishu, Africa Watch met with both President Mahdi and General Aidid and expressed outrage at the abuses being committed by both sides. Africa Watch told the two leaders that their aspirations to legitimacy had been destroyed by their flagrant disregard for human life, and predicted that they would remain international pariahs unless this barbaric behavior was halted immediately. Both leaders appeared somewhat taken aback by this frank criticism, which they were unused to. Africa Watch pressed both leaders for at least an artillery cease-fire and free passage with protection of humanitarian assistance.

Following the first mission to Somalia, Africa Watch had a series of meetings at the State Department and the U.S. Congress to encourage similar frank condemnations. We encouraged Senator Kassebaum to contemplate a visit to Mogadishu. Africa Watch also lobbied for a greatly expanded humanitarian effort in Somalia, both to relieve the famine and to remove one reason for fighting.

A second focus of Africa Watch's work has been to highlight the failure of the U.N. system. Africa Watch was highly critical of the bungled intervention of some U.N. officials, the negligence and indifference shown by the specialized agencies, the failure of the Security Council to pay adequate attention to the crisis, and of the Secretary General to implement the provisions of a Security Council resolutions relating to the deployment of the humanitarian protection force, and the forced resignation of Mohamed Sahnoun. Africa Watch stressed the lack of accountability within the U.N. system as a key reason for the organization's failure in Somalia. Starting in August, Africa Watch has called repeatedly for an independent public inquiry into the conduct of the U.N. in Somalia.

Africa Watch also criticized African leaders for failing to respond adequately to the Somali crisis. The principal Africanreaction has been to try to keep Somali refugees from entering their countries. No African leader has visited Somalia, and the only significant African diplomatic initiative was a mission by the Eritreans in January. The Arab and Islamic countries have also neglected Somalia.

After July, the international media belatedly focused on Somalia. Africa Watch was heavily involved in informing journalists about the nature of the crisis, and trying to correct some misconceptions about the origins of the famine and the role of the international community. Africa Watch argued that any international reaction that ignored the contribution of Somalis to the resolution of conflict and the relief of distress was likely to impair the chances for future recovery.

In August, Africa Watch visited Yemen to investigate the abuses suffered by the 60,000 Somali refugees there, both in their attempts to reach Yemen by boat, and in their treatment by the Yemeni authorities on their arrival. A 30-minute documentary based on the trip was shown on British television.

Africa Watch is working on a report on the impact of land mines in northern Somalia.

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