Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Famine and war in Somalia

To little media fanfare, Human Rights Watch has released a report on war crimes in Somalia (PDF). It serves to highlight not only the plight of people in the country, caught up in civil war, but also the hypocrisy of the international community's bleeding hearts.

The report lays blame on all sides of the ongoing conflict for abuses. This includes the Islamist group al-Shabaab, the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the African Union peacekeeping forces (AMISOM), and Kenya- and Ethiopia-backed Somali militias. In the fighting in the capital, in particular, all sides have used artillery in an unlawful manner and the civilians have borne the brunt of the fighting. There are also reports of widespread abuse and a lack of human rights protections by both sides.

As the battles and their crimes rage on, Britain's international development secretary Andrew Mitchell has warned that up to 400,000 children could starve to death if action is not taken. This follows on from Hilary Clinton a few weeks back urging al-Shabaab to allow aid into its territory. On the surface, these pleas would seem to tie in with HRW's demand that "all sides need to take urgent steps to stop these unlawful attacks, let in aid, and end this humanitarian nightmare." However, this notion is quickly belied by the fact that the US and United Nations support the TFG, who "have committed serious rights violations, including widespread arbitrary arrest and detention, restrictions on free speech and assembly, and indiscriminate attacks harming civilians."

Further than that, it is the US and UN who have been denying aid to those within the al-Shabaab territory. Only last month, development agency USAid said that Unicef and the World Food Programme "can use our assistance in any part not under al-Shabaab control." Which leaves 60% of the country and 2.8 million people without access to aid. It was the same two years ago, when the World Food Programme's aid for mothers and malnourished children was shut down on the grounds of "supporting a terrorist organisation."

There are legitimate humanitarian concerns in Somalia, including in the conduct of al-Shabaab. As HRW reports, people in their territory face "floggings and summary executions, including public beheadings" as well as "depriv[ing] inhabitants under its rule of badly needed humanitarian assistance, including food and water, and prevent[ing] people from fleeing to safer areas." However, to presume that these are the reasoning behind Western intervention - or that the solution is to starve out one ruling faction in favour of another - is naive in the extreme. Not only for the cynical operation of aid by the US, but also for the country's previous role in the country.

The United States supported dictator Siad Barre, more than $700 million in military and economic aid to his harsh regime until 1989. After the revolution and the outbreak of civil war, the US intervened in Operation Gothic Serpent, which led to the disastrous Battle of Mogadishu. Then, as now, the concern was the strategic value that the area holds for sea and air trade routes.

Now, the US is again preparing for military intervention in the region. But as the official narrative is fed out about the humanitarian mission in Somalia, we should note that an honest assessment offers no "good guys" in this conflict. In the words of Human Rights Watch, "you don't know who to blame."