Month after month, the world looked at television pictures of starving children, too weak to stand on stick-like legs, eyes glazed by approaching death. Month after month, the world watched anguished mothers rocking on their haunches under a blazing Somali sun, too dehydrated to shed tears for the dead and bloated babies they clutched in their arms. Relief agencies raised money to airlift food.
But much of the food, stolen by roving thugs in the hire of feuding warlords, never got to the hungry legions clustered on the impoverished East African nation’s plains and high plateaus. Finally, last week, the world had had enough: the United Nations Security Council voted to send an army, predominantly American, to protect food and medicines and ease Somalia’s horror. Said President George Bush: “We will not tolerate armed gangs ripping off their own people.”
The decision by the Security Council was unanimous, historic—and perhaps proAwaiting aid
phetic. It marked the first -
time in its 47-year life that the world body agreed to dispatch combat troops uninvited into a sovereign state with orders to shoot anyone trying to interfere with a purely humanitarian mission. And even as the vanguard of 1,800 heavily armed United States Marines prepared to secure the port and airfield in the capital of Mogadishu, there was speculation that Somalia may be the forerunner to similar actions elsewhere. Hundreds of civilians, caught between warring factions, are being killed every day in the wreckage of the former Yugoslav republics and in the West African state of Liberia, while the shakiness of a truce in Cambodia threatens that Southeast Asian state with a return to civil war. For decades, blue-helmeted UN troops from Canada and other countries have had neither the numbers, the arms nor the mandate to deal with threats to the peace they were assigned to preserve in far-flung parts of the globe.
The degree to which the UN role may change
was illustrated on Dec. 4 in Ottawa when government and military officials announced that up to 900 Canadian troops would join the 28,000-member U.S. force being sent to Somalia as part of Operation Restore Hope. External Affairs Minister Barbara McDougall said that the Canadian action would help end “the appalling suffering of the Somali people.” The mission, added Gen. John de Chastelain, chief of the Canadian Defence Staff, was to put an end to “the current circumstances under which humanitarian aid is being both blocked from being delivered to the right people and being plundered by armed gangs.” To that end, elements of the Canadian Airborne Regiment and the Royal Canadian Dragoons will be equipped with heavy machine-guns, mortars, armored personnel carriers and armored fighting vehicles when the main force deploys in Somalia in January. Said de Chastelain: “I would not want Canadians to think that there is no possibility of casualties. There is.” Retired
U.S. Gen. Thomas Kelly, who was a Pentagon spokesman during the Gulf War, estimated the danger as “two on a scale of 10.”
How long the Canadian and American peacemakers remain in Somalia before giving way to a peacekeeping force was unclear. McDougall said Canadian soldiers would stay for no more than a year. And although Bush said he wanted U.S. troops withdrawn by Jan. 20, the day that president-elect Bill Clinton—who supported the action—assumes office, Defence Secretary Richard Cheney said that it may not be possible to turn the country over to UN peacekeepers that soon. Said Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff: “It’s sort of like the cavalry coming to the rescue, straightening things out for awhile, and then letting the marshals come back to keep things under control.”
Meanwhile, reaction to the prospect of the UN as enforcer—and not just peacekeeper— was generally favorable. In New York, Kenneth Roth, deputy director of Human Rights Watch, said that for the past year his organization had wanted “some sort of armed protective force to permit the voluntary relief efforts that are under way to proceed without inhibitions by the warlords.” The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been feeding more than one million Somalis, reported that supply shortages had forced it to cut in half the number of meals it serves. And in Rome, Pope John Paul n, in an apparent reference to Somalia, told a UN hunger conference that the world must intervene wherever factional fighting leads to starvation. Said the pontiff: “Wars between nations and internal conflicts should not condemn defenceless millions to die of hunger for selfish or partisan reasons.”
But in the self-immolating republics that once made up Yugoslavia, civilians continued to die last week and Brig.-Gen. Adnan Abdelrazek, the Egyptian commander of 1,400 UN troops in the besieged Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, said that the world organization’s humanitarian mission there had become hopeless. Said Abdelrazek: “We are not making any progress. This situation is deteriorating. All our efforts here to save lives and restore utilities have completely failed.” He said that the international community should set a one-month deadline before using military force to stop the fighting.
In the arid wasteland of Somalia, the UN is now set to test that new approach to humanitarianism that may well offer real, if distant, hope for the survivors in Yugoslavia and other victims of conflict. Bush has often been mocked by critics, who protested that his promised dawn of a “new world order” in the wake of the UN-sponsored, U.S.-led military campaign that drove Iraq from Kuwait has never amounted to more than rhetoric. In the twilight of his presidency, Bush and the rest of the world may be contemplating a newly invigorated United Nations that is prepared to settle for nothing less.
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