Somalia: an accountability-free zone?
by Robert Maletta, Oxfam Novib October 2008

After over a decade of relative obscurity, Somalia is, once again, on the radar screen of the international community, but for all the wrong reasons. After the departure of UNOSOM in 1995 and a retreat into the shadows, Somalia is now being described with such superlatives as ‘the world’s worst humanitarian crisis’, ‘the most dangerous place for aid workers to operate’, ‘the site of the world’s largest concentration of IDPs’ and so on. This negative press has forced the international community into a bout of collective hand-wringing, but little else. Millions of Somalis – some 2.6 million, at the time of writing – require emergency assistance, but until a political solution to the crisis is found, the downward spiral will continue, complicated by a dramatic rise in insecurity and threats to humanitarians as they attempt to gain access to affected populations.

Somalia’s slide into renewed notoriety began two years ago, when media coverage gathered momentum with the installation of the Council of Islamic Courts (CIC) – a home-grown confederation of Shariacourts. In the first half of 2006, the Mogadishu warlords attempted to dislodge the CIC, but were in turn chased from the city after months of fierce fighting. With the temporary end of warlord control, roadblocks were dismantled, and people could walk the streets in relative safety. The internationally recognised Transitional Federal Government (TFG), formed following a peace process in Kenya the previous year, remained outside the capital, unable to establish the foundation for a viable government.

This state of affairs was not to last. In December 2006, following statements that the courts might be harbouring terrorists, Ethiopian forces allied with the TFG swept through Somalia, retaking territory and arriving in Mogadishu. Attempts to establish control of Mogadishu led to bloody street battles between TFG and Ethiopian forces and a spectrum of armed opposition groups. For aid agencies, this was the beginning of a slow-motion humanitarian disaster of the first order, and a total rethinking of how to operate in Somalia. In addition, a new paradigm would undermine accountability and fuel impunity – the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

Humanitarianism bound

In December 2006, the installation of the TFG in Mogadishu was seen by the United Nations and donors as a chance to bring peace to Somalia. In January 2007, the UN Humanitarian and Resident Coordinator stated: ‘The international aid community must take immediate advantage of the window of opportunity that now exists in Somalia by substantially re-engaging in the capital’. For some NGOs this was uncomfortably close to instrumentalising aid for political ends.

In the following weeks, the use of heavy weaponry by warring parties in the city’s densely populated neighbourhoods tore Mogadishu apart. More than 400,000 people were displaced, and up to 1,300 killed. At about this time, the political and aid policies of the international community parted ways. Donor funds were supporting a political agenda that was seen to be driving a massive urban conflict. At the same time, funds from these same actors were being channelled to aid agencies to pick up the pieces. Such dissonance led to a warning that the European Commission could be complicit in the commission of war crimes. As the conflict raged on, there were reports of massive human rights violations. From March to May 2007, mortar, artillery and tank shells flew and the carnage mounted.

After consultations with field offices, a carefully crafted statement was signed by international NGOs urging a cessation of hostilities, condemning war crimes, appealing for access and making other demands based upon humanitarian principles. Some agencies also began to call for all actors to be accountable to international and human rights law, as well as to good donorship principles. Meanwhile, as Somali civil society came under increased pressure, with threats, assassinations and arrests, international NGOs called for the protection of ‘civic space’. In at least one case, when challenged by political actors in the international community, perpetrators stopped their harassment of a local NGO.

Calls for increased accountability were initially downplayed by political actors in the international community and external political support for the TFG continued, despite the escalating conflict and a stalled political process. At the same time, splits seemed to emerge within the UN between its humanitarian agencies and its political and development offices. Different mandates seemed to create divergent policies on how to engage with Somalia in the humanitarian, recovery and security sectors. The then Humanitarian and Resident Coordinator, a UNDP Representative, proved unable to mediate the competing priorities of his mixed role, leading some NGOs to doubt the ability of the UN HC/RC to robustly represent humanitarian concerns. Within donor governments, political and aid officials talked to each other as if they inhabited two different worlds when it came to understanding what was happening in Somalia. The result was a political disconnect with the humanitarian realities on the ground. Some officials, while concerned and sympathetic, privately acknowledged that a broader agenda, namely the GWOT, was driving the political process. As the international political community pushed to establish a national authority in Somalia, the opposition regrouped and stepped up its attacks. Renewed fighting, and the security sweeps that followed, triggered several waves of displacement, either into the surrounding countryside or to other areas within the city. Memories of the bombardments of previous months led people to vote with their feet, and in massive numbers: at the time of writing, it is estimated that at least 750,000 people – between two-thirds and three-quarters of Mogadishu’s residents – have fled the city.

In late October 2007, as the crisis deepened, 40 national and international agencies signed a press release setting out the seriousness of the crisis and their inability to deliver adequate aid because of insecurity. They also called on political actors to step up their diplomatic efforts. Subsequently, NGO and UN humanitarian representatives were invited to ad hoc meetings to advise international political officials on how they could best assist agencies in opening up access to people in need. Previously, donors had challenged humanitarian reports of the scale and seriousness of the crisis. Now, the tone was different. With 40 agencies jointlydeclaring a disaster, they could not be ignored. This was reinforced by the willingness of the new UN Special Representative, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, to call for accountability and highlight the deteriorating situation. Another statement, signed by 44 NGOs, was released in late March 2008, in time for a UN Security Council meeting on Somalia.

Despite these efforts little has changed, except that people continue to be displaced, violence against women continues, access is even more difficult, the environment is more lethal and impunity reigns. No political solution has been found, even though the UN Special Representative has been trying his best to retrieve the situation and to bring a measure of coherence to the international political response. While there is cautious optimism that the opposition and the TFG might be brought together, past history means that many within the NGO community are planning for the worst.

Somalia: an accountability-free zone?

History has shown that outsiders engaged in Somalia do not make themselves accountable, nor are they held accountable by others. Ever since the Cold War, Somalia has been an ‘accountability-free zone’, with donors, businesses, aid agencies and freebooters playing out their agendas, and with plenty of self-interested Somali gatekeepers willing to indulge them. Unprincipled engagement with Somalia has contributed significantly to the humanitarian collapse we are now seeing. What are lacking at this time are transparent, consistent and even-handed measures which can be applied to everyone to make them accountable to the one constituency that has to date been ignored – ordinary Somalis.

Words like ‘accountability’ and ‘end to impunity’ have now entered the vocabulary of international discourse. Yet measures to enforce these calls are still weak, and much work needs to be done to move beyond statements of principle. Despite advocacy and growing concern around Somalia, the situation continues to deteriorate, with no clear political solution or relief in sight, and no visible improvement on the ground for affected Somalis, or for the aid agencies trying to reach them. In the interim, NGOs are attempting to implement measures to protect civilians, while access slips away from them. The political community must realise that it has a role to play in supporting agencies’ efforts. It must hold all actors accountable for their actions; otherwise protection measures will be undermined by anyone who feels they can act with impunity. Without this overarching framework regulating behaviour and curbing excesses, humanitarian assistance (without a viable political solution) will be nothing more than a bandage for a broken bone.

Robert Maletta, J.D. is Policy Advisor for Oxfam Novib in Nairobi, Kenya. Oxfam Novib, based in the Netherlands, is the lead agency within Oxfam International on advocacy and humanitarian response for Somalia.