Sunday, December 23, 2007

Who might broker the conflict in Somalia?

Julie W., a graduate student in Global Affairs at New York University researching conflict assessment for her Master's Degree in Global Affairs, stumbled onto this blog three weeks ago and e-mailed me a set of four thought-provoking questions about Somalia's future (she has clearly done her homework!). Julie gave me permission to post her questions and my replies, which I'll do in this and three successive posts. If other readers wish to comment, I hope they'll do so, and I'm sure Julie will welcome them as well.

Here's Julie's first question:

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in early November that he felt that deploying a UN peacekeeping mission to Somalia was not a viable option because of the current security situation. He suggested that the small African Union force being deployed was the most that could be expected in the near term. Given that, what role do you think that the international community could legitimately play in helping to resolve the conflict in South-Central Somalia, given that most of the major international and regional players seem to have already taken sides, either with the Transitional Federal Government or with the opposition? Is there anyone that the parties to the conflict would view as an honest broker?

. . . and my response:

Although the Secretary General's view of Somalia is discouraging, it's hardly surprising. Right now, Ban Ki-moon's attention is focused on and the task of persuading the Sudanese government to allow in the 20,000-person force the Security Council has authorized to reinforce the African Union's small contingent there. Besides, he surely recognizes that any U.N. peacekeeping role in Somalia would have to be authorized by the Security Council and therefore blessed by the US government, whose support for the Ethiopian invaders has been disruptive rather than peaceable.

As for the African Union, Burundi was supposed to send a contingent to reinforce the luckless 6,000 troops sent in by Uganda some six months ago, but as far as I'm aware, hasn't gotten around to doing so yet. Bujumbura has no doubt noted the difficulty Uganda's forces have had and the number of losses they've suffered in trying to pacify the situation. I seriously doubt that any other AU state (or anyone else, for that matter) will be willing to take on the task either, so long as there is no sign of a peace to keep in Somalia.

Brokering a truce is another matter. As you suggest, it's not easy to find a potential broker who isn't already identified as biased in favor of one side or the other. Much earlier on, the U.S. might have been -- and should have been -- helpful in identifying such a broker and promoting serious negotiations between (or among) the parties; but that opportunity is long since past, wiped away by Washington's incredibly foolish support for the Ethiopian invaders. For their part, the Europeans are viewed with suspicion by the Islamists because of their early support for the Transitional Federal Government, while the Arab governments are mostly suspected by the Ethiopians of supporting and arming the "radicals" in both Somalia and Eritrea.

If I were in a position to do so, I'd look to the Scandinavians -- especially the Norwegians -- who from early on have played a remarkably even-handed role behind the scenes, especially in channeling badly needed humanitarian aid to the thousands of victims of this foolish conflict. They have managed somehow to stay very well-informed of the tortured developments in this tangled situation, generally without raising hackles or making enemies of any of the parties. (BTW, if you're not already familiar with "Africa News Update," an excellent current events newsletter put out by the Norwegian Council for Africa "as a counterweight to traditional western news agencies" [their quote], you might check it out at . I regard it as an excellent source.)

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