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Somalia Called 'World's Most Neglected Crisis'
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 3 2008 - A leading humanitarian group is calling for the United Nations Security Council to take additional measures to help about 1 million Somalis who have been rendered homeless by the ongoing armed conflict in their country.
In releasing a new report this week, the U.S.-based Refugees International (RI) called Somalia "without a doubt the most neglected crisis in the world today" and said "the immense gap between the level of need and the corresponding humanitarian response is striking."
The group urged the United Nations to carry out any peacekeeping operations in the strife-torn country with "extreme caution," adding that the civilian population is becoming increasingly vulnerable to the devastating impact of bloody violence.
In its report, entitled "Proceed with Caution," RI also raised some serious questions about Washington's role in the conflict and demanded the U.S. Congress investigate why the United States decided to provide military aid to Ethiopia, whose troops are currently bogged down in urban conflict in Somalia.
The recent troubles in Somalia started after troops from neighboring Ethiopia entered its territory over a year ago. The Ethiopian intervention was avowedly aimed at helping the fragile transitional government of Somalia oust militant Islamists from much of southern part of the country.
More than a year later, the Ethiopian forces are still fighting in Somalia in what is being called an "occupation" by some, and they have been accused of gross human rights violations, including the indiscriminate killing of civilians and shelling of entire neighborhoods.
The report's authors said there is "a staggering scale of need" for the displaced people, as malnutrition rates for children under five have become "alarmingly high." UN estimates suggest that since January nearly 60,000 people have fled the Somali capital Mogadishu, most as a result of "search and sweep" operations conducted by the government of Somalia and the Ethiopian military against the Eritrea-based opposition groups.
RI says its members have spoken to some of the 200,000 civilians who have settled on the road to Afgooye, a village approximately 20 miles west of Mogadishu. That area is now the most densely populated settlement of internally displaced people in the world.
"Somalis perceive the United States as supporting the Ethiopian presence and the reprehensible behavior of Ethiopian troops in their country," said RI's Patrick Duplat. "The heavy-handed bombing of individual targets in Somalia and other military actions fuels this anti-American sentiment."
Duplat and his colleagues think that by condemning human rights abuses and holding the Ethiopian military accountable for their actions, the United States can go a long way towards defusing tensions in the Horn of Africa.
"We hope that Congress will investigate the military support that was provided to Ethiopian forces," Duplat added in a statement.
The RI report also focuses on the feasibility of a peacekeeping force in Somalia and highlights the current political culture in Somalia as an impediment to progress.
The group says its activists have interviewed a number of local Somalis who view the transitional government as an illegitimate regime imposed by foreign forces.
Abusive behavior by security forces and the Ethiopian military further erodes support, according to RI. Under these circumstances, the report argues that a peacekeeping force is unlikely to fill the security vacuum, protect civilians, or allow for the safe delivery of humanitarian aid.
The report urges the UN Security Council to seriously consider Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's own assessment that the deployment of peacekeepers in Somalia can only succeed when there is a peace to keep.
"The United Nations risks repeating the mistakes it made in the early 1990s. The Security Council is considering a peacekeeping force without sufficient discussion over whether this is a viable solution to the ongoing crisis in Somalia," said RI peacebuilding advocate Erin Weir.
"Peacekeepers should only be deployed if minimal political benchmarks are met," according to Weir, "and if UN member states are willing to provide the troops, equipment, and mandate to confront armed resistance and address the root political causes of the Somali conflict."
The report's authors note that senior UN staff have been unable to go to Mogadishu for months and argue that its officials based in the Kenyan capital Nairobi are often "out of touch with the fast changing realities on the ground."
Somali family displaced by fighting between the Union of Islamic Courts and the Ethiopian-backed Somali government; January 2007. © Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
On Tuesday, two UN staffers in southern Somalia were kidnapped at gunpoint, which, according to RI, clearly indicates how difficult and dangerous it has become to operate in Somalia. However, the humanitarian group seems fully convinced that there is a need for further expansion of UN staff in the country.
On Wednesday, Dumisani Kumalo, the South African ambassador to the United Nations and and current president of the UN Security Council, told reporters the Council has received several letters from human rights organizations calling for the establishment of an international commission of inquiry into abuses in Somalia.
Kumalo said the Council was considering moving the UN Political Office on Somalia back to the country and setting up a security force comprised of "a coalition of the willing."
Kumalo told reporters that the Council was considering a proposal to visit Somalia and some other strife-torn African countries. He said the "security people" have proposed that, instead of going to Somalia, the mission should go to Kenya. He said he disagreed with this proposal.
"If the Secretary General could go to Iraq, the Council could go to Mogadishu," he said. "It would send the wrong signal to the Somali people, if the Council mission landed in Kenya."