Somalia As The Paramount Example Of A Failed State

by Chiara Giorgetti

Between 1998 and 2000, I worked in Somalia for the UN Development Program. This experience very much informs my view on how international system deals (or does not) with state failure.

As it is known, Somalia has been without a functioning government for the past 20 years. And Somalia is often referred to as the main example of State failure. In the absence of a viable government, Somalia has become the center of a civil war as well as source of regional and international instability. Somalia is the center of arms, drugs and human smuggling, it is the host of active al-Quaeda cells and its training camps; Somali pirates attack international shipping off its coasts, and Muslim radicals control significant part of the territory. Somalia is also one of the poorest countries in the world. Life expectancy reaches slightly above 47 years of age. Famine struck its population, the great majority of which has been internally displaced for many years or has left the country all together.

Although, as Burci rightly says “there is no other case quite like this” the study of Somalia and how the international community has acted towards it is quite instructive. Several UN agencies and NGOs are active in Somalia and their activities provide de facto several basic goods and services that would normally be provided by state authorities. This includes basic education and health care.  However, the international community has not (and could not because of the lack a univocal approach) comprehensively taken action in Somalia. There is an attempt to provide the bear minimal standards to domestic population, but there is no overall strategy. Verdirame correctly notes that the practice of international organizations and states, albeit idiosyncratic, has not been one of complete inaction.

Interestingly, the international community has been quite resourceful in two situations which are at the core of the functioning of the international aviation system and to maintain international security.

First, it has taken charge of managing the airspace of Somalia, which extends from the territory of Somalia to the Seychelles and is one of the main routes to go from Africa to Asia and from Northern to Southern Africa. During the UN peacekeeping operations in the early 90’s, UNOSOM was mandated to secure all ports and airports for the delivery of humanitarian assistance. It thus agreed with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) that the later would provide civil aviation functions, including in the airspace of Somalia. When UNOSOM left, this arrangement continued and the airspace of Somalia is still now managed by the UNDP and ICAO together. The United Nations in this case assumed the role of caretaker of a specific internal matter of a State. The absence of such mechanism would have severe consequences for the safety of the air space and would significantly disrupt air traffic. It is therefore a correct and important decision. One wonders, however, if such mechanisms should be institutionalised and not resolved on an ad hoc basis.

The international community has demonstrated a similar political will in its effort to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia. The safety of territorial and maritime borders is paramount for order and stability of the international community. The interest and relevance of Somali maritime borders has resulted in unique actions by the United Nations. As such, the fight against piracy in Somali waters is a particularly relevant example of possible actions the international community has recently been ready to take to address this problem. Piracy in the territorial waters of Somalia and in the high seas off the Somali coast has been a problem for many years. Several ships have been hijacked for ransom, even while attempting to deliver food aid to Somalia. Commercial shipping has also been targeted, including from the US and Egypt. On June 2, 2008, after extensive deliberation, the UN Security Council issued a unique Resolution – 1816 (2008) – in which it decided to allow foreign military ships to enter Somali waters to repress piracy under specific conditions. A second Resolution was approved by the Security Council on 7 October 2008 which further extends the mandate of foreign forces. The Security Council called upon State “whose naval vessels and military aircraft operate on the high seas and airspace off the coast of Somalia to use on the high seas and airspace off the coast of Somalia the necessary means, in conformity with international law, as reflected in the Convention, for the repression of acts of piracy.”The initial mandate has been renewed and several naval vessels and military aircrafts are now present and active in the Gulf of Aden, including vessels from NATO, the US, the EU, Russia, as well as a combined international force (CTS-150).

These examples are important and demonstrate the ability and willingness by the international community to act to protect its common interests and security. For other matters, however, a common approach has not been found and domestic populations continue to suffer. Moreover, what possible actions can be taken in situations of health emergencies or environmental crises in failed and failing states?  WHO, UNICEF and other international organizations have developed interesting mechanisms to resolve and address emergencies. These include the New International Health Regulations and extensive monitoring and reporting structures. They may provide an interesting blueprint to address emergencies in failed and failing states.

2 Responses

  1. The UN was rather heavily and directly involved in Somalia for a short time, not only with securing the air and seas, but with the distribution of food aid. That was a learning experience as it escalated into a mess, which is why international peacekeepers aren’t so directly involved anymore. History of resolutions, which outline the escalation quite directly in the language:
    1. First, UNSCR 751 and 767: Initiation of Operation Provide Relief to deliver humanitarian aid.

    2.Next, UNSCR 794: Operation Restore Hope, permitting all necessary means to create a secure environment to deliver the aid.
    3. Next, UNSCR 814, broadens mission to political reconcilitation, disarmament, and nationbuilding…
    4. (eventually) Directs UNOSOM to take all necessary means to bring those responsible to justice….yadda, yadda.
    When the first attempts to distribute food aid were made in Somalia, it was in a state of anarchy and internal clan rivalries. Over a dozen different factions wished for control. Eventually, guns were more abundant than food and the people started to starve. Troops were sent in to reopen the supply lines so the people could eat. Initially, Aidid welcomed our intervention, since he believed we would side with him, so we established headquarters in Mogadishu (his turf). However, our presence led to more of a potential that he and his thugs would be disarmed, so his chief rival, Mahdi, worked to obtain political advantage through us. Tensions grew, and we were sucked into choosing sides.
    Somalis came to view U.S. and UN forces as participants in their war, as the rival factions continued to fight and try to use our occupation and pit us against each of them. Relief organizations’ supplies were plundered by the warlords. Aidid portrayed himself as the aggrieved party, and his stature was raised, as he launched a low-intensity guerrilla war against our presence. Meanwhile, our forces (and the UN) were funding the warlords because every cab they took, every place they stayed, and everything they bought, went into the warlords’ coffers to buy weapons. Every working citizen and business owner was under control of the warlord mafia. Rather than providing relief, UN forces escalated the violence and provided weapons funding.

  2. I am a bit uncomfortable with the use of the word “failed” states because there is a sense of permanence to that status that history simply has shown is not the case.  Take Uganda under Idi Amin as compared to now.

    I am wondering if when we are talking about

    ‘the prolonged implosion of governmental structures and the ensuring incapacity of the government to provide political goods to its internal and external constituencies’

    we should speak in terms of levels of dysfunctionality of the state as opposed to failure.  It focuses our attention on the functions that are not being met and the solutions to addressing those functional deficiencies.

    I sense with failed a “paternal’ even “neo-colonialist” vision or weight to the words that is problematic.


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