Somalia: the tools of the international community

by Gian Luca Burci

Chiara Giorgetti devotes a good part of her book to the reactions of the international community, and the tools available to it, with regard to the lack of a functioning government in Somalia since 1991 and the consequent ripple effects that the failure of functioning governance there has produced on other countries.  The example she gives of the management of Somali airspace by UNDP and ICAO is particularly interesting and instructive about the tools available to the international community, in particular through international organizations.  The United Nations then attempted, with very mixed success, to establish a form of international protectorate under Chapter VII of the Charter.  The experience of UNOSOM shows the potential but also the limits of international action in the case of a failed state.

Besides the case studies in Chiara’s book, I would like to add a couple of examples from my involvement in UNOSOM’s deployment while working at the UN legal office, and from my current job in the WHO legal office.  When the Security Council authorized the initial non-Chapter VII deployment of UNOSOM in 1992, in the absence of a central government the UN secured the approval of the main factions controlling Mogadishu and used them as the legal basis for the deployment of the operation in lieu of the approval of a government representing Somalia internationally.  Whereas other peace-keeping operations have had to deal with de facto authorities for the discharge of their mandates (e.g. Bosnian Serbs or Turkish Cypriots), this is to my knowledge the only case when the UN entirely dispensed with the approval of a sovereign government as the legal basis for the deployment of a peace-keeping operation.  In terms of the management of health risks that could spread internationally, WHO has been concerned with the possible importation of wild poliomyelitis virus into Somalia and its spread to the rest of the region due to the collapse of a functioning health system.  Since the current UN security phase in most of Somalia makes the deployment of WHO staff impossible, the Organization had to be creative and work around those obstacles in order to pursue its primary objective of finally eradicating polio.  One way has been to stretch the use of consultancy contracts as a form of retainer for local officials (doctors, nurses, teachers, civil servants) who perform polio surveillance functions within their communities on a part-time basis.  These persons then meet periodically at a sub-regional level and report their findings which are communicated to the WHO office in Nairobi.  By doing so, WHO has managed to retain indirectly a presence in Somalia to at least monitor a possible resurgence of polio in that country.

As noted by Chiara, the revised International Health Regulations (IHR) offer additional tools to address the problem of the lack of an accountable and functioning government for the prevention and control of the international spread of disease.  The IHR, for example, allow WHO to take into account and use information about the sanitary situation in a country coming from sources other than its government.  Those sources can be other international organizations, NGOs or even individuals and WHO uses them to assess and communicate health risks with a potential for international spread.  The lack of a central government would hinder WHO in seeking verification of information coming from non-governmental sources, as also prescribed by the IHR, but it could at least inform neighbouring countries about a potential health risk coming from inside Somalia and enable them to adopt surveillance and response measures.

At a more extreme level, the interaction between health emergencies and international security offers possible tools to react to grave international health risks coming from a failed/failing state.  It should be recalled in this connection the proposals and recommendations made by the group of experts convened by Secretary-General Kofi Annan and who analyzed the broadening meaning of international security in the report of 2005 “in Larger Freedom”.  The panel did not hesitate to recommend that, in case of unwillingness or inability of a state to take urgent measures necessary to control deadly infectious diseases with pandemic potential, the threat of such a situation to international security would justify the Security Council in using Chapter VII to request urgent sanitary measures or even to authorize international intervention to address the health situation inside that country.  The rationale of a military intervention to vaccinate or treat civilian populations can be questioned, but the growing interlinkage between health and security certainly gives the international community additional tools to address the consequences of state failure.

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