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Somalia comment from Chief Executive

  • Published

    12 December 2008
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Asha has won the Right Livelihood Award for… “continuing to lead at great personal risk the female participation in the peace and reconciliation process in her war-ravaged country.”

A time for celebration? Yes, but also a time to avoid repeating the same mistakes in Somalia, argues Carolyn Hayman

Let’s rewind just a couple of years to Ramadan 2006 and Mogadishu, Somalia, was one of the safest places in the Muslim world. The Islamic Courts had imposed order for the first time in 16 years, opened the port and dismantled roadblocks. Peace came with a cost, but one which the majority of the Somali people seemed prepared to pay.

Then, in one of the most extraordinary decisions of recent years, the UN Security Council sanctioned the invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia, Somalia’s historic enemy. This decision, which the International Crisis Group warned against, licensed armed intervention without any of the accountability mechanisms constraining peacekeeping activity by AU or UN forces.

In the words of Asha Hagi, “We felt as though our country was handcuffed and blindfolded and handed over to the very people who we have been at war with for hundreds of years.”

The impact was catastrophic. A threat of Islamic terrorism, which might have put hundreds of lives at risk, was countered by displacing 1.5m people, half of whom are without adequate food, water and shelter. Civilians are being killed indiscriminately, and there is evidence of torture and ethnic cleansing.

With the 15th peace agreement hanging in the balance, it seems as though the mistakes of the past may about to be repeated. But this time, it’s us – the UK – who have a major hand in the Djibouti peace processes, so this time we can’t blame America if we repeat the same truly shameful errors.

We have to recognise that the invasion was a totally disproportionate response to an Islamist threat. However many lives might have been at risk from a possible terror attack from people possibly in Somalia, it would have been a fraction of the Somali lives that have now been lost in the full scale conflict. Does this mean that Somali lives are somehow less valuable? After all, there are certainly people planning terrorist attacks in the UK, but no-one is suggesting that random bombings on East London or Bradford constitute an appropriate or effective response. Does it make a difference that Somalia is ‘a far off country of which we know nothing’?

As is so often the case, local people were totally sidelined and the decision was made with no reference to what might be in the best interests of the Somali people. They paid a heavy price but had no influence in the decision which was never going to lead to a peaceful outcome. That has been supported by a recent RAND report which suggests that most terror groups end because of operations carried out by local police or intelligence agencies or because they negotiated a settlement with their governments. Military force was rarely the primary reason a terrorist group ended.

By refusing to treat the more moderate Islamists as anything other than ‘the enemy’, we created a situation in which they became just that and now Ethiopia says it will withdraw its troops by the end of the year, raising the very real prospect of a total takeover by Islamist groups.

So, while we celebrate Asha Hagi’s award and her remarkable achievements, we also call on the UK Government to keep focused on Somalia in these critical weeks, to encourage the building of a broad coalition that includes all but the most hardline Islamists. Anyone on the ground will testify that there are no ‘goodies and baddies’ here – only powerful interests who have to be persuaded to sit down together and give Somalia back the peace it nearly had, and then lost, in 2006.


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