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Ratko Mladić: Arrest and Coming Trial – A Step Forward for World Law

In Current Events, Human Rights, International Justice, The Balkan Wars, The Search for Peace, United Nations on May 27, 2011 at 7:23 PM


By René Wadlow

On May 26, 2011, President Boris Tadić of Serbia announced the arrest of General Ratko Mladić, the Yugoslav general become head of the Bosnian Serb forces of Republika Srpska. General Mladić had been charged by the War Crimes Tribunal for ex-Yugoslavia in the Hague for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes and thus should be sent from Belgrade to the Hague to stand trial shortly. General Mladić is particularly charged with commending the 1992-1995 siege of Sarajevo during which much of the city was destroyed and some 10,000 persons killed, often shot by snipers. The genocide charge arises mainly from the killing in July 1995 of some 8,000 Muslim men at Srebrenica which had been declared a neutral safe haven guarded by UN troops.

Mladić had been forced from his position in Republika Srpska after the 1995 Dayton Agreement, largely facilitated by the US envoy Richard Holbrooke. Mladić moved to Serbia and lived mostly in Belgrade, having changed his name. He was arrested at the farm of a cousin some 50 miles north of Belgrade in the Vojvodina area. His arrest and trial was one of the conditions set by the European Union for advancing with negotiations on Serbia joining the EU. Negotiations are now at a serious stage, and the arrest of Mladić was necessary to open the door further. Mladić kept out of sight, but he was not hiding. He had supporters in the Serbian army, police and in certain nationalist political circles. Thus an arrest earlier would not have been worth the political outcries and tensions an arrest might have provoked. Now, when EU membership and the economic future of the country are at stake, his arrest is not a very high price to pay.

Ratko Mladić, here as the Bosnian Serb forces' top general during the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1922-1995).

It is not really satisfaction when one sees those who have betrayed one’s proposals are finally taken down. However, there is a sense of “closure” – a recognition that karma is finally at work. I did not know Ratko Mladić but saw him a number of times in the halls of the Palais des Nations — the European Headquarters of the United Nations (UN). I was in contact with Radovan Karadžić, the political head of the Bosnian Serbs — officially Prime Minister of Republika Srpska. I had been asked to be an advisor to Karadžić on UN procedures when negotiations began in Geneva in 1992. After discussions, I turned down the offer although it would have been a possibility to be a direct participant in the negotiations.

Whatever credibility I had in the Yugoslav conflict came from being a neutral and not linked to one side, although I was generally seen as pro-Serb. My first efforts had been to help Milan Babić, the leader of the Serb enclave in Croatia called Krajina. I had Babić address the UN Commission on Human Rights in February 1991 to warn of the consequences if Yugoslavia broke up. His presentation was filmed and widely shown on Yugoslav TV. I am still convinced that had his warning been taken seriously, things might have been different. However, the Commission on Human Rights was not really equipped to deal with “early warning”, and nothing was done until fighting broke out in June 1991.

Here with then General Ratko Mladić, former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadžić.

In June, Krajina declared its independence from Croatia, calling itself the Republic of Serbian Krajina. Babić was named Prime Minister. From August to December 1991, Serbs from Krajina killed hundreds of Croats and drove some 80,000 from their homes. Ratko Mladić was the head of the Krajina forces at the time and a close co-worker with Babić.

In 1992, Babić was eased out of power by behind-the-scenes pressures by Prime Minister of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, who wanted someone with a less independent character, at which time Mladić left Krajina and went to Bosnia where he had been born.

In 2004 Babić was sentenced to 13 years in prison for war crimes by the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague and shortly afterwards committed suicide.

On July 11, 1995, General Ratko Mladić and his troops stormed the Bosnian Safe Haven of Srebrenica. With the most unwelcome participation of UN peacekeepers there, they secured the place for the Bosnian Serb army and took some 7,000 unarmed Bosnian civilians to their death.

In March 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia, and at the same time, Republika Srpska declared itself independent under the leadership of Radovan Karadžić. Many at the time questioned the wisdom of a unilateral splitting of Bosnia, but Mladić said “The existence of the Republika Srpska may be contested internationally, but the existence of its army cannot be contested. The Republika Srpska exists because we have our territory, our nation, our government and all the attributes of a state. Whether they acknowledge it or not — that’s their problem. The army is the fact.”

A month later, in April 1992, the siege of Sarajevo began with Ratko Mladić in charge of the Serb forces. The siege was to illustrate that a multi-ethnic society could not exist, Sarajevo being the Yugoslav city with the most ethnically-mixed population.

I had been in Belgrade in 1991 at the start of the Yugoslav fighting, just at the time of the fall of Vukovar, the first major battle, to see if NGOs could play any role in conflict reduction. But once the fighting had broken out there was really nothing that NGOs could do to prevent the spread of the conflict. The International Committee of the Red Cross tried, with great difficulty, to maintain some humanitarian efforts, but NGO conflict mediation was not really possible.

In September 1992, with fighting still going on, the Geneva Peace Conference on Bosnia began at the UN headquarters under the co-leadership of Lord David Owen on behalf of the EC and Mr. Cyrus Vance, former U. S. Secretary of State for the UN. Vance later withdrew, discouraged by the lack of progress and was replaced by Thorvald Stoltenberg, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway.

Lord David Owen, Special Representative of the European Community for Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the UN Special Envoy, former U. S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.

Late in 1992, as fighting was increasing and political proposals for the future of Bosnia were bogged down, David Arnott, an English Buddhist who had been working with me on Burma issues and I were the first to propose in the UN Commission on Human Rights and in a text sent to the members of the UN Security Council the creation of a number of security zones or “safe areas” within Bosnia-Herzegovina. I had been working closely with Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a former Prime Minister of Poland, who was the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on ex-Yugoslavia. In his November 1992 Report to the Commission, he had proposed the establishment of a security zone encompassing Sarajevo and its airport in order to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian supplies.

Building on this proposal, in an oral statement of December 1, 1992 to the “Special Session of the Commission on Human Rights devoted to Human Rights in Former Yugoslavia”, I stressed the need to create a larger number of safe havens and emphasized “that the declaration of protected Safe Haven Zones is an interim arrangement with a humanitarian purpose and in no way reduces the urgent and imperative need to find negotiated political solutions.”

Safe havens, called neutralized zones, are provided for in article 15 of the 4th Geneva Convention of August 12, 1949. On October 30, 1992, the International Committee of the Red Cross had proposed that “protected zones be set up for the civilian population at risk, away from combat areas. They would not be intended for the inhabitants of besieged towns for whose protection other solutions should be found, such as a cessation of hostilities.” This was basically a call for protected refugee camps while ours was for “protected cities” since ‘cessation of hostilities’ were not in the cards.

General Sir Michael Rose, the British senior military man who in 1994 served as Commander of the Bosnian segment of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR Bosnia). When the Bosnian Serb army attacked a UN-declared Safe Haven for the first time (that was Goražde in April 1994), General Rose and his UNPROFOR troops stood idle and let the Bosnian Serbs invade the city.

Thus our proposal was not original but rather what was needed for the hour. On April 16, 1993, the UN Security Council proclaimed Srebrenica a safety zone and on May 6 added Sarajevo, Žepa, Goražde, Bihać and Tuzla to the list. Our proposal was quoted by the then Ambassador of Afghanistan, Mr. Farhadi, during the debate on safe havens.

Thus I followed with interest how the safe havens were put into place. Srebrenica had been a middle-sized town of 6,000 prior to the fighting. It had grown to over 70,000 as families left the countryside for the relative safety of the town; infrastructure, however, could not keep up.

In July 1995, the “safe havens” of Žepa and Srebrenica were taken over by the forces led by Ratko Mladić. The UN forces led by soldiers from the Netherlands did not try to resist. A month earlier in June, UN forces had been taken hostage for two weeks but finally were released. Although NATO planes were dropping bombs on Serb positions at the time, it is not clear that any NATO forces would have come to the defense of the Dutch. The UN troops stood by as Mladić separated the women and children from the men. He had his soldiers kill some 8,000 male prisoners and had their bodies put into mass graves.

General Philippe Morillon, the French peacekeeper whose efforts to protect the UN-designated Safe Havens quickly made him a living legend in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

There had been so many violations of the laws of war and human rights in the Yugoslav conflicts, that there was not much public outcry at the time, although Tadeusz Mazowiecki resigned his UN position as Special Rapporteur writing to the UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and making his letter public that his resignation was forced by the “horrendous tragedy which has beset the population of those ‘safe havens’ guaranteed by international agreement…I believe we have a certain hypocrisy as far as Bosnia is concerned when we are claiming to defend it but in fact we are abandoning it. The same goes for hypocrisy about the protection of human rights. I hope that my decision will also be understood as a protest against this hypocrisy.”

The wheels of karma turn slowly. As there is no longer anything at stake, more people today will agree that killing people who thought that they were protected in UN-proclaimed safe havens is not a good thing. There have been no new proposals for safe havens since and thus none has been created. I still think that it was a good idea at the time. Yet I share the observation of Michèle Mercier who had been for a long time part of the International Committee of the Red Cross team in former Yugoslavia “The word most frequently heard in the ranks of humanitarian workers is frustration. Their leaders are powerless to settle by themselves the problems involved with security and they have worn themselves out negotiating and renegotiating with opposite numbers of the most unlikely kind agreements that lose all their meaning before they are reached.” (1)

René Wadlow is Senior Vice-President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

(1)  Michèle Mercier Crimes Without Punishment: Humanitarian Action in Former Yugoslavia (London: Pluto Press, 1995, p. 165)

UN Peacekeeping Forces: Limits and Opportunities

In Conflict Resolution, The Search for Peace, United Nations on May 24, 2011 at 8:40 PM


By René Wadlow


May 29 has been designated by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly as a Day to honor UN Peacekeeping troops. Thus we are reminded that the UN remains the only universally representative and comprehensively empowered body the world has to deal with threats to international peace and security.

Peacekeeping operations have made the UN visible in many parts of the world, and the “blue helmets” have symbolized the peacemaking and conciliation role of the UN. The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the “blue helmets” in 1988 testifies to the respect and confidence placed in them. The UN is the logical choice to provide a framework for multilateral engagement. The UN operates under its Charter which outlines norms of behavior, establishes means for the settlement of disputes and gives sweeping powers to the Security Council under Chapter VII for enforcement of peace. These powers are internationally binding and in many countries, carry the force of domestic laws.

Yet the UN does not have its own peacekeeping forces and must always rely on the goodwill of a relatively small number of Member States to provide soldiers and finance. Often the UN peacekeeping operations are determined not by the situation but by the resources available. In practice, the UN must accept what it can get from any state that offers units. The UN Secretariat is designed to serve its member states and does not have the authority to impose standards on contributing countries — except where UN soldiers break national laws, such as having sexual relations with under-age children.

There are situations which objectively threaten international peace and security, and the maintenance or restoration of order would require police actions, often swift and prolonged. However, for some types of action, the military working for the UN are only relatively trained. Most come from the ex-British Empire: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Nigeria. They share the methods of training of the British Army and speak English. Now China is starting to provide troops with a non-English tradition.

In 1988 the UN Peacekeeping Forces were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

There have been a good number of suggestions that the UN create a “ready response” force of its own that would be on call and would have had special training for the broad tasks which UN troops now undertake. These suggestions have always come up against the “wall of costs” and some fears that the UN would become a “super-state” if ever it had its own forces. The UN Secretariat has established a “standby forces” study group to study equipment compatibility, standardization and shaping national units tasked for multilateral activities. Nothing visible has arisen from these studies, but they may be dusted off in future emergencies.

The ending of the “East-West Cold War” confrontation has seen the proliferation and diversification of UN peacekeeping missions, increasingly complex and difficult to conduct. Yet, “blue helmets” are increasingly called upon not so much to safeguard a peace agreement but to create a situation of peace and to transform earlier relationships, as we see in Darfur, Sudan and the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (basically North and South Kivu).

Sir Brian Urquhart, former UN Undersecretary-general for Peacekeeping Operations. The British diplomat is widely regarded as the father of UN peacekeeping as we know it today.

Currently, there is no such thing as consistency and predictability in UN actions to preserve order. The world is too complex, and UN Security Council resolutions are voted on the basis of national interests and political power considerations. UN “blue helmet” operations have grown both in numbers and complexity. Even with the best planning, the situation in which one deploys troops will always be fluid, and the assumption on which the planning was based may change by the time the force is ready for deployment or even as the force hits the ground.

Policemen, civilian political officers, human rights monitors, electoral officials, refugee and humanitarian aid specialists all play important roles along with the military. To be successful, UN peacekeeping operations need clear objectives, but such objectives cannot be set by the force commanders themselves. Peacemaking forces are temporary measures that should give time for political leaders to work out a political settlement. The parties in conflict need to have a sense of urgency about resolving the conflict. Without that sense of urgency peacekeeping operations can become eternal as they have in Cyprus and Lebanon. There needs to be real international support for UN peacekeeping operations, otherwise there is a danger that they will be overburdened, under-funded and overstretched.

UN Forces do not exist in a vacuum. They are part of world politics. They have limited but crucial roles. UN forces are one element in a peacemakers tool kit, but there needs to be a wide range of peace-building techniques available. It is not enough to say “Support our UN troops”; there must be concerned efforts by both diplomatic representatives and non-governmental organizations to resolve the conflicts where UN troops serve, as in Darfur, in the Congo, in the Middle East.


René Wadlow is Senior Vice-President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

Bahrain and the Defense of Spiritual Liberty

In Current Events, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, Religious Freedom on May 24, 2011 at 11:33 AM


By René Wadlow


In a recent May 14, 2011 Appeal to the Kingdom of Bahrain concerning the systematic destruction of mosques used by the Shi’a citizens who are currently demonstrating for greater liberty and democracy, the Appeal pointed out that the destructions of places of worship is a direct violation of the spirit but also the letter of the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.  The Declaration was proclaimed on November 25, 1981 and began “Considering that one of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations is that of the dignity and equality inherent in all human beings, and that all Member States have pledged themselves to take joint and separate action in co-operation with the Organization to promote and encourage universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.”

The Declaration took nearly 20 years of difficult negotiations to draft.  Preparation of the declaration began in 1962, and the Declaration was proclaimed in November 1981.  Originally, UN negotiators had thought of drafting a single text which would have included the elimination of discrimination based on race, sex and religion.  However, there was too great a diversity of views.  It was easier to deal with the elements separately, all the more so that in the 1960s and 1970s in UN circles “race” was only the Apartheid policy of South Africa which everyone was, at least verbally, against.

Religion and belief were more difficult questions.  The defense of spiritual liberty has been one of the most persistent of struggles, and there is no area of the world that does not have its martyrs to the cause.  The struggle has often been against religious authorities who have wanted to maintain their faith within narrow limits claiming that they alone held the truth.  It is significant that the words “dogmatic”, “sectarian”, and “inquisition” — all arise from the religious vocabulary.  The stoning of the prophets and the auto-da-fe have been the answers of religious authorities — and often ordinary believers as well — to new ideas.  Today, in most parts of the world, religious organizations can no longer put heretics to death.  Now, religious organizations can only try to marginalize those who hold new ideas or to excommunicate them; the inquisition has lost its secular arm.

The Amir Mohammed Braighi mosque before destruction.

If religious organizations are no longer able to put to death heretics, the State has taken over the task of establishing orthodoxy and putting heretics to death.  Although today, governments are the prime agents of repression against the spiritual life, governments are also timidly building the defenses of spiritual liberty.

The Declaration of November 25, 1981 builds upon Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

One of the most difficult areas in drafting the Declaration concerned the rights of the child to have “access to education in the matter of religion or belief in accordance with the wishes of his parents and shall not be compelled to receive teaching on religion or belief against the wishes of his parents or legal guardians, the best interests of the child being the guiding principle.”  The Declaration went on to state that “The child shall be brought up in a spirit of understanding, tolerance, friendship among peoples, peace and universal brotherhood, respect for freedom of religion or belief of others, and in full consciousness that his energy and talents should be devoted to the services of his fellow men.”

The Amir Mohammed Braighi mosque now stands in ruins.

Despite the rather nondramatic title of the Declaration, it is a milestone on the path of spiritual liberty.  Thanks to the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, we who work for a world of understanding and solidarity have a UN text on which to base our efforts to defend spiritual liberty.

The Kingdom of Bahrain which has received support from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the form of tanks and soldiers and from other Gulf States in the form of police, has not yet relied to the AWC Appeal.  It seems that they are preoccupied with arresting people rather than reading UN documents by which to set their standards. However the AWC will continue to remind them of the foundations of world law.

René Wadlow is Senior Vice-President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

Rio Plus 20 – UN Desert Decade

In Current Events, Environmental protection, Solidarity on May 20, 2011 at 8:30 PM


By René Wadlow


The United Nations (UN) Conference on Sustainable Development will take place in Brazil on June 4-6, 2012 to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. Thus the popular name of the upcoming conference: “Rio plus 20”. The Conference will be an opportunity to bring together all the UN-designated efforts underway or the protection and wise use of Nature. As humanity, we are at the mid-point of the UN-designated Water for Life Decade (2005-2015). We are at the start of the International Decade of Deserts and Desertification (2010-2020) and nearly halfway into the UN-designated 2011: Year of Forests.

UN-designated Years rarely make newspaper headlines, and most governments limit themselves to voting for the Year in the UN General Assembly and then go on as before. The designated Year or Decade gives some legitimacy and support to the UN and the UN Specialized Agencies which are already working on the issue. However, successful years are always the result of non-governmental organization (NGO) activities. The most successful UN-designated Year was 1975: The International Year of Women.

In 1975, there were already, worldwide, women’s organizations, often well-structured, and which were prepared to use the designation of the UN Year as a platform to present their work, to network among themselves and to reach out to new partners. Moreover, 1975 fell into a period of intense discussion in Western Europe and the USA on the role of women, on relations between women and men, and what was generally called “consciousness-raising” among women. The emphasis was on the ways – sometimes subtle and often less so – that women were hindered in their full development as persons.

Deserts have no such already-organized supporters. Thus it is more difficult to draw attention to issues of desertification and the livelihood of people living at the edge of deserts. However, there are important issues related to deserts. World citizens are making an effort to highlight the Decade as in the following essay:



By René Wadlow

God created lands filled with water as a place for man to live; and the desert so that he can discover his soul.


The decade 2010 to 2020 has been designated by the UN General Assembly as The International Decade of Deserts and Desertification. It is estimated that dry lands cover approximately 40 percent of the world’s landmass. The Decade marks the efforts begun in 1977 with the UN Conference on Desertification held in Nairobi. The desertification conference was convened by the UN General Assembly in the midst of a series of catastrophic droughts in the Sudano-Sahelian region of Africa. The conference was designed to be the centerpiece of a massive worldwide attack to arrest the spread of deserts or desert-like conditions not only in Africa south of the Sahara but wherever such conditions encroached on the livelihood of those who lived in the desert or in their destructive path. The history of the conference is vividly recalled by James Walls in his book Land, Men and Sand (New York: Macmillan, 1980).

At the conference, there was a call for the mobilization of human and financial resources to hold and then push back the advancing desert. “Attack” may have been the wrong word and “mobilization” too military a metaphor for the very inadequate measures taken later in the Sudano-Sahelian area. In 2010 at the start of the Decade, there are real possibilities of famine in West and East Africa on the edges of the desert. Niger and Mali and parts of Senegal and Chad in the Sahel belt are facing the consequences of serious drought as are parts of northern Kenya and Somalia.

The most dramatic case is that of Darfur, Sudan which partakes of the Sahel drought but which also faces a war in which the conflicts between pastoralists and settled agriculturalists have become politicized. It is estimated that 300,000 have been killed since the start of the war late in 2003. Some two and a half million people have been uprooted. The agricultural infrastructure of homes, barns and wells has been deliberately destroyed. It will be difficult and costly to repair this destruction. The Darfur conflict highlights the need for a broader approach to the analysis and interpretation of active and potential armed conflicts in the Sahel region. This analysis needs to take into consideration the impact of environmental scarcity and climate variation in complex situations.

Earth is our common home, and therefore all, as world citizens, must organize to protect it. It is up to all of us concerned with ecologically-sound development to use the Decade to draw awareness to both the dangers and the promises of deserts. What is the core of the desertification process? The destruction of land that was once productive does not stem from mysterious and remorseless forces of nature but from the actions of humans. Desertification is a social phenomenon. The causes of dry land degradation include overgrazing, deforestation, agricultural mismanagement, fuel wood over-consumption, and industry and urbanization. Thus, by preventing land degradation and improving agricultural practices, action to combat desertification can lead to increased agricultural productivity and alleviate poverty. Humans are both the despoiler and the victim of the process. Increasingly, populations are eking out a livelihood on a dwindling resource, hemmed in by encroaching plantations and sedentary agriculturalists, by towns and roads. Pressure of population upon resources leads to tensions which can burst into violence as we see in Darfur and which spilled over into eastern Chad.

The Sahara (in Arabic, الصحراء الكبرى‎, "Aṣ Ṣaḥrā´ al Kubrā", "The Great Desert" in English) is the world's largest non-polar (hot) desert.

Desertification needs to be seen in a holistic way. If we see desertification only as aridity, we may miss areas of impact such as the humid tropics. We need to consider the special problems of water-logging, salinity or alkalinity of irrigation systems that destroy land each year. The value of UN-designated decades is that the process of identifying major clusters of problems, bringing the best minds to bear on them so as to have a scientific and social substratum on which common political will can be found and from which action will follow.

Desertification is a plague that upsets the traditional balance between people, their habitat, and the socio-economic systems by which they live. Because desertification disturbs a region’s natural resource base, it promotes insecurity. Insecurity leads to strife. If allowed to degenerate, strife results in inter-clan feuding, civil war, cross-border raiding and military confrontation. Yet dry land communities have great resources that can be put to fighting poverty and desertification, provided they are properly empowered and supported.

Only with a lessening of insecurity can cultivators and pastoralists living in or near deserts turn their attention to adapting traditional systems. There can be no reversion to purely traditional systems. But for insecurity to abate, a lengthy process of conciliation must begin and forms of conflict resolution strengthened. People must be encouraged to understand that diversity is a crucial element of ecologically-sound development. Judicious resource management breeds security and an improved quality of life for everyone. We can see what efforts can be made to encourage reforestation and to slow the unwanted advances of deserts.

An overview of global desertification: Now is the time to take action.

The contrast between widespread rural poverty and environmental degradation, on the one land, and the opportunities which can be created on a small scale through community empowerment, access to groundwater and sustainable land management, defines the ideals of the Decade of Deserts. The Decade is not about fighting deserts, it is about reversing land degradation trends, improving living conditions and alleviating poverty in rural dry lands. Thus, the Decade of Deserts can be a decade during which we can learn more of the lives of the people in and on the edge of the deserts.

Deserts can also have a positive image. There is a significant role in the literature and mythology of spirituality – the 40 years in the desert before entering the “Promised Land” of Israel, the 40 days in the desert before starting his mission for Jesus, the life in the desert of the early Christian church fathers. Today, there are an increasing number of spiritual retreats in the desert chosen for its silence and for the essential nature of the landscape. Thus, it is a Decade in which we can all usefully participate.

René Wadlow is Senior Vice President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

Painting by Lona Towsley.

Note: The UN website for the Decade is

Somalia: Signs of Danger

In Africa, Conflict Resolution, The Search for Peace on May 17, 2011 at 10:44 PM


By René Wadlow


            Although Somalia is in a crucial geo-strategic position on the Horn of Africa facing the Arabian peninsula, the country had largely slipped from world attention except for African specialists. The government had disappeared in 1991, proving that people can live without a State if there are sub-State institutions of order and dispute settlement. Thus what order existed was the result of local warlords and clanic chiefs who provided order in very small areas, often only one town and a small area around it. In July 2006, a revitalized Islamic movement — the Union of Shari’a Courts — took control of the capital Mogadishu and in the months following extended its control to much of the country. There was a fear in other countries that Somalia could serve as a base for terrorist activities on the pattern of Afghanistan. On December 6, 2006, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1725 which authorized the creation of a regional African peacekeeping force to enter Somalia. The creation of such a multi-state force under the authority of the African Union seemed unlikely in the near term. The African Union forces are tied up in the Darfur, Sudan conflict. Therefore, Ethiopian troops moved in at the request, it is said, of the Transitional Federal Government. Ethiopia has the best trained and equipped army in the Horn of Africa. The Ethiopian forces quickly defeated the loose coalition of clanic militias which were supporting the Union of Shari’a Courts. On December 28, 2006, Ethiopian troops and representatives of the Transitional Federal Government moved into the capital Mogadishu. Thus an analysis of the background of the conflict in Somalia is merited as the conflict has potentially wider implications.

            As William Zartman points out in his recent book  Cowardly Lions  “In a world scarred by State collapse and deadly conflict, external actors can no longer sit by and watch, mesmerized by the blood on their television screens. Nor can they hide behind the fear of their own casualties or long-term involvement as an excuse for inaction. External engagement is required when it is necessary to protect populations from their rulers and from each other. Such protective engagement is justified for its own sake, for humanitarian reasons, and for preventive security purposes, because these conflicts will continue to destabilize their regions and impose costlier involvement later on… The terrible fact is that in the major cases of state collapse in the post Cold-War era, specific actions identified and discussed at the time could have been taken that would have gone far to prevent the enormously costly catastrophes that eventually occurred… The reason why no action was taken also varies, ranging from loss of nerve to preoccupation elsewhere.” (1)

            The UN General Assembly resolution on Somalia is an indication of a growing consciousness that international action must be taken early in a conflict before positions harden. The longer a conflict lasts, the more likely the parties will harden their positions to justify the costs in lives and money that has gone on before. With the entry of Ethiopian troops into Somalia in support of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the Somalia crisis seems to observers to be at a critical stage when the intensity of the conflict could escalate.  Thus the need for action, although there is no clear view on what action should be taken. The first step to analyze the possibilities of action is to place the Somalia conflict into a historical and sociological framework so that alternative international actions stand out clearly.

An old map of Somalia as a colony of Britain and Italy.

            In 1960, the Somali Republic was created by the union of a British colony and an Italian trusteeship area. The start of European involvement in Somali affairs began in 1902 when Italy, France, and Britain signed a Tripartite Convention that saw the Somalis divided between France taking Djibouti — a potentially important port and the terminal of the railroad to Ethiopia, the British which created Somaliland and also attached a separate area of Somali-speaking people to its Kenya colony, and Italy which created a separate colony of Italian Somaliland. The European powers recognized the expansion of the Ethiopian Empire under the leadership of Emperor Menelik which had taken control of the Ogaden area, inhabited largely by Somalis.

            The British and Italian Somali colonies existed from 1902 until 1945. At the end of the Second World War, the Italian colony was placed under a UN administration as was all of Italy’s former African holdings. From 1945 to 1950, Somalia was governed by UN administrators. By 1950 Italy had regained international respectability and so Italian Somaliland was returned to Italy under a UN Trusteeship Council mandate.

            1960 was a turning point for African independence. Although there was not among the Somalis a strong anti-colonial movement as there had been in North and West Africa, by 1960 both the French and the English believed that the colonial system as it had existed in Africa since the 1880s could no longer continue. There was a systematic granting of independence of the French colonies in 1960 and a drawn out granting of independence to the British colonies. Italy went along with the tide. Thus in 1960, both the UK and Italy granted independence to its Somali holdings and combined the two into the new state of the Somali Republic. However, there was a five day gap between the granting of independence to the UK colony and its integration into a united Somalia. This five-day status of independence now serves as the basis for the independence of the former British colony called again Somaliland, declared in 1991.

The once-united nation of Somalia now stands divided in three separate entities: Somalia proper, Puntland, and Somaliland.

           By and large, the different colonial administrations had little impact on the lives of the Somali populations. The Somalis speak the same language and practice the same forms of Sunni Islam.  The divisions among the Somalis are not tribal but clanic, with clans being followed by sub-clans, lineages, and extended families. Lineage is the most important identity. Thus one has frequent intra-clan tensions as well as inter-clan disputes. The sub-clan and lineage are the core social institutions providing personal identity, mutual support, access to local resources, and the framework of customary law, called xeer in Somali. It has been said that Somalis live in societies with rules but without rulers.

           The pastoral clan organization in Somalia is a fragile system characterized at all levels by shifting allegiances, temporary coalitions and ephemeral alliances. Lineages usually exist for three generations at which time they split and form new lineages. In such a clanic, largely pastoral society, one does not need state institutions to function. Clans are not all equal; some are severely disadvantaged due to their social status and therefore had less access to water and grazing land. There are, however, some people who lived outside the Somali clanic system. There is a small minority on the frontier with Kenya who are agriculturalists and not Somalis.  There are also a small number of urbanized Somalis, especially those living in the coastal cities who no longer followed clanic authority, as well as a small but growing educated bourgeoisie. (2)

            The great majority of Somalis are Muslim. Somali Islam is largely Sufi based with three major Sufi orders: Qaadariya, Saalihiya and Ahmadiya with other smaller groups or followers of particular saintly figures. By and large, the Sufi orders have been non-political, but the best known of the anti-colonial Somali leaders was a member of the S aalihiya order. Sayed Mohammed Abdille Hasan, called by the English “the Mad Mullah” led a 20 year struggle against Ethiopia, Italy and England starting in 1899 against Ethiopia and ending with his death in 1920.  He had been influenced by the earlier Madhi movement in Sudan.

            Sufi Islam is largely non-legalistic, placing a large emphasis on the teachings and lives of local saintly persons. Somali Sufi orders have integrated into the customary law (xeer) certain elements of Shari’a law especially as concerns family law – divorce and inheritance.

            During the last 25 years, and especially since 1991 with the end of state institutions, three other currents of Islam have been present and which are important in the analysis of the current political situation. Somalia is in the orbit of Wahhabist preaching sponsored by Saudi Arabia. This is a conservative, legalistic Islam, part of a wider Salafist movement. The Wahhabist school of thought has a good deal of Saudi money to open schools and medical clinics at a time when state facilities have largely disappeared.  There is a reformist Islamic movement, Al Islah, which is heavily influenced by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and has some contacts within Pakistan. More important politically, there is a more radical At Itihad al Islamiya movement which is willing to use violence to further its aims. These non-Sufi movements are largely limited to larger towns and the few cities, but they have support from outside Somalia. (3)

            The first 10 years of independent Somali political life was largely a reflection of clan and sub-clan reality. The Parliament and the higher administration was structured on clanic reality. Government posts, seats in Parliament and government favors were distributed along clanic lines. The army was the only institution of the state that was not originally structured along clanic lines. Then in 1969, General Mohamed Siad Barre took control of the government.  His ideology was an anti-clanic “scientific socialism” drawn from his limited reading of Soviet philosophy. However, he received support from the USSR, thus bringing Somalia into the Cold War. The Cold War helped to partition Africa into ideological spheres of influence. In order to counter Soviet influence in Somalia, the USA increased its support for conservative Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.

General Mohamed Siad Barre, President of Somalia from 1969 to 1991 and the country's very last head of state.

            Siad Barre, with the help of Soviet advisors, increased the size of the Army and the paramilitary forces. By 1982 there were some 120,000 men in the army with political commissars to develop ideological purity. Unlike the colonial period and the first years of independence during which the rural areas were left alone, Siad Barre extended government control to the rural areas, weakening clanic chiefs. Siad Barre also largely destroyed the independent bourgeoisies; some were jailed, more left the country to work elsewhere.

           Siad Barre, followed by probably the majority of Somali leaders, had a pan-Somali ideology which maintained that those areas of Kenya and Ethiopia where Somalis live should be joined to Somalia. The ideology had already led in the mid-1960s to attacks on Kenya which were quickly pushed back and then a much bloodier 1977-1978 war with Ethiopia in an effort to annex the Ogaden area where most of Ethiopia’s Somalis live. The fighting in Ogaden brought heavy losses to both armies. While Ethiopia pushed back Somali troops, the losses have left deep scars in Ethiopia and a persistent fear of Somali policies.

           At the time of the 1977-1978 Ogaden War with Ethiopia, there was a classic Cold War switch of alliances. A Marxist, Mengistu Haile Mariam, overthrew the emperor of Ethiopia and looked to the Soviet Union for help. In 1978, Siad Barre abrogated the USSR/Somali Treaty of Friendship and turned to the USA for help with weapons and training of the military. As Barre was uninterested in U. S. liberal-democratic ideology, he returned to governing on a clanic basis with members of his lineage, that of his mother and that of his principal son-in-law. His style of government under U. S. influence from 1978 until the end of 1991 ranged from autocratic to tyrannical.

            With the end of the Cold War, neither the USA nor the USSR had much interest in supporting difficult and unpredictable allies. Thus by 1991 both Siad Barre and Mengistu had been forced from power by rebel movements. While Ethiopia, having a long history of a weak but centralized government, was able to re-establish a state structure, Somalia returned to a precolonial structure but with few of the conflict-resolution techniques of precolonial times. Thus, in addition to traditional clanic conflicts over water and livestock, there was a clash between traditional clanic leaders and army officers who had gotten a taste of power under Siad Barre and who now wanted to set up little militarized kingdoms over which to rule.

            The 1960 merger of the Italian and British colonies had been more based on a desire of the Europeans to withdraw than any Somali urge to merge. The former British area reorganized itself after 1992 and took back the name of Somaliland. The Somaliland area is about the size of England with some 3,5 million people. In 1993, Somaliland reintroduced the structures of government: tax, customs, and banking. Somaliland has trade to Arabia and beyond through the busy port of Berbera and is helped by the remittances from the Somaliland disaspora of about one million in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, in East Africa and some in Europe. Somaliland, the former British colony is calm and its administration largely unchanged in Hargeisa, its capital which has become a magnet for displaced middle-class Somalis. However, there is a deep fear among many African governments that if one African state breaks up, many could follow the same pattern. Thus no African government wants to recognize the independent existence of Somaliland, and Europeans and others will not go against the African consensus by recognizing Somaliland.

The flag of Somaliland as a would-be independent state.

            Thus, it is in the former Italian area and its capital Mogadishu where fighting is taking place and where the dangers of increased conflict exists. The following analysis concerns only this former Italian Somali colony.

            Siad Barre was in power from his coup in 1969 until January 1991. When he was forced from Mogadishu, he tried briefly to re-establish control but was finally forced into Kenya.  He died in exile in Nigeria in 1995. Those who had forced Siad Barre from power were never able to reorganize central control of the country, nor even of the former Italian area. The country was divided into small fiefdoms headed sometimes by clan leaders but more often by military officers who had served in the government of General Siad Barre and had gotten a taste for power and the wealth which came within. These “warlords” as they were called carved out fiefdoms which served as a base for the exploitation of confiscated properties; plantations for banana export, the arms trade, and drug trafficking.  Around the warlords are their business allies who run the plantations, make contacts with foreign companies  for banana exports, and especially organize the arms and drug traffics.

            The warlords used the clan and sub-clan organizations among ethnic Somalis to create alliances and build support. However, the warlords are not traditional clan leaders. There have always been conflicts among clans. However the violence in Somalia after 1991 was not caused by clan and sub-clan divisions but was a struggle for power among individuals. Once violence broke out, the clan and especially sub-clans provided a ready-made solidarity group, and old inter-clan disputes were reignited. (4)

            Fighting continued over the control of areas between two fiefs. The result was economic and political chaos, with most people living a day-to-day existence. Many of the youth have been taken into the forces of the warlords but receive no education  and even little military training. There are also independent bandit  bands interested in looting.

            Since governments do not like anarchy, there have been numerous efforts on the part of neighboring countries, in particular Kenya, to help the Somalis create a government. (5) After many failed efforts, there now exists a Transitional Federal Government (TFG) which is recognized by the African Union. The TFG is made up of some clan leaders, some warlords and some persons chosen from urban civil society. However, while people do not have much enthusiasm for a continuation of armed conflicts, there is little enthusiasm for the return of government either. Attitudes of animosity, suspicion, and hostility are dominant. It will have to be seen if the TFG is able to establish control over the country if the Ethiopian troops are withdrawn.

            The Transitional Federal Government is, no doubt, more transitional than federal. Most international mediators have preferred to focus on trying to stabilise Somalia before addressing the Somaliland issue. The TFG has as president Abdullahi Yussuf — a war lord turned president — but its authority was limited to one large town, Baidoa, 200 miles from Mogadishu. Into the political void, Islamic groups that have always been around tried starting in June 2006 to take the high ground. The al-Ittihad al Islaami (Islamic Unity, often called just al-Ittihad) is a loosely structured group which has taken in a few floating Islamic fighters, many of whom had been been in Afghanistan or Pakistan. They see the similarities between the chaos in Somalia and the time after the departure of the Soviets from Afghanistan when the resistance forces were fighting for control among themselves. They hope that with a Taliban-like ideology of “Order and Islam will solve all your problems”, the people would help them come to power to put an end to the divisions among the warlords.

           Most of these Islamist groups have created a loose structure called the Union of Shari’a Courts, sometimes called the Union of Islamic Courts. The current leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys is a former Army colonel as well as a former leader of the al-Ittihad though he claims that the Shari’a Courts have a broader base al-Ittihad. The Union of Shari’a Courts received funds but no troops from Saudi Arabian sources. The line between public and private funds in Saudi Arabia is never clear.

            Ethiopia was the regional state most concerned by the rise of the Shari’a Courts and their potential control of the country.  Ethiopia feared that the Shari’a Courts could revive the pan-Somali ideology as a way of rebuilding national unity and so might again try to join the Somali-populated Ogaden to Somalia. Since the 1977-1978 war, the Ogaden has taken on increased importance to Ethiopia. The area could have large quantities of gas but further exploration is needed to verify the amount and the possibilities to develop the field.

           As Ethiopia is helping the TFG, the Eritrean government angry with Ethiopia for unresolved frontier issues and resentments from the long struggle for independence from Ethiopia has sent some troops to aid the Union of Shari’a courts. Thus the TFG, in the spirit of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is trying to build links with the Eritrean Liberation Front, an armed insurgency against the Eritrean government.

            Kenya also has direct interests in Somalia — Kenya’s northeast province is populated by ethnic Somalis. From 1963 to 1967 there was on-and-off fighting between Somalia and Kenya as part of the then “Greater Somalia” policy. There are also some 135,000 Somali refugees living in Kenya, some of them involved in an active arms trade.

            Into these lands of intrigue, few want to adventure. Some countries, in particular the U. S. government, see the possibility of Somalia turning into a safe haven for al-Qaada networks. Sheikh Aweys of the Union of Shari’a Courts has already been designated as a terrorist by the USA for suspected links to al-Qaada. The USA has some 1,800 troops based nearby in Djibouti specializing in intelligence gathering and counter-terrorism. These U. S. troops are especially active since the 1998 attacks on U. S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam which had been prepared in Somalia. The USA is unlikely to get directly involved, but they sponsored the 6 December 2006 UN Security Council resolution which opens the door to African peacekeeping troops.   

            Once Ethiopian troops moved massively into Somalia in mid-December 2006, the fighting in Somalia was brought to the attention of the UN Security Council. The USA and the UK prevented a resolution calling on all foreign troops to leave the country from being presented. The delay in passing any resolution gave time to the Ethiopian troops to fight the forces of the Union of Shari’a Courts. In fact, the Courts had few foreign forces helping them. In a tightly structured clanic society as Somalia, foreigners, even Muslims, stand out and are not welcome. There is a real risk of betrayal of foreigners who can not be integrated into the protective network of a sub-clan. The Shari’a Courts were able to draw on the militias of some sub-clans, drawing upon clanic loyalties rather than on ideological conviction. The support of these sub-clans melted away once they saw the superior fighting force of the Ethiopian army.  On December 28, Ethiopian troops and representatives of the TFG including Prime Minister Ali Muhamad Gedi and Vice Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Aidid moved into Mogadishu with the top Shari’a Courts leaders going into exile in Yemen.

            It is too early to know if the TFG will be able to consolidate its authority since it is a coalition of clans, warlords and former administrators who have little in common. It is also too soon to know what policy Ethiopia will follow. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has said that the troops will be withdrawn as soon as order is established. But who is to define “order”? It is important that those working for peace from outside Somalia follow developments closely. Somalia requires our constant concern.     



1)      I. William Zartman.Cowardly Lions: Missed Opportunities to Prevent Deadly Conflict and State Collapse (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2005)

2)      I. Lewis. A Pastoral Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991)

3)      I. Lewis. Saints and Somalis: popular Islam in a clan-based society (London: Haan, 1998)

4)      I. Lewis. A Modern History of Somalia (Oxford: James Currey, 2002)

5)      International Crisis Group. Negotiating a Blueprint for Peace in Somalia (Brussels: ICG, 2003)


Rene Wadlow is the editor of the online journal of world politics He is also the Senior Vice President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens. Formerly, he was professor and Director of Research of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva.

الأرض هي بيتنا المشترك

In Middle East & North Africa, Poetry, The Search for Peace on May 5, 2011 at 10:00 PM
 الأرض هي بيتنا المشترك

رينيه وادلو

حياتي مشتركة
مع حياة أخرى لا تحصر،

سوى بشرية أوغيرها ؛

معا يمكننا أبداع الكمال

هذه هي الأرض.

لا استطيع ان اكون إلا كجزء

هذا الكمال؛

بسبب ذلك الكمال

أنا مواطن عالمي.

في الإنسانية،

ويمكن أن تعكس على من هو

وبالتالي يمكن فتح البوابة

لإمكانيات جديدة ولدت

معرفة النفس.

أنا المبدع.

كما الحياة ، وأنا احد قوة

النمو والتقدم.

كما وعي، ويمكنني مباشرة

هذه القوة من الخيال و

ن العلم، من الحكمة والمهارة.

يمكنني بناء ما لم

تم بناؤه من قبل.

يمكننا أن نحب ونعرف

الحلم والتغيير.

معا ، يمكننا أننخدم

واطلاق العنان للامكانات عميقة.


هيمفتاحهويتنا الإنسانية.

ومنخلالهذه الكفاءة

أستطيع أنأداء دوربلدي

(Drawing: Evgueni Bosyatski)


ويمكنأنتنعكسعلىمن هو معي

وبالتالي يمكن فتحالبوابة

لإمكانيات جديدة وولادة

نفس مطلعة.


  كالحياة ، وأنا احدقوة

  النمو والتقدم.

بوعيي، ويمكنني أستثمار

  قوة  الخيالو

العلم، معالحكمةوالمهارة.


تمبناؤهمن قبل.

يمكننا أن نحبونعرف


معا ، يمكننا أننخدم

واطلاق العنان للامكانات عميقة.



ومنخلالهذه المهارة

أستطيع أنأدي دوري فيبلدي


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