Is Global Media Setting the Agenda for UN Peace Keeping Operations: Revisiting the UNOSOM Debacle
Author: Dominic Pkalya
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 11/30/2006
The United Nations Peace Keeping Operations have received ambivalent reactions. Many have welcomed it as a necessary precondition and process for not only mediating in a nascent conflict but also laying the groundwork and framework where conflicting parties can put their differences aside for the sake of prosperity of humanity and the concept global peace.
Others are of the opinion that UN Peace Keeping Operations are only but stooges of global media networks like CNN and BBC World Service among others. This perspective is premised on the numerous failures of UN Peace Keeping Operations to intervene in conflicts or wars that have received little or no global media coverage and or where such operations have hastily retreated following unfavourable global media coverage as the case of Somalia attest.
In all these possible scenarios, the role of global media in setting the agenda of UN Peace Keeping Operations and, connectedly, that of the Security Council cannot be underestimated. When the former UN Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali grudgingly alleged that CNN is the sixteenth member of UN Security Council (failing to declare CNN as the sixth permanent member of the Security Council), his opinion was a tacit admission that media is an important instrument in modern world politics and global agenda setting. This is the view I tend to lean unto for a number of reasons.
Following the fall of the Siad Barre dictatorial regime in Somalia in 1991, Somalia was plunged into turmoil. Factional conflicts pitting the faction supporting Interim President Ali Mahdi Mohamed against that supporting General Mohamed Farah Aidid marked the initial strife, which later degenerated into numerous clan based and “warlordism” deadly confrontations.
These factional fighting’s were worsened by famine and hunger that hit Somalia in 1992 leading to unprecedented humanitarian crisis. But despite the horrendous effects of the factional war and hunger, the international community, including the UN, turned a blind eye on it until vivid, continuous and instantaneous television news of the situation brought to the living rooms of the western societies the suffering of the Somalia people.
The media images of emaciated Somali men, women and children starving in a human induced famine brought about by actions of greedy warlords who seized humanitarian relief supplies following the collapse of Siad Barre’s dictatorial regime in January 1991 was so horrific to anyone who watched it. Everybody was obliged at this point to ask his/her government, especially the western governments, “What are we doing to ameliorate the horrific humanitarian crisis”? The role of the UN in the world agenda was thus brought to focus once again.
Following this media coverage of the Somalia crisis, The UN Secretary-General in 1991 dispatched an envoy to Somalia to whom all faction leaders expressed support for a United Nations peace role. This gesture enabled the United Nations as well as other relief organizations to provide humanitarian aid to millions of suffering Somalis. All of a sudden, humanitarian activities were abuzz in stateless Somalia, thanks to media coverage of the crisis and the response it induced.
At this point, it is important to point that the US policy towards the worsening Somalia situation was non-military in nature, and chose to support humanitarian operations carried out by UN agencies and a host of other humanitarian actors. However, the continued insecurity in Somalia was hampering humanitarian operations prompting the Bush administration to send in marines to provide security to the relief operation.
A number of factors could be deduced on this non-military policy of the US towards Somalia. Many believed that Bush burnt his fingers in the Gulf War despite its success, and it would have been a miscalculation to engage in another conflict far away from Africa with little or no strategic interests. This was also the presidential campaign period in the United States and many believe that President Bush’s re-election campaign team never wanted to distract their attentions and energies on Somalia crisis. It has since been found out that the economic recession during the 1980s coupled with a perceived failure to end the Gulf War properly dented Bush’s re-election efforts.
During this period, the security situation in Somalia was worsening. The UN humanitarian operation was thus perceived as achieving little until and unless the security situation and restoration of a semblance of order and functional government could be put in place. But the problem was determining who would be tasked to do this under UN policy to the Somalia crisis and take a “wait and see” attitude.
After the US presidential elections, the new Clinton Administration and his allies in the UN decided to change the humanitarian relief operation in Somalia into a peace keeping operation finally leading to the formal establishment of United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM). UNOSOM I, with fifty troops, was dispatched to Somalia in April 1992 to monitor the ceasefire in Mogadishu between the two main factional forces and escort deliveries of humanitarian supplies to distribution centres in the city and its environs.
Meanwhile, the global media continued to broadcast the Somalia crisis giving western powers and the UN sleepless nights. Boutros Boutros-Ghali was increasingly concerned about the inability of the UN to respond to the crisis prompting him to suggest that for UN to respond to global crisis in future; it needs to have a standing military wing and necessary resources to protect global peace. Boutros-Ghali wanted the UN to use force in Somalia, if necessary, in preventing any resumption of violence and disarming the militias by seizing arms from all unauthorized armed elements.
Between 1992 and 1994 and based on initial UNOSOM I misgivings, Boutros-Ghali was busy urging member states to set aside particular sections of their armed forces to be on permanent “stand-by” for immediate deployment by the UN. However, convincing the more powerful member states to operationalize this endeavour proved a tall order, but by June 1994 the Secretary General was able to report that there were firm pledges of 30,000 stand-by troops from twenty-one countries with a further 40,000 troops likely to be pledged by twenty-seven other member states. The reality of UN world government was increasing day by day against the wishes of the more powerful “member states” of the UN.
It is argued that this proposition was not taken lightly by world powers who were increasingly assuming an univocal world leadership role and this could be one of the reasons that strained Boutros-Ghali’s relation with US and his subsequent replacement with Kofi Anan, surprisingly the then-Head of UN Peace Keeping Operations.
However, despite the initial UN “standing force” hype of 1994, almost two decades down the road the UN neither has any agreed and universal criteria for military humanitarian intervention, nor any effective standing capacity to implement such intervention. The former Yugoslavia “air strikes” was largely a NATO initiative after the UN failed to stop the Albanian Serbs from shelling refugees and civilian positions that were under UN “protection”.
Following these boardrooms’ behind the scenes manoeuvres and continued media pressure, the UNOSOM mission’s mandate and strength were later enlarged to enable it to protect humanitarian convoys and distribution centres throughout Somalia through the creation of US led Unified Task Force (UNITAF) that came with 37,000 troops (28,000 US troops). In his memoirs, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, noted that in 1992 the world had a dozen other running crises, but television hovered over Somalia and wrenched American hearts, night after night, with images of people starving to death before American eyes. The United States had to do something that Bush later christened “God’s Work” for there was no real or imagined United States interest at stake.
The establishment of UNOSOM I and its strengthening through the establishment of US-led UNITAF was beginning of the militarization of humanitarian operations and the international relief system, which was replicated in the former Yugoslavia and is increasingly taking the centre stage of UN Peace Keeping Operations.
However, and in recognition to the UNITAF success in creating a relatively stable peace in Somalia, UNOSOM II was created to facilitate a prompt, smooth and phased transition from Unified Task Force to a UN-led intervention upon US intentions of not willing to stay longer than necessary in an increasingly hostile environment. UNOSOM II was thus created in March 1993 and mandated to take appropriate action where necessary, including enforcement measures, to establish throughout Somalia a secure environment for humanitarian assistance with an eye towards disarming the factional militias. UNOSOM II is thus credited as the first UN peace enforcement mission.
The smooth transition from UNITAF to UNOSOM II failed to live to its expectation. The factional fighting continued in Somalis capital, Mogadishu. Relations between Gen. Aideed and UNOSOM II continued to deteriorate partly because of the latter’s intent to disarm the former’s militia. To complicate matters for UNOSOM II, Gen. Aideed used his Somali National Alliance Radio to turn the population against the UN forces.
Tension between UNOSOM II and the factional militias continued to heighten culminating to the killing of 24 Pakistani UNOSOM II soldiers in an attack in Mogadishu in June 1993. These killings angered UN leading to a UN Security Council decision seeking to capture those responsible for the deaths of the Pakistani peacekeepers. UNOSOM II released a warrant of arrest for Gen. Aideed, the mastermind of the Pakistani soldiers’ killings. Ensuing clashes between UNOSOM and Somali militiamen in Mogadishu in the bid to arrest Gen. Aideed resulted in casualties among civilians and UNOSOM II.
The search for Gen. Aideed fostered a more confrontational environment through summer 1993. In October 18, United States soldiers of the Quick Reaction Force -deployed in support but not part of UNOSOM II died in the battle of Mogadishu. The United States immediately reinforced its military presence. However, this quickly changed, especially on the part of American public, when footages and pictures bodies of dead American soldiers in Mogadishu were broadcast in the American television and press respectively.
This led to a public outcry and call for a hasty retreat and withdrawal from Somalia were echoed everywhere in America leading to the withdrawal of the US led UN intervention in Somalia in late 1993. After the withdrawal of US forces, Belgium, France and Sweden also decided to follow suit. By March 1995, all UN forces had been withdrawn
The Secretary-General told the Security Council in September 1995 that UNOSOM II’s ability to provide security had been reduced by troop withdrawals, budget restrictions and military actions by the Somali factions. Wider problems included the lack of commitment to peace by the factions and insufficient political will by Member States. The Council approved reductions in the force.
The classic case often cited of “the CNN effect” is 1992-1993 in Somalia. Media images and graphic pictures of starving children prompted the United States initial humanitarian response to the crisis, which was later, backed by military intervention. However, a year later, the footages of a gang desecrating the body of an American soldier, dragging it through the streets, prompted the then-United States President Bill Clinton to announce US troops withdrawal in Somalia. So it’s often said that the US got into Somalia because of horrible pictures; and left Somalia because of horrible pictures.
Marianne Means, the newspaper columnist wrote, “We went into Somalia because of horrible television images; we will leave Somalia because of horrible television images.”
The withdrawal of US forces in Somalia and subsequent withdrawal of all UNOSOM soldiers, mainly due to media pressure, dealt a deadly blow to the UN’s ability to prevent or resolve conflict and partly justified Boutros-Ghali’s assertion that CNN is the sixteenth member of Security Council.
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Bio: Dominic Pkalya is a student in the MA Media Conflict and Peace Studies programme at the University for Peace in San Jose, Costa Rica.