Muhammad Sahnoun is a former Algerian diplomat who served as the special representative of UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in Somalia prior to the US military intervention there. He is presently a fellow at the International Development and Research Center in Ottawa. Joe Stork spoke with him in Washington, DC in August 1993.

You are from a country that went through a national liberation struggle and which has historically taken a strong position against intervention. Yet you’re a practitioner of intervention. Do you see this as a new period requiring actions of this sort, or is this something that’s long overdue?

It’s clear that the Cold War had given a special dimension to the concepts of sovereignty and intervention. It was perceived not only as a problem of intervention versus sovereignty, but as intervention versus equilibrium and the global balance of power. Many states wanted to insure that intervention did not become accepted international policy. This is not totally in harmony with the UN Charter, and it is not in harmony with, let’s say, the moral obligations of the international community. I compare the situation to when you have a neighbor who is beating his wife or his children. You cannot say that’s his own affair. You try at least to mediate or call the police.

It’s true also that this should not allow states the right to intervene on behalf of the international community in situations where the humanitarian reasons are not compelling, or where national interests are the primary motive.

Historically, humanitarian rationales were developed for military interventions. It was George Bush’s invocation of Iraqi atrocities that helped tip the balance politically for intervention in the Gulf.

That’s right. But the UN Charter says that states have the obligation to try to resolve economic, social or humanitarian crises. The Charter speaks of “situations.” Presumably the framers had in mind the conditions of German minorities before World War II, in Austria and Czechoslovakia, which served as the pretext for Hitler’s Anschluss campaign.

So sovereignty is not really something which should inhibit intervention for humanitarian reasons, whether it is to resolve a conflict through good offices, through preventive policies, or to come to the rescue of a population victimized either by natural catastrophe or repressive government policies. I think the Charter, the Declaration on Human Rights adopted in 1948, the Geneva Convention on the Consequences of War and on Prisoners of War and so on, the Convention on Genocide, and the General Assembly resolution on the need to allow access for humanitarian assistance — all these provide a legal basis for humanitarian intervention.

What we’re concerned with is when humanitarian intervention goes into a military mode.

We have to clearly explain why intervention is needed. It should be clear that governments cannot invoke sovereignty to prevent humanitarian access to the population. Developments in Iraq have signaled that a government which resists international humanitarian intervention will find no support from any quarter. The idea of consent should be seen in light of the pressure which can be brought upon a government through media, through mobilization of other governments — especially prospective allies of the government concerned. If there is a humanitarian catastrophe, the international community is morally bound to intervene. The government, whether it consents or not, would have to face up to that.

Given the events of the last few years, do you see the danger being too much intervention or too little?

Up till now there has been too little. But I have to make a distinction. If you take Somalia, when the situation started in northern Somalia, we should have intervened, and we didn’t. When more than 100 Somalis — practically all of the intelligentsia of Somalia — signed a manifesto against Siad Barre, we did not intervene. Worse, when Siad Barre’s government left Mogadishu, there was total collapse. For a whole year Somalia was without a government and we did not intervene.

I just came back from the Congo; the secretary-general of the Organization of African Unity asked me to go because there was the beginning of a very serious crisis there. They had elections in May; the opposition contested the election. The government went ahead and organized a second round of elections, and since the capital itself is within an ethnic area which is in the opposition, the government was paralyzed. Barricades were everywhere. I spent two weeks, very tough, very difficult, but finally I had an agreement signed. Successes like that nobody talks about. In many cases, earlier intervention helps.

What kind of intervention?

We should always put a priority on the diplomatic, provided it is done with great seriousness. Not sending some UN official with no knowledge of what the problems are, who arrives in his suit and tie, stays one hour, and goes back to Nairobi — as happened in Somalia. He or she must be prepared to spend the necessary days or weeks, even at the risk of his or her life. And that envoy has to have diplomatic skills and international support. These mediators should not be chosen from the civil service of the United Nations. The secretary-general should have a short list of personalities from around the world. If someone with stature like Willy Brandt or Jimmy Carter had gone to Somalia, he could have done a very good job. At the same time, the international community should apply pressure. Cut diplomatic ties, military and development assistance, for instance. In Haiti, the fact that the American and other governments decided to freeze the assets of the people who were in charge there certainly helped. We should give as much margin as possible to these kinds of intervention before taking military action. Military intervention should be present in discussions as a possible enforcement means, but let’s do it in such a way that strengthens the hand of the mediators, not seeing it as it is a solution by itself, which is what is happening in Somalia.

Can you point to a case where military intervention was used in a way that turned out to be measured and constructive and didn’t get off track, as seems to have happened in Somalia, or has been used very ineffectively, as in Bosnia?

I can’t. People might point to Cambodia. But Cambodia was based on diplomatic moves made in advance. The agreement signed in Paris by all the factions established a kind of status quo. The process had a lot to do with the role of Sihanouk. When the UN was unable to stabilize the situation, Sihanouk proposed a solution. The UN reacted negatively. They wanted to leave Sihanouk out. But everybody signaled the UN that the solution would be with Sihanouk or not at all.

But it’s really difficult to point to a situation where an armed intervention represented a solution. The solution most of the time was found diplomatically, and the armed intervention came either as enforcement or as a peacekeeping operation for a solution which had been found before. This was the case in Mozambique as well as in Cambodia.

There are certainly times when you need to accompany diplomacy with military intervention. The role of regional organizations is key. In Bosnia, the European Community has been a great failure. If, early in 1992, they had brought in forces to stop the communities from fighting, they could have been successful. Unfortunately they didn’t do it. In fact they messed it up. Germany recognized Croatia and then Slovenia, and then to justify their recognition of Croatia and Slovenia they recognized Bosnia, creating a kind of snowball effect which upset the Serbs. If the Europeans had been wiser, they would have refrained from recognition before some kind of referendum had occurred and a government established, the way the process has gone in Eritrea. Then when the Europeans finally got their act together and came to the UN in July 1992 to ask for the Security Council’s blessing to send forces, Boutros-Ghali opposed it, saying, ‘This is a rich man’s war. Why don’t you care about Somalia?’ This is pure demagoguery. I was in Somalia at the time. We did not need troops. The worst came when we began to send troops.

It seems that Boutros-Ghali was committed at some early point that Somalia should be a test case for his agenda.

Exactly. And then again in March, when Clinton had this idea of threatening to attack the bridges on the Nepa River and allowing the Bosnians to rearm, again Boutros-Ghali came in on behalf of the Europeans to plead not to do these things. It’s incredibly bad leadership.

So, yes, armed intervention sometimes is necessary, but it’s very important that it is done at the right time, at a time when it is has broad support, at a time when it can make a difference, at a time when there is no need for huge armies. Once people see that the international community is serious, has already sent its own troops, that creates some effective restraint.

Are there times when a unilateral military intervention is appropriate?

The first stage should be regional. It’s very important that regional organizations be given a mandate to cope with situations within their region. If they are incapable, then refer it to the UN. In Somalia, the OAU should have done it, as in Liberia. There may be exceptional situations where the regional organization has failed and the UN is not in a position to intervene. Then the international community might ask a specific country to intervene. But you have to have all kinds of guarantees that this intervention has a specific objective, and a limited time frame. The intervening country should follow the mandate assigned to it, period.

This was especially the case in Somalia. I think it was good that the US intervened. I left Somalia in October, and in November the situation became catastrophic. When I was there, the looting of food was about 10-15 percent. By the end of November, it was 80 percent. The American intervention did help check the famine. I think the Americans should have left once they had finished the job, in April or May. They did officially, but the UN kept Adm. Jonathan Howe as deputy commander. And the elite units were Americans. If the Americans had left at the right time, it would have been an excellent precedent. But now Operation Restore Hope is linked with what has followed.

Critics charge that the international community, or rather Washington and the major capitals, tend to let things get so bad that military intervention is the only option. It’s easy to prescribe regional, preventive, timely non-military intervention, but do you have any reason to hope this is going to happen?

We forget that our undertakings are organized, led and implemented by people. The caliber, the quality of the people in charge of these things can make a big difference. In the UN at one time you had people like Dag Hammarskjold, people who think of humanity, not of their own image. I knew him. We should think of looking, when we are going to select a secretary-general, or the head of a UN agency in charge of humanitarian assistance, not on the basis of regional rotation and country lobbying. We need somebody of high moral stature and with great management and diplomatic skills.

Does the Security Council really want this kind of person?

That was a real question during the Cold War. Today everybody realizes we need a good manager at the top of this institution. We don’t have the Cold War anymore. On the contrary, everybody believes that we need these instruments, and we need to make them as efficient as possible.

There is a new UN Department for Humanitarian Affairs, but at least until recently, it didn’t even have its own fax machine. Yes, that is true, the resources that exist are not well-used. We still have the UN structures from the Cold War era, with a jungle of committees. I was the Algerian ambassador to the UN. There is an enormous number of people who are doing practically nothing of importance. We should get rid of the dead wood, and use the scarce resources, both human and material, productively.

Is there the political will?

Unfortunately, I don’t think there is. The UN is still seen as a dumping ground for people governments don’t want at home.

Washington talks about streamlining.

Yes, but we don’t see the results. When I was in Somalia, on weekends you could not find anybody [at UN headquarters in New York]. I was trying to get in contact with somebody for very, very urgent matters — for instance, when it was a question of deciding whether we should first send UN observers or UN security personnel.

You’ve mentioned elsewhere the need for decentralization, or the non-monopolization, of interventionary capacity, which involves a whole other level of meshing regional and international organizations.

The UN should give more responsibility to regional organizations. There is now too much competition. There should be much more reliance on private voluntary agencies, on non-governmental organizations. They tend to recruit committed non-careerist people.

There’s a debate now within the US policy elite over what sort of interventionary posture is appropriate in the post-Cold War period. In your view, should military intervention be reserved for the most extreme situations, where there are threats of massive loss of life, or do you also see a role for military intervention in defense of political rights and human rights? Do you see a danger in such an expansionary view?

It’s difficult here to explain the nuances. It’s important to study a given situation carefully. It might be necessary to intervene earlier on with a limited force to prevent a catastrophe. But the decision to do so should be carefully weighed in light of what diplomatic efforts can achieve. Take Bosnia. Having realized that the Serbs needed a warning, how could it have been done? It’s a question of having several alternatives and displaying them very carefully. Saying in principle that we should intervene right away, in an expansive way, is wrong. Saying that we should wait until the situation is catastrophic is also wrong.

That is why I stress management. There should be more preventive policies, with media visibility and pressure. I think even of my country, Algeria. Somebody should be there trying to help. Use the Saudis if necessary to try to resolve this problem with the fundamentalists. I think that’s what the international community should do. When tomorrow you have a civil war in Egypt, do you think we’re going to resolve this problem of the Islamists by sending the US Marines?

There’s been no discussion of any efforts, regional or international, regarding Algeria.

It’s not only Algeria. In Egypt, in Sudan, there should be emissaries on the part either of the secretary-general of the UN or the regional organization, saying [to the governments]: “What can we do? We are not buying your propaganda. That’s maybe for your people, but we know how bad the situation is. We have contacts with the opposition, we can talk to them, we can carry letters. If they are in jail, let us see them. They will accept things from us which they will not accept from you.” Regional organizations should do it, the Arab League should do it, the Islamic Conference should do it. What are they there for?

In Somalia, what was Boutros-Ghali’s agenda, and why did you take the steps that you did? To what extent do you think he wanted precisely the kind of scenario that unfolded — up through November 1992, at least? There’s the whole issue of Egyptian interests.

Yes, Boutros-Ghali, as an Egyptian minister of state, had been overseeing the Somali situation. Some of the clans and parties suspected him of supporting one camp. That is why suspicion of the UN is so strong [in Somalia]. He also made mistakes in sizing up the situation. He didn’t realize that the countries of the region, not only Somalia but also Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, are a bit apprehensive that something might be imposed upon them without their being consulted. There is a question of credibility there. I think he was sincere in trying to resolve the problem, but I think he probably was not aware of the fact that his image was not a very good one in the minds of the people in the region. The fact that he was also pushing to send Egyptian troops there made them quite nervous.

Do you think he had wanted to use Somalia as a way of pushing forward the role of the UN, or the secretary-general’s place within a restructured UN?

He made a lot of statements but he did not follow through. I suffered myself from the fact that we didn’t have all his support, when I was calling for humanitarian assistance. Instead, when the UN agencies complained that I was being too critical of them, he supported them against me. He was not clear in his own mind what the priorities were. If he were making Somalia a priority, he would have put his weight behind my efforts to bring about a grassroots solution. Up to October 1992, I was doing everything without arms. We had 50 unarmed military officers; their mandate was to monitor the ceasefire along the dividing line in Mogadishu. Because people had stopped fighting, I used them to escort convoys, to monitor the situation in the airport. Somalis applauded them when they saw them. I was asking for 500, and the Somalis accepted this. It took two months and a half to bring them from Pakistan to Somalia. Once they arrived, they refused to be deployed. They stayed in their barracks. Their officers said they had instructions [from Pakistan] not to deploy.

There’s a need to place military intervention in the context of North-South relations. Other less visible forms of intervention — financial markets and so on — create conditions which lead to situations of social breakdown and political decomposition and which then became humanitarian emergencies.

We should seriously think not so much in terms of checking crises but in terms of handling the root causes. Call it “provention,” not “prevention.” We have to develop capacities which allow us to monitor situations in various countries, not only in the Third World, to see the ingredients of a crisis and to alert the UN and the regional organizations.

How to cite this article:

Joe Stork "An Interview with Muhammad Sahnoun," Middle East Report 187-188 ( ).

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