Monday, 10 December 2007

‘Worst humanitarian crisis in the world’ largely missing from the UK media

The British mainstream media’s coverage of Africa has recently been focusing on the humanitarian crisis in Darfur and the controversial decision by PM Gordon Brown not to attend the European Union-Africa summit in Lisbon in protest at the presence there of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe. Yet the continent’s biggest humanitarian disaster has gone largely ignored.

In Somalia, according to the United Nations, more than one million people have been displaced from their homes and put on the edge of starvation by the fighting between the occupying Ethiopian troops and the local, largely Islamic resistance movement. The UN describes Somalia as its “worst humanitarian crisis in 16 years”.

The Indian journal, Frontline, in its current issue, quotes the head of UN operations in Somalia, Eric Laroche, as saying that if such a crisis engulfed Darfur “there would be a big fuss”. Somalia, he said, had been a “forgotten emergency for years”. To add to the country’s woes, over the last year it has faced drought, floods and a locust infestation.

Last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the leaders of the EU and Africa at the Lisbon summit to act to end the atrocities in Somalia where Ethiopian troops were engaged in the indiscriminate and deliberate bombardment of civilian neighbourhoods.

Appalling war crimes
HRW said both sides were responsible for appalling war crimes. But it stressed the Somali government had repeatedly harassed humanitarian organisations trying to help the displaced population. Former warlord Mohamed Dheere, the mayor of Modagishu, detained the head of the UN’s World Food Programme for five days in October causing food distribution to 75,000 people to be temporarily suspended.

Somalia’s most recent tragedy began on 25 December 2006 when Ethiopian troops, with the support of the US air force and navy, entered the capital, Mogadishu, and installed a puppet Transitional Federal Government. An Islamist militia calling themselves the Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) had seized power in June 2006, ousting the warlords and bringing a much welcomed period of relative peace to the country.

According to Ahmadou Ould-Abdallah, the UN’s top official in Somalia, (quoted in the Frontline report) the short period in which the Islamists were in control in Somalia was the country’s “golden era”. But the US, claiming the SICC were harbouring radical Islamists, resolved to remove them from power. Satellite pictures of the Islamic fighters provided by the US proved vital to the Ethiopian troops in the December 2006 battles.

The country is particularly dangerous for journalists. Eight have already been killed this year. Human Rights Watch reports that the Transitional Government has closed down newspapers and three independent radio stations.
The conflict has also spread to eastern Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State, known as the Ogaden, where a rebel movement, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, has been stepping up its attacks on Ethiopian troops. Both sides are blamed for indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

Chad human rights abuses missed by the media
While calling for EU-AU action on Somalia, HRW also focused on another African crisis which has been ignored by the UK media. Following one of the most remarkable human rights campaigns in recent years, Chad’s former dictator, Hissène Habré, now faces charges of crimes against humanity.

Installed as head of state in Chad following a CIA-backed coup in 1982, Habré was responsible for appalling human rights abuses before being ousted in another coup in 1990. In a rare instance of coverage, on May 21st 1992 the Guardian carried four short paragraphs reporting how 40,000 people were estimated to have died in detention or been executed during the tyranny of Habré. A justice ministry report concluded that he had committed genocide against the Chadian people.

Habré’s victims first looked to Belgium where its historic “universal human rights” 1993 law allowed victims to file complaints in the country for atrocities committed abroad. Following threats from the United States in June 2003 that Belgium risked losing its status as host to NATO’s headquarters, the law was repealed. Yet a new law, adopted in August 2003, allowed for the continuation of the case against Habré – much to the delight of human rights campaigners.

Now Senegal, where Habré lives in exile, has finally responded to an appeal by the African Union (AU) to try the former Chadian dictator. The AU has mandated Senegal to prosecute Habré “on behalf of Africa” while President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal has asked the EU and AU for technical and financial support to carry out the trial. The EU has, in principle, agreed to this request and the AU has named an envoy to the case.
Last week, HRW said Habré’s case provided a unique opportunity for AU-EU co-operation. But HRW’s important plea over Chad was largely ignored by the UK media.

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