Humanitarian Intervention in Somalia

Instructor: Katie Streit

Katie has a PhD in History. She has taught middle school English and college History.

In this lesson we explore the history of Somalia and the humanitarian crises that have gripped the country since the 1990's. We will also examine the efforts made by the international community to end the violence and alleviate the suffering that threatens millions of lives in Somalia.

Modern Day Pirates

Think of a modern day pirate. Who did you envision? You might have thought of Somali pirates, such as those depicted in the film, Captain Phillips. The movie was based on the true story of a Somali pirate attack on a cargo ship during which its captain, Richard Phillips, was taken hostage. Captains Phillips was rescued by Navy Seals, who killed three of the four abductors.

While many of us are aware of the piracy occurring in the Indian Ocean, most of us do not understand the underlying causes. This lesson offers a history of Somalia, exploring its tumultuous colonial past and the devastation caused by its civil war in the 1990's. We will also learn about the various humanitarian aid efforts that have been attempted to stop the violence and rebuild Somalia.

Brief History of Somalia

Map of the Horn of Africa and Somalia

Somalia is located on the Horn of Africa. It has a rich, precolonial history of powerful empires and sultanates that participated in centuries-old trade networks across the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. In the late 19th century, Great Britain and Italy entered into a series of 'treaties' with the sultanates and gradually established two colonies - British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland.

During the Second World War, Italian forces briefly occupied British Somaliland and neighboring Ethiopia before being defeated. After the war, the United Nations allowed Italy to resume authority over Italian Somaliland as a Trust Territory. Britain, meanwhile, continued to control British Somaliland as a protectorate.

In 1960, British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland united to form an independent nation - the Somali Republic. Nine years later, unrest rocked the nation. President Abdirashid Ali Shermarke was assassinated, and a military coup followed. Major General Mohamed Siad Barre and the Supreme Revolutionary Council transformed the country into an authoritarian socialist state.

Civil War and Humanitarian Crisis

Barre's regime was overthrown in 1991. A deadly civil war followed as clan-based factions fought for power and resources. Piracy also increased off the Somali coast. The fighting and banditry led to a famine that threatened the lives of half the population (4.5 million Somalis.) An estimated 300,000 Somalis died, and two million people fled their homes.

Failed Humanitarian Missions

The United Nations (U.N.) tried to intervene in order to alleviate the humanitarian disaster and restore peace in Somalia. The United Nations Operation in Somali I (UNOSOM I) was created in order to oversee a cease-fire and ensure the safe delivery of humanitarian aid. Aid convoys and U.N. forces, however, continued to come under attack.

In December, 1992, UNOSOM I was replaced by a U.S.-led multinational force - the Unified Task Force (UNITAF.) UNITAF was authorized to use military force to create a safe environment for humanitarian aid operations. Approximately 37,000 troops from over 20 countries operated in Somalia.

UNOSOM II Vehicles

UNITAF was replaced in March 1993 with UNOSOM II. Its mission was the same - restore peace and ensure the safety of humanitarian aid efforts. UNOSOM II was also charged with rebuilding Somalia's democratic government, economy, and infrastructure.

During the course of the mission, over 147 members of UNOSOM II were killed in Somalia, including 18 American soldiers in the Battle of Mogadishu in October, 1993. (The battle was the subject of the film, Black Hawk Down.) The American government responded by withdrawing its military forces from Somalia six months later. The U.N. followed in 1995 - leaving Somalia without accomplishing peace or creating stable governance.

Continued Troubles Today

A succession of interim governments struggled to establish peace and stability in Somalia in the early 2000's. Violent opposition arose from the Islamic Courts Union in 2006, and extremist groups that splintered from it, most notably Al-Shabaab. The first, permanent, central government in Somalia was created in August, 2012 - the Federal Government of Somalia. Conflict continues today between the state, extremist groups, and two northern regions that claim independence - Somaliland and Puntland.

Map of Somalia

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