Diplomatic Fallout: The Next Phase of U.N. Engagement in Somalia


By Megan Gleason-Roberts & Alischa KugelAMISOM soldier on Mogadisho Patrol

Somalilandsun – June will be the start of a new phase of United Nations engagement in Somalia, when the new U.N. Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) will replace the long-standing U.N. Political Office in Somalia (UNPOS), in place since 1995.

In late-April, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon tapped Nicholas Kay, a former British ambassador and Africa director at the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as the secretary-general’s new special representative in Somalia.

When Kay takes up his duties as the head of UNSOM on June 3, he will be presented with both risks and opportunities at a crucial time of renewed hope and momentum for Somalia.

Somalia, with the help of the international community, has achieved important political and security milestones over the past year. Bolstered by additional resources, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), alongside Somali security forces, regional countries and allied groups, has made crucial security advances against the Islamist group al-Shabab. These gains have been matched with political achievements including the adoption of a provisional constitution and the election of a new federal parliament and president, thereby concluding the fraught eight-year transitional period. Concerted engagement to tackle piracy in the Horn of Africa has contributed to a decline in piracy attacks off the Somali coast.

Major risks still exist, both for international actors, as evidenced by the recent deadly attack on a convoy of Qatari officials, and the new government. Only two days after his election in September 2012, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud escaped an assassination attempt. More recently, militants targeted judicial officials, including in an April 15 attack on the Mogadishu courthouse that killed more than 35 people and the assassination of the deputy state attorney later the same month. The African Union (AU) has also paid a heavy price for the advances over the past year, with the total AMISOM death toll recently reaching 3,000 troops. These attacks show that while security in Mogadishu overall has improved, al-Shabab still poses a significant risk, through asymmetrical attacks in the capital and its continued presence in the country’s south.

With UNSOM, which will be headquartered in Mogadishu and deployed across Somalia, the U.N. drastically increases its visibility in Somalia. (UNPOS operated out of Nairobi for 17 years before relocating a limited number of staff to Mogadishu in January 2012.) While this will undoubtedly increase the mission’s ability to perform its good office functions, it also puts mission staff at considerable risk. The volatile operating environment could restrict staffers’ mobility, which in turn can negatively impact the mission’s role as a key interlocutor at a time when expectations from Somali society, the government and the international community on UNSOM are high.

The U.N. will rely on AMISOM troops, including a 300-strong force for the protection of U.N. and international community staffers, to create secure conditions for the government’s peace and reconciliation process and stabilization efforts across Somalia. Furthermore, UNSOM is mandated to “work in a coordinated manner with AMISOM.” This closer alignment of the two actors may prove challenging, as in the past there have been considerable differences between the U.N. and AMISOM over the political implications of military actions.

There have also been sensitivities regarding the role of the AU and U.N. civilian components in assisting the government to extend state authority beyond Mogadishu. The AU has requested and received Security Council authorization for an enhanced civilian component for AMISOM to support the government’s stabilization and reconciliation efforts. Some U.N. officials, however, are skeptical of the AU’s eagerness to develop its multidimensional civilian capacities, particularly in areas where the U.N. sees itself as having established expertise and a comparative advantage. The trust deficit reflects larger issues about strategic vision and partnership between the organizations. It remains to be seen how the dynamic plays out in Somalia, where UNSOM is mandated to provide strategic policy advice to the government and AMISOM on peacebuilding and statebuilding tasks, including on security sector reform. The U.N.’s larger and more visible role in Somalia also runs the risk of antagonizing other regional actors, including the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, which may see their involvement restricted, thereby contributing to turf wars between the organizations.

UNSOM’s human rights monitoring mandate may further add to the tension in the relationship between the AU and the U.N. on the ground. Although the AU has taken measures to minimize civilian harm during its operations, including developing an indirect fire policy aimed at better controlling the use of mortars and artillery, civilians are often caught in the crossfire, and human rights groups have criticized AMISOM over civilian casualties. Currently, AMISOM is probing the death of several civilians, including children that were allegedly shot by its troops in January in a village west of Mogadishu.

In addition, despite a slight improvement in early 2013, the humanitarian situation in Somalia remains dire. As of January, 3.8 million Somalis required humanitarian assistance (.pdf). An estimated 1.1 million are internally displaced and a million more are living as refugees in neighboring countries. As an integrated mission, UNSOM will combine the roles of the U.N. humanitarian and resident coordinator under one roof and will coordinate the activities of the U.N. Country Team, a move that humanitarian groups have resisted for years. The current head of UNPOS, Augustine Mahiga, has done much to improve the relationship between the humanitarian community and U.N. staffers in Somalia that was strained under his predecessor, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah. Nonetheless, integration remains a contentious issue. Humanitarian actors raised concerns that merging humanitarian operations with the U.N.’s political work would jeopardize the principle of impartiality. UNSOM will have to show that it can preserve the humanitarian space, while helping to advance state authority and services across Somalia.

Donor countries pledged more than $350 million at an international donor conference in London on May 7 to bolster the Somali government, particularly its security, justice and financial institutions. Ahead of the meeting, the U.N. announced plans to shift its focus from humanitarian aid toward development work. Both actions signal faith in the government’s ability to consolidate gains and govern effectively. They also illustrate the careful line the U.N. mission will walk in Somalia, tasked with coordinating the growing and increasingly active donor community, while also creating space for the new government to drive policy, including through its work on the New Deal for International Engagement in Fragile States.

Kay will take office in two weeks. His experience in the region, having served as U.K. ambassador in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, as well as his experience in fast-moving and insecure environments, including in Afghanistan, will serve him well in his new position. He also has considerable international backing: The Security Council is united in its support of the new mission, and Somalia is a key focus for the G-8 this year under the U.K.’s presidency. But as the U.N. enters a new phase of engagement in Somalia, Kay will have a limited window to take on these new challenges and capitalize on the security and political achievements over the past year to support Somalia in achieving durable peace.

Megan Gleason-Roberts and Alischa Kugel are senior program officers in the Global Peace Operations program at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. They are the volume editors and lead scholars for the forthcoming “Annual Review of Global Peace Operations 2013.”