The United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Somalia:



Failure to Act in Time – Unosom I 

Ashley Grimes – Licensed Attorney


Why did the 1992-1993 United Nations (U.N.) peacekeeping mission in Somalia fail? Many scholars and government officials have picked apart the actions of the U.N. during the Somalia crisis that resulted in over 300,000 deaths and even higher numbers of malnutrition and suffering within Somalia. There are some facts about the U.N. peacekeeping operation that will remain unknown, but the facts that have come to light reveal reasons for the mission’s failure to accomplish peacekeeping in Somalia. In order to understand the ways in which the U.N. failed at its attempts for peacekeeping in Somalia, one must look at the events that took place. The event that sparked the beginning of true turmoil in Somalia was the fall of a leader in an adjacent territory known as Ethiopia.

Ethiopia had been dealing with invasions of Somalis from a close by area known as Ogaden. These Somalis became even more vigorous when Ethiopia’s leader, Emperor Haile Selassie, fell from leadership in 1974. This led to uncontrolled chaos within Ethiopia. Its rebellious clans became stronger and guerrilla campaigns emerged. At this same time, Somalia’s leader, Major General Mohammed Siad Barre, was already dealing with his own difficulties in trying to control clan disruptions through out Somalia. He had been accepting the aid of the Soviets in order to keep matters under constant control, but was disrupted in his efforts when the Soviet was forced to assist Ethiopia instead. With the Soviets assistance and distribution of advanced weapons, Ethiopia’s newly self-declared leader, Lt. Co. Mengistu Haile-Mariam was able to drive out much of the rebellion. The guerrilla groups and clans that were forced out of Ethiopia flooded into Somalia with large amounts of weapons that had been acquired at the expense of the Soviet Union. Siad Barre’s response to the invasion of such massive groups only aggravated them more.

Eventually, the Somali National Movement (SNM) was formed in 1981 out the Isaaq clans. Strife continued as Mengistu and Siad Barre both began to lose grip of an impossible fight. In 1989 another clan, known as the United Somali Congress (USC) formed. With so many groups and clans forming against him, Siad Barre finally retreated in January 1991. At this point, Somalia was with out government and order. The tragedy occurring in Somalia was gaining international notice, yet nothing was done to prevent the situation from becoming worse. The U.N. neglected the crisis occurring in Somalia due to a busy agenda filled with other obligations; obligations to “the rich man’s war” [1] according to the U.N. Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

The U.N. failed to recognize the seriousness of the crisis in Somalia before it became uncontrollable. Its oversight prevented members from stepping in when Somalia lost all form of controlled government. This allowed the clans to separate and spread to such an extreme that Somalia was left to ruination, famine, and despair. Had the U.N. turned its attention to Somalia as soon as Siad Barre fled the region, membersactions could’ve made some progress before it was too late.

The U.N. finally gave some attention to the situation in Somalia, although very minimal, in January 1992. By this time the Isaac clans and the USC split and formed separate groups. Out of the Isaac clan, came the independent Somalia Republic. The USC formed into groups under two separate leaders, General Mohamed Farah Aideed and Ali Mahdi Mohamed. U.N. decision was to begin handling the situation in Somalia by sending out a team to assess the situation. As a result of the team’s assessment, U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali acquired a resolution that mandated action with other international organizations for the purpose providing humanitarian assistance to Somalia. The U.N. started planning for operations in Somalia that would eventually, in April 1992, take on the name of United Nations Operations in Somalia (UNOSOM).

Although the plans were vague, U.N. requests were made for assistance in future operations. Units that were expected to participate in UNOSOM began training, despite the absence of any precise or organized instructions on the role they would play. Planning for UNOSOM was left unfinished and U.N. members decided to negotiate a cease fire agreement in Somalia. A secret meeting with U.N. members and representatives of General Aideed and Ali Mahdi was held in February 1992 to discuss the cease fire agreement. The negotiations were only partly successful. The U.N. gained consent from most clans, but not those under the command of General Aideed. The cease fire agreement was established on March 3, 1992, but incomplete.

Rather than sending U.N. peacekeeping forces to Somalia to take control of the situation, members continued to pursue futile negotiations and continued to waste valuable time. U.N. peacekeeping operations remained incomplete and undecided as chaos in Somalia continued its path of destructiveness. The U.N. was not committing the time and effort that was called for. U.N. members made a slight attempt to take some kind of action when they asked for assistance from Canada in delivering food and supplies to Somalia. Their request was with the same Canadian forces that had already been put on standby for assistance with UNOSOM. The UN was assigning Canadian units to another operation prior to the completion of plans for UNOSOM. In addition to this problem, Somalia was still not secure. A report on the Somalia Mission from the Department of National Defense Canadian Forces (DND/CF) stated:

“In March, Canada’s Ambassador to the U.N. wrote to the Secretary-General to express support for U.N. efforts, confirming that Canada would participate in a misSion to deliver food and other humanitarian supplies, once the U.N. was in a position to ensure the security of its force.” [2] After receiving this information, the U.N. still did nothing to implement any security in Somalia. The Media began to comment on U.N. members’ lack of organization and initiative, leaving the U.N. to the scrutiny of the public. Members could no longer afford to refrain from taking action in Somalia. On August 13 1992 the United States decided to airlift food and supplies to Somalia and Canada followed their example. U.N. peacekeeping forces finally went to Somalia to provide some security, but it was not enough. The numbers of U.N. forces were too small to secure the success of food and supply distribution. Subsequently, many supplies were looted and most of the food failed to reach those suffering from starvation and malnutrition. This was exactly what Canada’s Ambassador had tried to communicate to the U.N. in March 992.

In August 1992, the same report made reference to the cause of this failure by stating that, “The humanitarian crisis continued because of the lack of security, despite the fact that the UN had the actual capacity to provide increased aid.” [3] U.N. members’ lack of attention to the delicate situation in Somalia destroyed any possibility of success in their overdue efforts to aid Somalia. U.N. members realized that they would need to change previous plans for UNOSOM to meet the disastrous circumstances that had been witnessed in Somalia.

U.N. Security Council members asked the Secretary General to create proposals for a new plan of action in Somalia that would be effective enough to gain control of the situation. Soon after the request, a meeting was held in November 1992 to discuss U.N. options for action. The Secretary General presented five proposals. One of these entailed an operation, Operation Restore Hope, which would be led by the United States of America. The other proposals were ruled out and this was the proposal that U.N. Security Council members chose.

The Security Council’s decision to implement Operation Restore Hope revealed the extent of control that North American policy had over U.N. actions. U.N. operations, under the order of President Bush, sent troops pouring into Somalia without the appropriate training or organization that was needed for such a task. The force was excessive and far too extreme. Operation Restore Hope only caused more chaos and rebellion, preventing its troops from delivering any kind of order or peace to Somalia.

After an entire year with no signs of success, US President Clinton sent troops after General Aideed in October 1993. The attempted arrest of General Aideed made it seem that U.N. members were taking sides when they were supposed to be neutral peacemakers. Operation Restore Hope ultimately failed and pulled the U.N. down with it. Several mistakes were made by the U.N. in its attempts to bring peace to Somalia. Peacekeeping operations in Somalia failed because the U.N. was negligent, unorganized, unprofessional, and pre occupied for the wrong reasons. U.N. members neglected the situation for too long and didn’t act early enough to prevent the crisis in Somalia from getting out of hand.

Even after the situation spun out of control, political priorities stole the U.N.’s attention and caused its members to overlook relevant information needed for planning a successful operation. Only in reaction to pressure from the media, did the U.N. finally take initiative to aid Somalia. Poor planning resulted in wasted money, time, and resources during the airlift operation in October. In addition to all of this, the U.N. Operation Restore Hope used force that was too overbearing for the situation. It was the last thing that would bring peace to Somalia, yet that fact was overlooked somehow. The later attempt to arrest General Aideed threw U.N. members right into the middle of the chaos they were trying to diffuse. This goes against their main purpose, laid out in the U.N. charter. The main purpose of the U.N. is set out in Article 1 of the UN charter, stating that it exists:

“To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace.”

U.N. actions in Somalia gave rise to anything but “international peace and security.” Its inability to provide security or peace for citizens of Somalia destroyed everything it was meant to stand for, marking its failure. U.N. members will never forget their mistakes in the Somalia crisis and, hopefully, they will not repeat them. The lessons learned from the U.N. failure in Somalia should always linger as a reminder of the chaos that can result from neglecting situations due to their lack of political value. Actions made by the U.N. in the future must constantly aim to reflect its concern for all matters on an equal scope. Only then can it be said that the purpose of the U.N. truly is, “to maintain international peace and security.”


[1] T. Rowe, “Aide to Somalia Stymied”, The Washington Post, July 29, 1992.

[2] Major L. M. Martin, United States Marine Corps, “Somalia: Humanitarian Success and Political/Military Failure”, CSC, 1995, accessed April 23 2006.

[3] Martin, “Somalia: Humanitarian Success and Political/Military Failure”

[4] U.N., United Nations Charter, (New York: U.N., 1948) Article 1