Leading Article: The priorities of Eurocentrism

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The Independent Online
AT LAST, the terrible famine in Somalia, a product of two years of drought and four of civil war, is creeping up the international agenda. The United Nations has been trying to get 500 security personnel into the capital, Mogadishu, for months, to protect food supplies, but a clan leader has threatened to kill them if they are deployed. Some 50 UN personnel are already there as observers. There are plans to dispatch several thousand troops to guard food convoys and distribution points across the affected regions: potential routes are being inspected by a UN team. Few international agencies have dared operate outside Mogadishu: the capital remains extremely dangerous, with competing factions liable to hijack supplies at gun-point.

There is a good deal of food in the ports, though not enough. The problem is to get it into the hands of those who need it. Estimates of those at risk from starvation range from a third to a half of the population of six million. In the town of Baidoa, for example, 7,000 of its population of 40,000 have died this year from starvation. Le Monde's correspondent there has called it 'genocide by omission'. The civil war resulted from an attempt (eventually successful) to overthrow the hated dictator, Siad Barre. He had held power since 1969, backed first by the Soviet Union, then by the US. It later became a vicious settling of scores between various clans and sub-clans: there are no deep cleavages along ethnic, tribal or religious lines.

This is the conflict that Boutros Boutros- Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, has called 'the war of the poor', in contrast to the 'war of the rich' in Yugoslavia. The former Egyptian foreign minister went on to accuse the UN Security Council of Eurocentrism in being excessively concerned with Yugoslavia at the expense of Somalia. The criticism is a fair one. In an ideal world, every life across the globe would be universally held to be of equal value, and human rights abuses in, say, China and Indonesia would have been taken just as seriously in the West as were those in the Soviet Union. Human nature is not like that. A murder on Wimbledon Common means more to Britons than a murder in New York, let alone one in Lagos. It is partly a question of proximity, partly of our ability to identify with the victims, partly of national interests. Millions of Britons have spent holidays in what was Yugoslavia, not many in Somalia. Yugoslavia is part of Europe's cultural and historical heritage. A murder there in 1914 triggered the First World War and brought an era to an end. For the same reasons, it is natural that Mr Boutros-Ghali, who comes from Africa, should feel more affected by an African tragedy than a European one.

For Europeans there is another powerful factor. The end of the Cold War has released long pent-up ethnic hatreds across Eastern Europe, just as the overthrow of Siad Barre unlocked similar inter-clan tensions in Somalia. But in Europe there is a broad awareness that the manner in which peace is restored in Bosnia will have a powerful effect on how future disputes are tackled. The not unreasonable hope is that in Eastern Europe, as in the Western part, it will be possible to settle differences without resorting to arms.

What is happening in Bosnia is widely seen as a crazy aberration from European norms of the past four decades (even if less frenzied versions are taking place in parts of the former Soviet Union, and even if the two world wars saw slaughter in Europe on a scale unrivalled elsewhere). In Africa, by contrast, internecine wars have, sadly, become all too familiar. That they have often been aggravated by competitive superpower backing for one side or the other does not exonerate the warring parties of all blame.

The war in Somalia induces a sense of hopelessness: if these people hate each other so much that they will not let food through to the starving, how can they be helped? There is also the phenomenon called compassion fatigue. We have been exposed so frequently to heart-wrenching television film and photographs of starving Ethiopians, Sudanese and Somalis that we tend to avert our eyes from further assaults.

It is not that we become hardened to such sights. Far from it. But the extent of the problem, the frequency with which it seems to recur, and the likelihood that the economy concerned will continue to be a disaster area: all these incline us to turn to more remediable cases. The UN has no such choice. Whether or not the Security Council is Eurocentric, it is its duty to deal with them all; and it is for the member states, from whichever continent, to contribute the necessary human and financial resources to fulfil that great duty.