Corrupt Somali politicians could face travel bans and have their foreign assets frozen under tough new United Nations sanctions, a U.N. official said Tuesday, a move that analysts said could also help get desperately needed food aid to the country's growing number of famine victims.
A team of eight investigators is due to begin work this week. It's the first time senior Somali politicians could face consequences for corruption in the 20 years since the country dissolved into civil war. The country's justice system has virtually stopped functioning and there has been no system to hold politicians in the famine-struck Horn of Africa nation to account.
"Corruption has been identified as one of the main obstacles to the peace process," said Matt Bryden, who heads the U.N. arms monitoring group on Somalia, which provides an annual report to the U.N. Security Council. "This sends a clear signal that corruption and political obstruction will no longer be tolerated."
The monitoring group was set up 10 years after an arms embargo was imposed on Somalia in 1992, when hundreds of thousands were dying from famine and the country was in the grip of a clan-based civil war. The group's mandate was to report anyone selling weapons to fuel the conflict. In 2008, the U.N. decided it should be able to punish violators by imposing sanctions that include travel bans and freezes on assets such as bank accounts and property.
The list of possible sanctions was expanded the same year to include anyone obstructing access to humanitarian aid. That's a huge problem in Somalia, where Islamist militant groups have denied many aid agencies access to territory they control and militias in areas controlled by the U.N.-backed government steal and sell food.
In July, the sanctions mandate was expanded again to include corruption and those blocking the peace process. The new mandate came at the same month famine was declared in parts of the country.
Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have died and the U.N. says 750,000 are at imminent risk of starvation. Now, Bryden said, anyone could be sanctioned for threatening peace and security or for blocking or stealing humanitarian aid or government funds.
"Our investigations will help the sanctions committee ensure that violators are held accountable," he said. "These sanctions are most effective against those with an international profile _ those with foreign passports, with foreign bank accounts, and those who travel."
On the potholed streets and among the bullet-riddled buildings in the capital, Mogadishu, there's little to show for the tens of millions of dollars donated to the Somali government over the past two years. The mayor has put up a few streetlights and international aid agencies fund a few trash collections. But schools, hospitals and roads are in a state of advanced decay.
Somalia has the world's highest child mortality rate. Nearly one in five children will die before their 5th birthday. More than 70 percent of Somalis don't have clean water and the country is regularly rated the most corrupt in the world by international watchdog Transparency International.
The poor performance of the government is one reason why the population turned to Islamist militias in the first place. But if the threat of sanctions helps improve their performance, an analyst said, it could help win the government support.
"This new mandate has the potential to be very useful," said Ken Menkhaus, a political science professor who specializes in Somalia at North Carolina's Davidson College. "What the Security Council had in mind was to make the (government) more accountable and more legitimate in the eyes of the Somali people."
It could also help force through humanitarian aid to those who need it, he said. Around 200,000 of the 750,000 at risk of starvation live in government-held areas, he said, but "we are having problems making sure aid is getting through to them because of corruption and interference and diversion."
The Somali government did not respond to requests for comment. It recently proposed a joint watchdog with donors to track funding and corruption but the agency has not yet been set up. Many Somali ministers have dual nationality or assets abroad. The new prime minister, defense minister and minister of finance are all American citizens. Other Cabinet members are British or Canadian passport holders.
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