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The U.N. should take over Somalia

Even at the height of a presidential campaign, it is hard to turn away from the agony of Somalia. On any scale, the suffering is staggering. Hundreds of innocents are dying every day of entirely preventable causes: starvation and disease.

Somalia's problem, however, is not lack of food. A huge international aid effort, although delayed, is in place. Now the rains have come and thousands are dying of hepatitis, measles, dysentery and tuberculosis. These are preventable killers, but relief workers say they are reluctant to ask for sophisticated medicines for the same reason they are wary of food shipments: When they get anything of value, they become the target of armed thugs.

Somalia is dying from a lack not of food or medicine but of order. The looting and extortion by armed gangs and petty warlords have made conditions nearly impossible for relief workers. The diplomats speak of a security problem. In less polite language, the problem is barbarism.

Somalia has no government. It is in a Hobbesian state of nature. It desperately needs to be taken over and run by some outside power so that its suffering people can be afforded the minimal human decencies of food, medicine and personal safety. And yet because of the sanctity of sovereignty, and even more important, because of colonial guilt, the idea that Somalia be essentially recolonized is unmentionable.

It was not always so. Both the League of Nations and the United Nations once had an extensive system of trusteeship under which advanced societies ran backward countries until they were ready for self-government. Today, however, even to speak of advanced and backward societies is considered patronizing at best, racist at worst. Nonetheless, however politically incorrect it is to speak of relative advancement, it is a fact and a fact that has nothing to do with race.

Somalia has degenerated far beyond the point where it can help itself. We can either tread delicately on Third World sensitivities while millions starve, or, if we are serious about saving Somali lives, we can jump in with both feet.

How? By reinstituting the idea of trusteeships for countries that have slid far beyond the reach of their own resources. The United Nations has toyed with the idea of trusteeship, albeit without using the term, in several places: in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq; in Cambodia, where the United Nations has essentially taken over governing; and in Namibia, where the United Nations did the same during the 1989-90 interregnum between South African and local rule.

Somalia needs similar treatment but far more bold. Somalia needs to be occupied. It needs an outside force to suppress the bandits, feed the people, provide medical care.

The best way to do this is the old mandate system of the League of Nations under which a great power under international supervision is given quasi-colonial power over another people.

Unfortunately, however, because of ideological taboos and historical sensitivities, a mandatory system so reminiscent of colonialism will almost certainly not come to pass. We shall have to settle for second best: trusteeship not by a great power but by the United Nations itself.

Given the sorry history of corruption and incompetence of such U.N. agencies as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, one must not place too great a faith in the efficacy of such a regime. Nonetheless, U.N. administration is probably as much "colonialism" as the current ideological climate will permit. Moreover, if beefed up with contingents of police, army and administrators on loan from advanced countries, a U.N. trusteeship would certainly be an improvement over what we have now.

The world needs to declare a new international principle: Where sovereignty has broken down and barbarism broken out _ the U.N. Security Council will determine when that happens _ the world will step in and provide protection. It is a grand violation of the principle of sovereignty and long overdue. The more we wait to institute it, the more people will die _ today in Somalia, tomorrow in some other heart of darkness.

Washington Post Writers Group