Op-ed: Somalia National Human Rights Day an opportunity to enhance accountability

By Patrick K. Mbugua, Somali researcher for Amnesty International

As Somalia marks its National Human Rights day today, both the federal government and the international community should take the opportunity to effectively put human rights and accountability at the centre of the country’s re-construction efforts and begin paving the way towards truth, justice and reparations for the victims. Such efforts are essential to peacebuilding.

Somalia’s National Human Rights Day was declared in August 2013 as part of local and international efforts to address the multiple human rights challenges faced by the country. The declaration of this day came along with other positive developments since the end of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the establishment of the federal government in 2012, including the Constitutional protection of human rights and the establishment of a National Human Rights Institution and the Ministry of Women and Human Rights.

Despite these positive developments, serious human rights abuses are still persistent and the federal government has been unable to fully comply with its obligations under international law. On the one hand, the persistence of the three-decade long civil war and constant violations of international humanitarian law continue to indiscriminately affect the civilian population. On the other hand, institutions in Somalia are still weak and human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, unlawful restrictions on freedom of expression, and political repression are still prevalent and remain mostly unpunished.

Somalia’s National Human Rights Day was declared in August 2013 as part of local and international efforts to address the multiple human rights challenges faced by the country.
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Main actors

The main actors, their objectives and methods of warfare, as well as financing of the war have all changed over the years. The current phase involves Al Shabaab, an Islamist armed group, and the federal government’s Somali National Army (SNA), which is supported by 22,000 peacekeepers of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

In the last two years, the narrative that peace and security have returned to many parts of central and southern Somalia has gained currency. Underpinning this narrative is the view that SNA and AMISOM forces have inflicted heavy losses on Al Shabaab and pushed the armed group out of many areas.

This narrative has informed attempts by some countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway, the United Kingdom and Denmark, to force Somali refugees back to southern and central Somalia. However, forced returns violate international human rights and refugee law.

Complicated reality

There is no doubt that the SNA-AMISOM forces have consolidated their grip on the country and forced Al Shabaab out of many areas. However, the reality is more complicated. Amnesty International has seen reports of increases in violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses by all parties to the conflict, including the federal government’s Somali National Army (SNA), the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and different armed groups like the Al-Shabaab and Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a in Galmugud and Hiraan regions, as well as Ras Kambooni in Jubbaland.

These abuses include indiscriminate killings, direct targeting of civilians, recruitment of child soldiers, rape and sexual exploitation all of which violate international human rights and humanitarian law.

Civil society organisations have reported thousands internally displaced people caused by the current SNA-AMISOM military offensive and have documented the wounding and killing of civilians in armed clashes and suicide attacks, by grenades, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and direct targeting. Media reports show that bombings targeting high profile buildings, including Villa Somalia and the Parliament in mid-2014, have resulted in tens of civilians injured and killed.

Moreover, child soldiers continue to be recruited by different groups to the conflict, as documented by a United Nations report issued on 5 June 2014. Other civil society organizations have also documented the sexual exploitation and rape of internally displaced persons and Somali women by both armed groups and AMISOM peacekeepers.

In parallel, the federal government has been unable to strengthen the State’s institutions in several parts of the country to ensure the full respect and protection of human rights. Repression against opponents and critics of the government, unlawful restrictions on freedom of expression, attacks against journalists and the continuation of the death penalty after trials which do not meet international standards are only examples of the prevalent human rights violations in the country.

However, all these violations of international humanitarian and human rights law have remained unpunished.

Dealing with human rights abuses

As Somalia marks its National Human Rights Day, attention must be paid to the capacity of the federal government and AMISOM to ensure full respect and protection for human rights, including access to justice and adequate reparations for victims.

The UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) has the mandate to monitor, prevent, investigate and report human rights violations or violations of international humanitarian law in Somalia. While UNSOM has initiated a training programme for the SNA and AMISOM in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2124, it still needs to improve the programme and strengthen its monitoring so as to contribute to preventing human rights abuses.

All parties to the conflict must refrain from human rights abuses, including targeting of civilians, sexual violence, and the recruitment of child soldiers. It is crucial that the federal government and AMISOM guarantee access to justice and ensure independent, impartial and effective investigations into human rights violations, hold to account all those responsible and provide adequate reparations to all victims. Further, Somalia must take the appropriate steps towards abolishing the death penalty.

The National Human Rights Day can be thus a good opportunity to bring to the centre Somalia’s human rights obligations and begin the process of ensuring the rights to truth, justice and reparations to all victims.