December 29, 2008

Pirates have put Somalia back on the international agenda, but Somalia's people have yet to receive as much protection as the international tankers off-shore. The brutal, widely ignored conflict in Somalia has crept back into the headlines only after spawning a massive humanitarian crisis and Islamist extremism, as well as piracy. But to deal with these issues, the Obama administration will have to break with failed policies that have helped push Somalia into calamity.

Two years ago Somalia stood at a crossroads. After 16 anarchic years without a government, a coalition of Islamic courts had taken control of the capital, Mogadishu, bringing both ominously harsh rule and unprecedented stability. But Somalia's powerful neighbor Ethiopia saw the rise of the bellicose courts as a threat to its national security, and the Bush administration accused the Islamic courts leadership of harboring terrorism suspects -- including individuals suspected of plotting the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. When Ethiopia intervened militarily to crush the Islamic courts in December 2006, Washington supported its operation.

The last two years have been an unmitigated disaster for the people of Somalia. The conflict pits the Ethiopian forces and Somalia's ineffectual, internationally backed transitional government against a powerful but fragmented insurgency. All sides have routinely committed war crimes and serious human rights abuses. I have interviewed young girls raped by militiamen from the transitional government; mothers whose children were cut to pieces by indiscriminate Ethiopian bombardment; and common laborers shot in the streets by insurgent fighters who saw them as unsupportive of their cause.

Thousands of civilians have been killed, more than a million people are displaced from their homes, and millions of people teeter at the edge of famine. Aid workers, who had managed to assist Somali communities even during the most lawless periods before 2006, have been the targets of dozens of killings and kidnappings in 2008 and now watch helplessly from neighboring Kenya as the situation spirals out of control.

America's most visible response to the crisis has been a series of air strikes against terrorism suspects that have mostly killed civilians. The air strikes--and the way in which US officials have ignored overwhelming evidence of Ethiopian and transitional government war crimes -- have fueled anti-American sentiment.

US policy not only has displayed a callous disregard for the basic human rights of Somalis, but it has failed on its own terms, breeding the very extremism it sought to eliminate. Drawing on widespread hostility to the Ethiopian intervention and resentment of the abuses, insurgents loosely grouped under the banner of a group called Al-Shabaab ("youth") have become the most powerful military force on the ground. Al-Shabaab's leaders preach a kind of Islamist extremism that had never managed to take root in Somalia before the nightmare of the last two years. Meanwhile attacks at sea by Somali pirates have grown, unchecked, a product of the lawless chaos that prevails on land. Ethiopia says its battered military will soon withdraw, leaving US policymakers desperate to empower relatively moderate Somali opposition leaders to fill the vacuum.

The Somali crisis is also a regional problem. Tens of thousands of civilians are fleeing into fragile Kenya, which now has the world's largest concentration of refugees, and thousands more face abuses or even death on dangerous journeys across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. And the unresolved border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia continues to exacerbate regional tension, with each government supporting opposing sides in Somalia.

The Obama administration has an opportunity to bring a fresh approach to this escalating, complex crisis. It will have to weigh diplomatic initiatives involving all the countries in the region, the viability of the transitional government forces and peacekeeping forces in Somalia, and the role of the United States military. Accountability for the serious abuses that underpin both the suffering of Somalia's people and the growth of violent extremism is only one element in these challenges, but it is critical. It will mean publicly demanding accountability from all of the parties responsible for war crimes on the ground -- including Ethiopia, Washington's most important strategic ally in the region. The US relationship with Ethiopia is important, but complacency toward war crimes in Somalia will undermine US efforts to address the broader crisis.

There is no easy solution to Somalia, but Washington can show that it is ready to address the challenge by quickly appointing a high-level US envoy on the Horn of Africa and supporting a UN commission of inquiry to investigate the most serious crimes. These steps cannot undo the damage failed US policies have caused in Somalia but they would send the message that the Obama administration is moving in a new and more principled direction.

Chris Albin-Lackey is senior researcher at Human Rights Watch