July 13, 2009

The Role of the International Community

Recognition versus Short-Term Engagement

The Somaliland government’s posture towards the international community is focused first and foremost on its goal of international recognition. Government officials frequently and loudly articulate the view that this is not just a strategic goal but also a human rights issue. As one senior official put it:

We say the entire population of Somaliland’s rights are violated by not respecting the self-determination of its people. Their right to travel is infringed, their right to development funds. The schools here would not be acceptable internationally. The international community is missing the main point—closing their eyes and hoping Somaliland will disappear. But it’s here to stay.[187]

Internationally, there is a broad understanding of the practical difficulties non-recognition brings to Somaliland. An African Union (AU) fact-finding mission to Somaliland acknowledged in its 2005 resume that the lack of recognition “ties the hands of the authorities and people of Somaliland” in their pursuit of “reconstruction and development goals.”[188] To date, however, no country in the world has recognized Somaliland’s independence or appears imminently poised to do so.

Western nations have largely insisted that the AU must take the lead on the recognition issue one way or the other.[189] Many AU states are reluctant to sanction what some see as a precedent that could embolden secessionist movements across the continent. Egypt and some Arab states are reluctant to empower Somaliland with recognition because they see it as an Ethiopian ally and do not wish to strengthen Ethiopia’s regional position. And authorities in Somalia have consistently and implacably opposed any formal dismantling of the larger Somali state. The reconstitution of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu under the leadership of Sheikh Sharif Ahmed makes it unlikely that major external powers will shift their position on Somaliland recognition in the immediate term, as they focus on attempting to shore up the power of the TFG against continued threats to its existence.

Box 3—Somaliland’s Case for Independence

One of the most commonly articulated concerns about the idea of Somaliland’s independence is that it would set a dangerous precedent by sanctioning a redrawing of the African map. African and Western governments alike have treated the inviolability of Africa’s colonial boundaries as a core principle for the sake of preserving stability.

Somaliland’s government contends that Somaliland is a legal anomaly whose recognition would set no precedent relevant to the rest of Africa. Somaliland did exist as an independent country in 1960, albeit only for a matter of days, before voluntarily merging with the rest of Somalia. Since Somaliland currently exists within the old colonial boundaries of British Somaliland, its government argues that it is simply returning to its previous status as an independent state and that its existence in no way threatens the inviolability of inherited colonial boundaries.

Proponents of Somaliland independence must also confront the objections of many Somalis—and even some Somalilanders—who emphatically reject the prospect of formally dismantling the larger Somali state. Pro-independence Somalilanders often reply on moral and historical grounds As Ahmed Mohamed “Silanyo,” leader of the opposition Kulmiye party, told Human Rights Watch, “Joining Somaliland and Somalia was never an end in and of itself—it was one step towards a bigger project and that project failed. As a consequence of that union we suffered more than we ever did at the hands of Britain, and we had to embark on a long struggle to liberate ourselves from it.”[190]

Finally, the government argues that its own accomplishments in maintaining peace, cooperating on security and other matters with bilateral partners, and showing respect for the basic rights of its citizens should be rewarded with formal recognition. Foreign Minister Abdillahi Duale told Human Rights Watch—before Somaliland’s presidential elections were pushed back to September 2009—that he believed the polls would spark a “rekindling of international interest in Somaliland.”[191]

Human Rights Watch takes no position on whether Somaliland should be recognized or which country or multilateral institution should take the lead on resolving the issue. But donors, the AU, and other key international actors should develop concrete and pragmatic policies that are tailored specifically to Somaliland’s complex realities instead of continuing to shoehorn their engagement with Somaliland into the same framework as their policies on south/central Somalia. Somaliland’s needs, achievements, and problems bear little resemblance to those of Somalia and Puntland. Recognition or no, Somaliland should not be saddled with donor policies that are primarily geared to the context of looming famine and endless conflict in the south.

In particular, donors and key foreign governments should move immediately to deepen their engagement with Somaliland’s government, civil society, and other institutions. This engagement should focus not only on building the capacity of key institutions, but also on pressuring Somaliland’s government to address key human rights concerns and to reverse the equivocal attitude to democratization it has displayed by delaying elections.

Somaliland is at a crossroads and the territory’s impressive human rights and security-related gains could be jeopardized if credible presidential elections are not held without any additional delay. More robust international engagement with Somaliland now could play a key role in bringing about a positive outcome to Somaliland’s lingering electoral crisis. On the other hand, if credible elections are not held, the international community may lose any chance to prevent backsliding on the issues of governance, human rights, and ultimately, stability.

The Roles of Key International Actors


Ethiopia is Somaliland’s closest bilateral partner. It is the only country to maintain a significant diplomatic presence in Hargeisa, a trade mission which effectively serves as a consulate. Ethiopia is one of Somaliland’s most important trading partners. And Ethiopian Airways flights between Somaliland and Addis Ababa serve as one of Somaliland’s primary physical links with the outside world.[192] Because of all this and because Ethiopia is the most militarily powerful and diplomatically influential of Somaliland’s neighbors, the authorities in Hargeisa understandably regard Ethiopia as their most important ally.

Ethiopia has commercial interests in Somaliland, not least its government’s hope that Somaliland’s port at Berbera develop into a viable hub for Ethiopian commerce.[193] Ethiopia also has centrally important security-related interests in Somaliland. Somaliland is surrounded by two of Ethiopia’s most serious and long-running national security problems. Across Somaliland’s southern border, a long-running insurgency in parts of Ethiopia’s Somali Region has left the Ethiopian military mired in a brutal and seemingly intractable counterinsurgency campaign.[194] And to the southeast lies the rest of Somalia, which Ethiopia continues to regard as a primary external source of insecurity.

Ethiopia’s security concerns have brought a human rights cost to its relationship with Somaliland. As described earlier in this report, the Somaliland government has on numerous occasions arrested Ethiopian citizens the authorities in Addis Ababa believe are linked to insurgent groups and handed them over to the Ethiopian government without due process. Those handed over have included asylum seekers turned over without being given any opportunity to seek refugee status.[195]

The African Union

Somaliland’s government wrote to the African Union (AU) in 2002 asking the organization to send a fact-finding mission to its territory. The AU dispatched that mission nearly two years later and its 2005 report was generally favorable.[196] In December of that year Somaliland’s government submitted a formal application for admission to the AU, which appealed in emotional terms for the AU to release Somaliland from the “prison” of non-recognition. The AU has neither approved nor rejected Somaliland’s request and has taken no further concrete action on the question of the territory’s status since the AU fact-finding mission issued its resume in 2005.[197]

The AU’s efforts are currently focused overwhelmingly on south/central Somalia, where a small AU peacekeeping force, the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), has been deployed since 2006 in support of the fragile Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu. In 2009 external donor support to AMISOM is expected to increase dramatically, and the AU’s focus is likely to remain on its efforts to stabilize south/central Somalia by supporting the TFG.[198]

Western Donor Governments

European approaches to Somaliland have been mixed. Some countries such as Norway and Sweden have taken a direct interest in efforts to support Somaliland institutions. Others, most notably Italy, have eschewed deep engagement with the Somaliland authorities as inherently detrimental to eventual reunification of the country. A large proportion of European assistance to Somalia and Somaliland has been channeled through the European Commission (EC). Because assistance to the whole of Somalia is lumped together as one it is difficult to precisely estimate the amount of assistance flowing to Somaliland, but the total package of EC projects in Somaliland that were rolling from 2008 to 2009 totaled roughly €49.6 million, including Somaliland’s share of projects meant to unfold in south/central Somalia and Puntland as well.[199] That total includes over €12.8 million for activities related to governance and democratization.[200] Somaliland’s government estimates that the total annual amount of external development assistance reaching its territory is roughly US$76 million, with most of this channeled through international NGOs and UN agencies rather than through government institutions.[201]

The United States government has been largely supportive of development and security efforts in Somaliland, though these efforts have been limited by the diplomatic imperative to channel assistance and dialogue through the framework of broader engagement with Somalia as a whole. US government officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they believe that there is a real possibility of deeper US engagement with Somaliland’s government in the near term.

Some US Defense Department officials have pushed for closer US ties with Somaliland as part of a policy shift that would emphasize building stability in Somaliland and Puntland while at the same time scaling back state-building efforts in south/central Somalia and focusing instead on “containing” the violence and perceived security threats there.[202] But key policymakers outside of the Defense Department regard this approach—which essentially implies a radical break with current efforts at building stability in south/central Somalia—as both undesirable and practically unworkable.[203]


[187] Human Rights Watch interview, Hargeisa, February 23, 2009.

[188] “Resume: AU Fact-Finding Mission to Somaliland (30 April to 4 May 2005),” African Union Commission, para. 9.

[189] See, eg, David H. Shinn, “Somaliland and US policy,” The Journal of the Anglo-Somali Society, No. 38, Autumn 2005, p. 40, noting that, “It is highly unlikely that the US would move to recognize Somaliland before the African Union did so or, at a minimum, several key African states opted to do so.”

[190] Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmed Mohamed “Silanyo,” Hargeisa, July 10, 2008.

[191] Human Rights Watch interview with Abdillahi Mohamed Duale, Hargeisa, February 24, 2009.

[192] Ethiopian Airways flights to Hargeisa were suspended following the October 2008 suicide bombings in Hargeisa, but are scheduled to resume between Addis Ababa and the more secure airport in Berbera. Flights between Addis Ababa and Hargeisa may eventually resume as well, security conditions permitting.

[193] Since its border war with Eritrea that began in 1998, Ethiopia has been without the use of its natural outlets to the sea through Eritrean ports, forcing it to rely primarily on the port of Djibouti. Ethiopia reportedly hopes that as much as 20 percent of its trade will eventually flow through the port of Berbera in Somaliland. International Crisis Group, “Time for African Union Leadership,” p. 2.

[194] See Human Rights Watch, Collective Punishment.

[195] See above, Forced Return of Asylum Seekers.

[196] “Resume: AU Fact-Finding Mission to Somaliland (30 April to 4 May 2005),” African Union Commission.

[197] See International Crisis Group, “Time for African Union Leadership,” p. 2.

[198] In April 2009 donors meeting in Brussels pledged US$250 million in new support for the TFG and AMISOM.

[199] This includes projects taking place only in Somaliland and rough estimates of the funds for projects to be implemented across the whole of Somalia, Puntland, and Somaliland that are likely to be spent in Somaliland. The total represents a significant portion of total EC assistance to the whole of Somalia, which stood at roughly €110.5 million during the same period. Human Rights Watch email correspondence with EC official, May 26, 2009; detailed figures on file with Human Rights Watch.

[200] Ibid.

[201] Human Rights Watch email correspondence with senior government official, May 30, 2009.

[202] Human Rights Watch interviews with US government officials, Washington, DC, March and April 2009.

[203] For more on the Obama Administration’s concern about possible threats to US security rooted in Al Shabaab, see Greg Jaffe and Karen De Young, “Obama Team Mulls Aims of Somali Extremists,” The Washington Post, April 11, 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/10/AR2009041003734.html (accessed May 28, 2009).