Increased fighting since late 2010 in southern Somalia between forces allied to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the Islamist armed group al-Shabaab has resulted in more than 4,000 civilian casualties, including over 1,000 deaths, and numerous abuses against the civilian population. Tens of thousands of Somalis have been displaced from their homes, including over 87,000 who have crossed into Kenya in the first seven months of 2011 where they live in camps now officially sheltering almost 390,000 people. This upsurge in fighting, some of the most intense since 2006, took place against the backdrop of one of the worst droughts in recent years, compounding Somalia’s humanitarian crisis. In July the United Nations declared a famine in two districts of southern Somalia. Ongoing fighting, insecurity, and al-Shabaab’s prohibitions on humanitarian aid, including restrictions on aid agencies’ work and threats and attacks on humanitarian workers, have contributed to the present catastrophe.
A TFG military offensive launched in February 2011, supported by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Kenyan and Ethiopian armed forces, and Somali militias, including those organized in Kenya and Ethiopia, has resulted in the capture of territory previously under al-Shabaab control in Mogadishu and in the south of the country near the borders with Ethiopia and Kenya. In particular, Kenya aims to make a strip of Somali land adjacent to its border, referred to as “Jubaland,” into a buffer zone between Kenya and al-Shabaab controlled areas.
Civilians have borne the brunt of the fighting between the many parties to the Somali conflict: the TFG, al-Shabaab, AMISOM, the Ethiopian-supported pro-TFG militias Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a and Ras Kamboni, and Kenyan-supported militias. There have been serious violations of international humanitarian law (the laws of war) by the parties to the conflict, including indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas and infrastructure, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and summary killings. The conflict has had an unquantifiable impact on the ability of civilians fleeing drought-affected areas to find assistance across the border in Ethiopia and Kenya either by blocking their way out or, in the case of al-Shabaab, the deliberate prevention of people from leaving.
Somalis fleeing from al-Shabaab-controlled areas reported widespread human rights abuses. Al-Shabaab continues to carry out public beheadings and floggings; forcibly recruits both adults and children into its forces; imposes onerous regulations on nearly every aspect of human behavior and social life, and deprives inhabitants under its rule of badly needed humanitarian assistance, including food and water.
The population in areas controlled by the Transitional Federal Government and its allies has also been subjected to violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. These include arbitrary arrest and detention, restrictions on free speech and assembly, and indiscriminate attacks harming civilians.
Somalis seeking safety in Kenya contend with police harassment, arbitrary arrests, and deportation back to Somalia. Somali refugees en route to the sprawling complex of refugee camps at Dadaab, Kenya, take hazardous back roads to avoid the Kenyan police and the official border post that until recently remained closed. They are then at the mercy of well-organized networks of bandits who engage in robbery and rape.
Human rights monitoring and reporting on Somalia by the international community remains inadequate, and yet ensuring systematic documentation of ongoing violations is key to ensuring eventual accountability for these violations. This report therefore highlights the range of ongoing human rights and international humanitarian law violations facing the civilian population in south and central Somalia.
The United Nations and major donors to the Transitional Federal Government, particularly the European Union and the United States, have condemned human rights abuses in Somalia and violations of international humanitarian law that caused civilian casualties. However, their military support for the TFG and AMISOM places greater responsibility on them to play an active role in improving the conduct of the TFG and its allied forces. Where these forces have taken over territory previously under the control of al-Shabaab, the UN and major donors will also need to press for respect for basic human rights and more closely monitor the support they provide. Support and policies that fail to achieve these basic objectives should be reconsidered. To date the TFG has been ineffectual in providing security and human rights protections in the limited areas under its control; broadening those areas is only likely to exacerbate existing problems.
In this report Human Rights Watch urges all parties to the conflict in Somalia to take concrete steps to protect civilians and prevent and punish those responsible for serious abuses. The TFG and AMISOM should adopt measures to reduce the likelihood of harm to civilians during attacks, especially by ending all attacks that do not discriminate between enemy forces and the civilian population. All the warring parties should facilitate rather than thwart humanitarian access and the humanitarian effort currently underway to deal with the drought.
Al-Shabaab should likewise take all feasible steps to avoid deploying in and launching attacks from densely populated areas. It should immediately cease using civilians as “shields,” that is deliberately placing civilians between its forces and those of an attacker. In areas under al-Shabaab control, local officials should respect the basic rights of the population, including the right to freedom of movement by permitting civilians to leave for other areas and countries. Such movement in light of the current drought is vital. Al-Shabaab should also immediately allow humanitarian aid agencies access to all areas under its control in order to provide urgent humanitarian assistance.
The United Nations (UN), United States, African Union (AU), and European Union (EU), which support the TFG financially and militarily, should set out clear benchmarks for improving respect for international human rights and humanitarian law and enhanced accountability. They should call on the TFG to urgently design and implement a strategy for improving security conditions and ensuring respect for human rights in areas under its control. With this in mind, they should encourage the TFG to ensure that the roadmap planned in the Kampala Accords includes clear human rights benchmarks. The TFG and its international supporters should further seek the establishment of a UN commission of inquiry by the UN Security Council to document serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law since the conflict began in 1991.
Kenya clearly faces huge challenges in assisting and protecting almost 700,000 refugees in Kenya. But these challenges do not excuse police abuses—including rape, arbitrary arrests, and unlawful deportation—against asylum seekers. Nor do they excuse the police’s failure to protect asylum seekers from bandits active in the border areas. Officers responsible for abuses should be promptly and thoroughly investigated. More generally, to help ensure that Somali asylum seekers can safely travel from the border to the camps and be registered for assistance as quickly as possible, the Kenyan authorities should reopen a screening center in Liboi on the Kenya-Somalia border and allow the United Nations and private bus companies to transport asylum seekers to the camps.
The drought in Somalia has sent the numbers of refugees crossing into Kenya and Ethiopia skyrocketing. But arrival figures were already very high in early 2011 due to the upsurge in fighting in Somalia, not least because of the Kenyan-supported efforts to push al-Shabaab out of Jubaland. Human Rights Watch is concerned by statements from Kenyan government ministers and officials encouraging the setting up of internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Somalia, presumably in the buffer zone of Jubaland. Jubaland was until very recently an active conflict zone. It is a narrow strip: al-Shabaab positions are only 80 kilometers from the border of Kenya. Creating an artificial distinction between those fleeing conflict and those fleeing drought, as the Kenyan government has tried to do, is disingenuous. Famine always has complex political as well as environmental causes. Recent statements by Kenyan government officials raise concerns that Kenya may attempt to return some of the recently arrived refugees and possibly earlier arrivals to Somalia if new camps are established inside Somalia.
At present Kenya is the closest safe haven for Somali refugees and the international community’s plan to deal with the refugees should proceed on that basis. Kenya faces a considerable burden and claims that building more camps is unsustainable. However, at present there is little realistic alternative. With nearly 400,000 refugees crammed into space meant for 90,000 and with well over 1,000 refugees arriving in the camps every day as of late July, the authorities should immediately allow refugees to settle in the still empty Ifo II camp and sign an agreement with the UN refugee agency for additional land for new camps to help decongest the old ones.