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Letter to US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Somalia

The Department of Defense should send a clear message to Ethiopia and other parties to the region's conflicts

Dear Secretary Gates,

During your recent visit to Djibouti, a senior Pentagon official accompanying you was quoted by the Washington Post on December 4 as saying "I am unaware of specific allegations regarding the conduct of the Ethiopian troops" in Somalia. We were surprised by this comment, given the extensive public reporting on the Ethiopian military’s abusive conduct. Nevertheless, we write to bring to your attention specific information about serious human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war by Ethiopian troops operating in Somalia. Given the close relationship between the United States and the Ethiopian government, we believe that the United States can do more to curb the abusive behavior of the Ethiopian military and to assist Somalia’s beleaguered population.

Human Rights Watch has been closely monitoring and regularly reporting on our concerns over widespread human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law in Somalia. The conflict in Mogadishu has steadily intensified since January 2007, after Ethiopian forces supporting the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) ousted the Islamic Courts Union from the city. To date, hundreds of civilians have been killed and up to 600,000 people are estimated to have fled the city, particularly following surges in violence in March, April and November.

Neither the insurgent forces nor the Ethiopian troops have made any apparent effort to distinguish between civilians and military targets. Indeed, civilians in Mogadishu have repeatedly been the victims of indiscriminate and deliberate attacks by all of the warring parties, some of which amount to war crimes. In Shell-Shocked, Human Rights Watch’s August 2007 report of our investigation of the March-April hostilities, we documented many of the most serious patterns of abuse by Ethiopian troops, such as indiscriminate attacks on civilians, summary executions and repeated targeting of hospitals.

In that report we also called for the Ethiopian government to investigate specific incidents, such as the June 19 summary execution of five men and a boy by Ethiopian troops in the Damanyo neighborhood in Mogadishu. To date, we are unaware of any investigations into this or subsequent incidents.

Since November, renewed clashes in Mogadishu have been marked by increasing brutality toward civilians, including further summary executions and enforced disappearances of individuals by Ethiopian and TFG forces conducting counterinsurgency operations.

Alarmingly, there are multiple credible reports that such abuses by Ethiopian and TFG forces have increased in the aftermath of the fighting on November 8, when Ethiopian troops and insurgents clashed near the Livestock Market and crowds dragged an Ethiopian soldier’s body through the streets.

Human Rights Watch has gathered eyewitness accounts of Ethiopian troops summarily executing civilians, including a two-year-old child, in the weeks since the November fighting. Some of the incidents occurred during house-to-house searches by Ethiopian and TFG forces. Four civilians, including a twelve-year-old boy, were shot dead by Ethiopian sniper fire in the Bar Ubah and Huriwa neighborhoods in mid-November. The bodies of a dozen civilians were found near the Livestock Market on November 9 after they had been detained by Ethiopian troops.

Ethiopian troops also continue to fire heavy weaponry indiscriminately, often wounding or killing civilians. For example, on the evening of November 8, an artillery shell reportedly fired by an Ethiopian tank hit Mogadishu’s largest market, Bakara, killing six people. The next morning, residents of the Livestock Market found the bodies of a dozen civilians. According to medical staff at Mogadishu’s hospitals, dozens of people were admitted with shrapnel and other injuries, most of them civilians and half of them women and children.

Tens of thousands of civilians continue to flee Mogadishu, especially the Huriwa, Hamar Jadid, and Gubta neighborhoods, which have been pounded with heavy weaponry, mostly by Ethiopian troops.

The armed conflict in Mogadishu is fuelling regional instability and contributing to fighting in Ethiopia’s own eastern Somali Regional State, where a longstanding rebel movement, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, seized the opportunity of the military being stretched next door to increase attacks, including on a Chinese oil site. Ethiopian troops responded with a brutal counterinsurgency campaign that has targeted the civilian population.

Ethiopia faces difficult challenges at home, in Somalia and in the region. But human rights abuses and war crimes are the wrong way to deal with them. The US Army’s new Counterinsurgency Manual recognizes the importance of abiding by the rule of law in providing security for the populace and conducting counterinsurgency operations. Ethiopia is doing precisely the opposite. Its conduct is creating a mounting toll of civilian victims and risks sending more young people into the arms of the insurgents.

We ask that the US government, and the Department of Defense in particular, send a very clear message to Addis Ababa to put an end to abuses by its forces and ensure accountability when abuses occur. The US should press the government to provide access to the United Nations, human rights groups and journalists to investigate abuses by all sides both in Somalia and in Ethiopia’s Somali region. It should demand that Ethiopia and the TFG end deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians and ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid to displaced people and other populations at risk. Consistent with the Leahy Law, the US should deny assistance to any unit of the Ethiopian armed forces that has engaged in human rights abuses. In sum, the US government, and all its agencies and representatives, must send the message – privately, publicly and consistently – that Ethiopia and other parties to the region’s conflicts, will never achieve sustainable peace and security by flouting international human rights and humanitarian law.

We thank you for your attention to this important matter, and look forward to learning of the steps the Defense Department is taking to address these concerns.

Yours sincerely,

Tom Malinowski
Washington Advocacy Director

CC: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

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