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Human Rights Watch welcomes this initiative by the United Nations Security Council to discuss the human rights and humanitarian crisis in Somalia. The situation in Somalia is one of the world's starkest and most neglected tragedies. In basic human terms the scope of the crisis is enormous. It is also a situation with serious regional implications that must be squarely addressed by the Security Council.

Since early 2007, thousands of civilians have been killed in appalling circumstances: crushed to death in their homes after indiscriminate bombardment; injured by shrapnel from mortars, heavy artillery, and bullets and dying slow, agonizing deaths when they are unable to reach medical care; deliberately executed by members of armed groups on all sides; and caught in ceaseless crossfire in densely-populated neighborhoods. Thousands more have been injured, assaulted, raped, and looted of all their property as they fled the violence in Mogadishu. Each day adds to the toll of civilian deaths and injuries.

Up to 700,000 people have been displaced by violence from their homes in Mogadishu in the past year, with 50,000 people displaced in the first months of 2008 alone. These newly displaced people join some 400,000 people who were previously displaced, plus several hundred thousand Somali refugees, for a total of more than one million internally displaced people in south-central Somalia-at least ten percent of the entire population.

UN agencies currently estimate that up to sixty percent of Mogadishu's residents have fled the city. Many people remain camped on the fringes of the capital in squalid camps. Malnutrition rates are reportedly rising among children. Humanitarian agencies face huge challenges in their efforts to provide assistance to the displaced people and other vulnerable groups living in other areas of Somalia, partly due to continuing obstruction, but also due to serious security concerns. Compounding the humanitarian needs, the poor rains are contributing to increased fear of drought across the region.

Regional factors

There is no question that serious security concerns persist in Somalia. The country has been stateless for seventeen years, with millions of people under the thrall of warlords. The arms embargo imposed by the UN Security Council has been poorly enforced, and Somalia's internal crisis is exacerbated both by the ongoing tension between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and by US counterterrorism initiatives in the region.
The failure to resolve the Ethiopian-Eritrean border dispute has led to each country supporting opposing sides in Somalia: Ethiopia, backed by the US, supports the weak, but internationally-recognized Transitional Federal Government, while a variety of Ethiopian insurgent groups as well as Somali armed groups reportedly rely on substantial military and financial support from Eritrea.

Patterns of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Somalia

Human Rights Watch has closely monitored, documented and reported on patterns of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Somalia. In 2007, our researchers conducted an in-depth investigation of abuses connected to the hostilities in Mogadishu. We interviewed scores of eyewitnesses in five different locations, including Mogadishu, and published a comprehensive report on our findings. We continue to document crimes committed in Mogadishu and other areas through research in the region and from afar.

Each of the parties to the armed conflict has committed serious violations of international humanitarian law. In some cases, where individuals knowingly or recklessly committed these violations, the violations amount to war crimes.

Violations by the forces allied to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG)

Although TFG forces have played a secondary role in much of the indiscriminate bombardment of Mogadishu, they have been responsible for a variety of attacks against civilians in Mogadishu. These include widespread pillaging and looting of civilian property; rape; attacks on humanitarian workers; mass arbitrary arrests and mistreatment of detainees. The TFG has also failed to provide effective warnings to civilians of impending military operations, interfered with and sometimes obstructed delivery of humanitarian assistance, and repeatedly closed independent media outlets. To date there have been no apparent efforts by the TFG to investigate or prosecute those responsible for the killings of journalists and human rights activists in Somalia, much less other abuses reported by human rights organizations.

Violations by Ethiopian National Defence Forces

Since intervening in Somalia in support of the TFG in 2006, Ethiopian troops have violated fundamental provisions of international humanitarian law by failing to distinguish between civilians and military objectives. For example, Ethiopian troops repeatedly used "area bombardment" in populated urban areas in response to insurgent attacks. These indiscriminate attacks killed and wounded hundreds of civilians. Hospitals were deliberately targeted in some of the early offensives in March-April 2007. Ethiopian forces have also carried out targeted attacks on civilians, including killings of civilians by snipers and summary executions of individuals in their custody.

Since late 2007, when new Ethiopian troops were rotated into Mogadishu, reports of unlawful killings by Ethiopian and TFG troops in the context of house-to-house searches increased significantly. Several reports describe Ethiopian troops slitting the throats of victims, including, in one case reported to Human Rights Watch, that of a two-year-old child. Amnesty International has also collected many reports of killings conducted in this manner, which eyewitnesses described as "slaughtering like goats." Looting of civilian property has also been reported in the context of these searches, which generally follow insurgent attacks in the neighborhood.

Violations by insurgent forces

The term "insurgent forces" is used here to describe a range of anti-TFG and anti-Ethiopian forces. These include the extremist al-Shabaab militia, supporters of the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia, and clan-based fighters loosely known among many Somalis as muqaawama (resistance).

Insurgent forces have repeatedly and indiscriminately attacked civilians with mortars, small arms and remote explosive devices; killed and mutilated captured combatants on several occasions; killed TFG officials and threatened civilians, including journalists and aid workers; and jeopardized civilians through their deployment in densely populated areas.

Attacks on the media, civil society, humanitarian aid workers

Somali civil society has flourished in the seventeen years since the collapse of the Siad Barre government, yet even this positive development has been marred by the developments in Mogadishu since early 2007. Attacks on journalists, human rights defenders and humanitarian aid workers have significantly increased in the highly politicized environment of the past fifteen months.

Eight Somali journalists were killed in 2007, making it the most devastating year for Somali journalism since 1991. Responsibility for many of these attacks is unclear. The TFG has repeatedly closed independent media outlets such as Shabelle Media Network, HornAfrik, and other smaller radio stations serving Mogadishu, contending, often without any justification, that the broadcasts incited violence. Several journalists were detained for long periods without charge, apparently in an effort to suppress independent reporting.

Addressing the human rights crisis: ending impunity, introducing accountability

The human rights crisis in Somalia demands an international response that is commensurate with the gravity and scale of the crimes. The UN Security Council should clearly condemn abuses by all of the warring parties in Somalia and include relevant, specific language in its statements and resolutions stressing its support for accountability for serious international crimes. The Security Council and its member states should privately and publicly call on all parties to cease abuses, including TFG and Ethiopian armed forces.

The Security Council should also take other urgent steps to bolster the human rights response on Somalia, including calling for a significant expansion of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) field presence in Somalia and establishing an independent international commission of inquiry into the crimes.

In addition, the Security Council should ensure that any international peacekeeping force in Somalia is authorized to protect civilians and includes a strong human rights component tasked with monitoring, investigating and publicly reporting on human rights abuses throughout Somalia.

Expanding the human rights monitoring and reporting presence

Currently there is little regular, accurate, and credible human rights reporting that reaches the public or key policymakers, including at the highest UN levels. A team of human rights officers operating from within and outside the country could play a crucial role monitoring, investigating, and reporting on abuses by all of the warring parties and convey the severity and scale of the human rights crisis.

In addition to monitoring and reporting on major abuses, an expanded human rights presence can bolster protection efforts by closely following thematic issues such as attacks on human rights defenders, the media and civil society, sexual and gender-based violence, and abuses of children.

An expanded human rights presence could also provide technical expertise on relevant issues to national authorities and other actors. Such capacity-building efforts should cover all of Somalia, including the more stable regions of Somaliland and Puntland. They could include efforts to amend relevant legislation, build judicial capacity, train security forces in human rights, and support the future Somaliland Human Rights Commission and a similar institution for the southern part of Somalia.

Finally, a human rights presence could help generate the necessary public debate among Somalis and the international community on issues of accountability and reconciliation. According to the Transitional Federal Charter, a new constitution must be drafted before 2009. Thus, discussions of accountability are very timely. OHCHR has the experience and the capacity to lead the debate and ensure that it adheres to international best practices.

Establishing an international commission of inquiry

Human Rights Watch strongly believes that accountability for serious violations of international law is at the core of laying the foundation for the rule of law and respect for human rights in conflict and post-conflict societies. We have seen time and time again how impunity for atrocities committed in the past sends the message that such crimes will be tolerated in the future.

Since the collapse of the Somali state in 1991 there have been widespread serious abuses against civilians and, as noted in the UN Secretary-General's report of March 14, 2008, "the lack of accountability, for past and current crimes, reinforces a sense of impunity and further fuels conflict."

While Somalia has long been wracked by violence and lawlessness, numerous serious crimes by members of state armed forces and non-state armed groups have taken place since the current armed conflict began in January 2007.

High-level investigation is crucial both as a deterrent to further violence and a first step towards laying the groundwork for justice and accountability. This is particularly important now given that Somalia is at a transitional moment. There is an urgent need for the TFG and the Transitional Federal Institutions to draw a line with the past, demonstrate genuine willingness to end the prevailing climate of impunity, and gain the confidence of the Somali people. As noted by the Secretary-General's Special Representative on Somalia in his briefing of the council on March 20, those individuals responsible for the crimes must be held to account and a commission of inquiry would offer one way to address the most serious crimes.

An independent international commission of inquiry established by the UN Security Council could help contribute to these important goals. It could have deterrent value by drawing public attention to the responsibility of all parties to the conflict to uphold human rights standards in Somalia, investigating and reporting on serious international crimes, and identifying perpetrators who bear responsibility for the most serious crimes since the escalation of the conflict in January 2007.

A commission of inquiry could also map serious past crimes in Somalia and formulate recommendations for addressing accountability in the short, medium and long-term, including by examining the possibility of truth and reconciliation initiatives, national and international criminal prosecutions and other options following comprehensive discussions with relevant Somali actors and other stakeholders.

To achieve these objectives, we propose a UN Security Council-established commission of inquiry with a two-pronged mandate: first, an investigative component focusing on serious crimes committed since the conflict began in January 2007; and second, a mapping exercise that would entail a preliminary identification of the most serious past crimes dating back to the start of the Somali civil war in the late 1980s. The latter element could be conducted without intensive on-the-ground investigation and should only identify the most serious incidents and crimes that would warrant further investigation, but not seek to fully investigate or gather evidence regarding these crimes at this stage.

The commission of inquiry should have a mandate of at least six months and produce a public report establishing key facts, describing briefly how it has fulfilled its mandate and detailing its recommendations on accountability.


  • Ensure that future Security Council resolutions strongly condemn violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict, including TFG and Ethiopian forces; stress that individual perpetrators of serious international crimes will be held accountable; emphasize the applicability of international human rights standards to Somalia; urge that all parties to the conflict protect journalists, human rights defenders and humanitarian aid workers from attacks; and call on the TFG and other actors to facilitate the delivery of impartial and independent humanitarian assistance to all vulnerable civilians.
  • Call for the capacity of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to be increased in order to monitor and publicly report on human rights abuses, provide technical assistance to the Transitional Federal Institutions and international agencies on human rights and justice sector reform, support the establishment of a human rights commission and support human rights defenders throughout Somalia. An expanded UN human rights presence should include a sufficient number of personnel to support all of these activities and should include staff with relevant expertise in child protection and sexual and gender-based violence.
  • Call for the establishment of an international commission of inquiry to investigate reports of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Somalia since January 2007 by all parties; identify the perpetrators of such violations with a view to ensuring that those responsible are held accountable; map the most serious past crimes that might require further future investigation; and formulate recommendations on appropriate mechanisms for justice and accountability, including criminal prosecutions.
  • Ensure that any international peacekeeping force in Somalia is authorized to protect civilians and includes a strong human rights component tasked with monitoring, investigating and publicly reporting on human rights abuses throughout Somalia.

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