(Hargeisa, Somaliland) - The Somaliland government's disregard for the law and democratic processes threatens the territory's nascent democracy, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The administration of President Dahir Riyale Kahin has committed human rights violations and generated a dangerous electoral crisis.
The 56-page report, "‘Hostages to Peace': Threats to Human Rights and Democracy in Somaliland," says that Somaliland's government has helped create a measure of stability and democratic governance even as Somalia has remained mired in armed conflict. But Somaliland's gains are fragile and currently under threat. The administration of President Riyale has regularly flouted Somaliland's laws and has twice delayed elections that were originally scheduled for April 2008, through processes of questionable legality. A further delay of elections, now slated for September 2009, could prove disastrous for democratic rule in Somaliland.
"Somaliland has spent 18 years trying to build stability and democracy, but all its gains are at risk if the government continues to undermine the rule of law," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The electoral crisis has laid bare the need to create functioning government institutions that will respect human rights."
The Human Rights Watch report is based primarily on a two week visit to Somaliland in March 2009 in which researchers interviewed government officials, opposition leaders, civil society activists, local analysts, and victims of human rights abuses.
Somaliland declared its independence from Somalia in 1991 after the demise of Somalia's last functioning government. No country has recognized Somaliland's claim of statehood. Human Rights Watch takes no position on whether Somaliland should be internationally recognized as an independent country. But international actors should engage more deeply with Somaliland, press Somaliland's government to respect human rights and the territory's emerging democratic norms, and provide assistance tailored to bolster key government institutions, the media, and civil society.
In recent years the Riyale administration has regularly treated the opposition-controlled legislature as an irritant, refusing to respect its role in the legislative process or in overseeing opaque government expenditures. Little has been done to build the capacity of the nominally independent judiciary; the lower courts are often incapable of applying the law while the Supreme Court has acted as though it is entirely beholden to the president.
Government actions in violation of domestic and international law have directly infringed upon the rights of Somalilanders, Human Rights Watch said. The Riyale administration has circumvented the courts and trampled on the rights of criminal defendants by relying on "security committees" that are entirely under the control of the executive and that have no legal basis under Somaliland law. The security committees sentence and imprison Somalilanders, including people accused of common crimes and juveniles, without any pretense of due process. They regularly sentence defendants en masse on the basis of little or no evidence after truncated hearings in which the accused are given no right to speak. When Human Rights Watch visited Mandhera prison outside of Hargeisa in March, over half of the prisoners there had been sentenced by the security committees, not the courts.
The government has also engaged in other repressive practices that are common in the region, but relatively rare in Somaliland. A former driver for the president's family was imprisoned after publicly accusing the first family of corruption, and only released after photos surfaced of the man lying shackled to a hospital bed, gravely ill. The leaders of a dissident political association called Qaran, which challenged the existing three parties' legal monopoly of electoral politics, were sentenced to prison terms and banned from political activity, though they were released before serving their full terms. And Somaliland's leading independent human rights group was dismantled during a leadership struggle in which government officials blatantly intervened.
But patterns of low-level harassment targeting journalists, opposition activists, and others are the most common. On numerous occasions government officials have detained, usually for brief periods, individuals who have publicly criticized the government or provided press coverage deemed to be unfavorable.
Somaliland's precarious situation in the region has deterred Somalilanders from protesting loudly when their rights are abused for fear of damaging their territory's hard-won stability and its quest for international recognition. Many people told Human Rights Watch that they are effectively "hostages to peace" - unable to confront Somaliland's deepest problems effectively for fear of upsetting the fragile balance that has kept the territory from going the way of Somalia and other countries in the region.
The repeated delay of Somaliland's presidential election threatens the foundations of its emerging democratic system. President Riyale has twice been granted lengthy extensions of his term by Somaliland's unelected House of Elders. The election is currently scheduled for September 29, but there is considerable uncertainty whether it will take place and under what circumstances.
"Somaliland is at a dangerous crossroads," Gagnon said. "Eighteen years of progress towards democratic governance and general respect for human rights will either be consolidated or endangered, depending on President Riyale's next moves."