(New York) - Participants to this week's international meeting on Somalia should press for an immediate end to abuses against civilians by Somalia's transitional government, African Union forces, and armed opposition groups, Human Rights Watch said in an open letter today. 

The International Contact Group, which brings together governments and intergovernmental institutions including the United States, European states, the African Union, the Arab League, and the United Nations to coordinate policy on Somalia, will meet on April 21 and 22, 2010, in Cairo, Egypt.

"The Cairo meeting is an important opportunity for the key international players to begin to fix their broken policies on Somalia," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The place to start is to support an international commission of inquiry into abuses by all sides."

The intervention of foreign governments in Somalia - including some represented in the contact group - has often proved counterproductive to promoting the security of civilians. In its letter to members of the International Contact Group, Human Rights Watch called on participants in the Cairo meeting to make it an urgent priority to re-evaluate their policies toward Somalia and to help end the impunity that fuels the worst abuses.

Somalia has been plagued by armed conflict since the collapse of its last functioning government in 1991 and is suffering a massive humanitarian crisis that has driven two million people from their homes.

On April 19, Human Rights Watch released a report, "Harsh War, Harsh Peace: Abuses by al-Shabaab, the Transitional Federal Government, and AMISOM in Somalia," which describes widespread abuses by all parties to the conflict.

The Islamist group al-Shabaab and other armed groups regularly fire mortar rounds indiscriminately into populated neighborhoods in the capital, Mogadishu, which is partly controlled by the Transitional Federal Government. These often result in retaliatory mortar attacks by transitional government forces and the 5,300-member African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which also strike civilians indiscriminately. Human Rights Watch interviewed people on both sides of the lines who witnessed family members being torn to pieces in such attacks, which violate the laws of war.

Human Rights Watch also documented pervasive abuses by al-Shabaab in the vast swaths of southern and central Somalia that are under its control. Based on over 70 interviews with victims and witnesses, Human Rights Watch found that the cost to the local population - especially to women - of the increased stability in many of the areas al-Shabaab has taken over since 2008 has been very high. Al-Shabaab has subjected populations under its control to targeted killings and assaults, repressive social control, and cruel punishments such as decapitations, amputations, and floggings that are meted out regularly and without due process.