Children recruited by the armed Islamist group al-Shabaab, at a training camp in the Afgooye Corridor, west of Mogadishu, southern Somalia, in February 2011.

© 2011 Private

When the new Somali president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, took office in September, the United States encouraged him to “usher in a new era of governance that is responsive, representative, and accountable.” This week, President Hassan Sheikh is in Washington to discuss how to get this done.

Since the collapse of the Somali state in 1991, the country has been wracked by civil conflict with serious human rights abuses by all sides. The human rights situation remains poor in areas under government control, while the Islamist armed group al-Shabaab continues to commit serious abuses throughout the country. Somalia needs U.S. support to address the cycles of violence that have plagued its people for more than two decades. This means that human rights and accountability should be high on this week’s agenda, including in discussions about Somalia’s security and stability.

The U.S. should set six pillars as the foundation for its ongoing engagement in Somalia:

First, the U.S. should work with the new government to help it reclaim a monopoly on protecting its citizens. Since al-Shabaab withdrew from much of Mogadishu last year, clan and freelance militias – many of them loyal to local politicians, including former warlords – have reassumed control of parts of the city. In some places, the police are mostly spectators. Peace will mean little to Mogadishu’s residents, including many who fled famine and fighting in southern parts of the country over the last two years, until the militias are brought to heel. Disarming, demobilizing and reintegrating hundreds of thousands of armed men in Somalia will not be easy, but it’s crucial. Somalia’s much abused population should not be forced to look to clan militias or even to the militants of al-Shabaab again to fill the protection gap.

Next, the United States must take the lead in bringing human rights reform and accountability to the security services. Militia members are not the only ones committing abuses. The U.N. and others are extremely concerned about the high levels of sexual and gender based violence in Mogadishu. The U.S. should set clear benchmarks for respecting international humanitarian and human rights law and place accountability for serious abuses such as rape and torture at the heart of further support for government forces. The police need help to investigate these crimes properly and ensure access to services for victims. And Somalia needs an effective vetting mechanism to keep those responsible for past abuses out of government forces.

The U.S. should also help the government protect journalists. It should support investigations into the numerous deaths of journalists in the last few years, including 15 killed in government-controlled areas in 2012 alone, the deadliest year on record. Access to information is crucial to progress in Somalia. Journalists, who have played a critical and fearless role in reporting on the country’s conflict, need to know they cannot be attacked with impunity. But so far, there have been no prosecutions for journalists’ killings. While the U.S. should commend President Hassan Sheikh’s commitment to set up a task force to look into these killings, it should push for speedy, concrete results. The ongoing detention of a freelance journalist, Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim, for interviewing a woman who alleges she was raped by security forces, shows that the police are currently part of the problem facing the media in Somalia, rather than part of the solution.

Another critical need is to get children out of the security forces and back to school. The U.S. should continue to work with the government to prevent the recruitment and use of children within its forces, including vetting the age of recruits. The U.S. should also be making sure that detention of alleged former child soldiers by the national security agency and other security forces is a measure of last resort. This will mean expanding access to child protection activities such as demobilization, rehabilitation, and reintegration programs that include psycho-social counseling, vocational training, and schooling.

The U.S. should also throw its weight behind a beefed-up U.N. human rights monitoring team in Somalia. The U.N. is reviewing its presence in Somalia this month, so the United States should call for a significant increase in the number of U.N. human rights monitors. A regular flow of credible information on human rights from the ground, especially in areas of southern Somalia where information on the various actors and armed groups is more limited, is key to deterring violations and ensuring accountability.

Finally, the U.S. should help Somalia tackle longstanding impunity by supporting establishment of an international commission of inquiry to map and document some of the worst abuses over the past years. This would be a groundbreaking effort to provide a basis for future accountability. Any attempts to seek truth or justice would draw on such a commission and its very existence could serve as a deterrent to would-be criminals.

At long last, there is room for optimism in Somalia. Previous transitional authorities have quickly lost ground because they and their international partners have not made human rights and accountability a priority. President Sheikh Mohamud and key supporters such as the U.S. will need to focus on these issues for this optimism to endure and become a reality.

 Maria Burnett is a senior researcher in the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch.