In September 2014, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing sexual exploitation and abuse by soldiers from Burundi and Uganda deployed to Somalia as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The following are answers to questions raised by some of the actors addressed in the report.
1. Why did Human Rights Watch select this topic for research?
The Human Rights Watch mandate is to document and report on violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law (the laws of war) by all parties to a conflict, with the aim of promoting and protecting the human rights of civilians and other non-combatants. In Somalia, Human Rights Watch has reported on a range of issues over many years, including indiscriminate and targeted attacks on civilians by all parties, including Al-Shabaab, the Somali government, and AMISOM.
Over the past two years the scope and scale of abuses against Mogadishu’s internally displaced communities, including sexual and gender-based violence, raised increasing concerns. That led to a report in February 2014 on widespread sexual violence against displaced women and girls in Mogadishu. This report showed that, in addition to non-military perpetrators, Somali government forces and allied militia have been responsible for serious patterns of sexual violence against women and girls.
Human Rights Watch focused on sexual exploitation and abuse by AMISOM soldiers after survivors came forward and described their experiences during the research for the February report. Simultaneously, various interlocutors reported that AMISOM and the troop-contributing countries were not adequately investigating and prosecuting these cases.
Addressing alleged misconduct by AMISOM forces and highlighting the need for appropriate response by AMISOM and troop-contributing forces is essential to reducing these abuses. Addressing the crisis of sexual violence in Somalia requires concerted efforts by all actors, including AMISOM, which works closely with Somali government forces, to ensure that sexual violence and exploitation by armed forces is identified and appropriately handled.
2. How did Human Rights Watch carry out the research?
Human Rights Watch interviews victims and witnesses who can provide first-hand accounts as the primary basis for the organization’s research. For this report, Human Rights Watch researchers and a consultant interviewed women and girls who alleged having suffered rape, sexual assault, and exploitation at the hands of AMISOM soldiers. People to be interviewed were identified through a range of channels, and the researchers sought to corroborate accounts with secondary sources, including reports by nongovernmental organizations and media. Because of concerns about confidentiality and the risk of reprisals against any interviewees, especially survivors and witnesses of sexual abuse and exploitation, Human Rights Watch was in contact with AMISOM officials, as described below, rather than visiting the base. For further information see the methodology section in the report.
3. Why did Human Rights Watch focus on Mogadishu, the capital, and troops from Uganda and Burundi?
Conducting research in Somalia presents complex security challenges for both researchers and interviewees. Research involving sexual violence is particularly difficult given the reluctance of many survivors of sexual abuse and exploitation to speak about their experience, due to stigma and their fears of reprisals. Human Rights Watch did not conduct interviews outside of Mogadishu primarily due to security concerns. AMISOM troops currently based in Mogadishu are largely from Uganda and Burundi and so the majority of the interviewees had direct experience with those troops.
4. Did Human Rights Watch engage with AMISOM, the African Union (AU), and troop-contributing countries?
Human Rights Watch engaged with key interlocutors throughout the various phases of the research, both in writing and in person. Copies of the correspondence with AMISOM, Uganda, and Burundi are in the report annexes.
Human Rights Watch also met with AMISOM officials in Mogadishu in February to discuss initial concerns about alleged sexual exploitation and abuse by AMISOM personnel and forces. In May, Human Rights Watch shared the initial findings and posed research questions to the former Special Representative of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission for Somalia and the Force Commander of AMISOM in writing. Their responses feature prominently in the report both in the annexes and in the text.
Given that troop-contributing countries exercise exclusive jurisdiction over their forces’ conduct, Human Rights Watch also sought to engage with representatives of the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) and the Burundian National Defense Forces (BNDF) in Kampala, Uganda, and Bujumbura, Burundi, respectively, in April.
After interviewing various military officials, including officers and legal advisers in Uganda and Burundi, Human Rights Watch sent letters with an initial summary of the findings and research questions to the chief of the UPDF and the chief of staff of the BNDF. The response of the Burundian Chief of Staff is included in the annexes of the report. The Ugandan Chief of Defence Forces never responded to the queries but emailed to say that “happenings within AMISOM controlled areas should be addressed to AMISOM FORCE HQS for investigation/ response.” Prior to the release of the report Human Rights Watch sent the African Union Commission Chairperson a more detailed summary of the report and key recommendations, and Human Rights Watch met with AU officials in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to discuss the report in advance of its publication.
5. Did Human Rights Watch share names of victims and other identifying details of the cases documented in the report with AMISOM and the troop-contributing countries so that they can investigate each case?
With two exceptions, none of the women and girls Human Rights Watch interviewed for this report had publicly spoken out about the abuse or filed a complaint. They said they feared the very real risk of reprisals from perpetrators, the government authorities, and the Islamist insurgent group Al-Shabaab, as well as retribution from their own families. Some said they felt powerless and worried about the social stigma they would face if their complaint was to be made public. Others questioned the purpose of complaining when there is limited redress. Some were reluctant to lose their only source of income. Irrespective of their reasons, if victims of human rights violations wish to maintain confidentiality, Human Rights Watch is obliged to respect this decision.
In addition, the record of the Somali government in investigating and prosecuting perpetrators of rape is dire. In 2013, a woman who reported a rape by a member the Somali armed forces was convicted of the crime of “tarnishing state institutions.” That case casts a long shadow and makes it very difficult to encourage women to report their experiences to authorities.
Human Rights Watch welcomes any opportunity to discuss with the AU, AMISOM, troop- contributing countries, and the Somali government how they may conduct credible investigations into these allegations and promote an environment more conducive to women and girls coming forward to report sexual violence, while ensuring that those who do report abuse are protected from reprisals.
6. Did the research into these individual incidents enable Human Rights Watch to draw broad conclusions about the situation for women and girls?
Human Rights Watch interviewed 21 women and girls who experienced sexual exploitation and other abuses, despite the research challenges described above and in the methodology section of the report. These research constraints make it difficult to precisely ascertain the scale or prevalence of sexual abuse. Human Rights Watch is concerned that the scale of the problem is under-reported and significantly larger than the 21 cases documented. The report highlights the evidence that supports this concern. For example, the survivors interviewed described seeing other women and girls in similar circumstances on the AMISOM bases over prolonged periods. Some said they had been recruited directly from their displacement camps by women and girls already engaged in sex for money on the AMISOM base camp.
In addition, the tactics used to lure women documented in the report, such as the reliance on Somali translators and intermediaries, the recruitment of women and girls from the hospitals, women entering through guarded gates of the camps, and sexual intercourse between Somali women and soldiers occurring in AMISOM housing, is suggestive of a broader problem of abuses and that they were not random or isolated incidents.
7. Is the Human Rights Watch report likely to have any impact on AMISOM’s latest military offensive against Al-Shabaab?
The work Human Rights Watch does is guided by international human rights and humanitarian law and respect for the dignity of each human being. The organization does not embrace political causes, is non-partisan, and maintains neutrality in armed conflict. The timing of the publication of reports is primarily guided by the research itself and opportunities for impact. Given ongoing policy discussions by AMISOM and the AU on sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers, this is an important moment to constructively contribute to the development of that policy, which will have implications well beyond Somalia, for all AU peacekeeping missions. Human Rights Watch seeks to contribute to those policy discussions in a timely way and provide recommendations to ensure that future policies and budget decisions are based on credible evidence, best practices, and international law.
AMISOM has previously dismissed allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse on its base camp on the grounds that the cases were either isolated or outdated or both. This report specifically includes cases of exploitation and abuse since August 2013. This highlights that the problem is ongoing and that measures taken by AMISOM and the troop-contributing countries have not been sufficient.
8. Are the AU and AMISOM already providing training and awareness-raising on the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse?
The Human Rights Watch report includes steps taken by the AU and AMISOM over the last year aimed at establishing institutional policies and structures to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse. Human Rights Watch also assessed how troop-contributing countries have to varying degrees deployed legal officers, military investigators, and intelligence officers to Somalia to investigate misconduct by their troops as well as conducting pre-deployment training.
However, Human Rights Watch concluded that troop-contributing countries have not sufficiently used the investigative and legal resources at their disposal to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse. Legal advisers deployed to Somalia told Human Rights Watch that they had not participated in any boards of inquiry into sexual exploitation and abuses. It appears that very few cases involving Somali victims were heard by Uganda’s divisional court martial when it was posted to Mogadishu for a year and Human Rights Watch identified only one case of rape, of a child, pending before a military court in Uganda.
In addition, as the then-Special Representative of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission for Somalia, Mahamat Saleh Annadif, acknowledged in his response to Human Rights Watch’s queries, AMISOM has not developed appropriate investigative capacity and complaints mechanisms. Human Rights Watch found that the one board of inquiry at the AMISOM headquarters level established following allegations of gang-rape by Ugandan soldiers in Mogadishu in August 2013 was clearly inadequate.
There is a need for the AU, AMISOM, and the troop-contributing countries to reinforce steps to prevent sexual abuse, for example by ensuring further training, review, and endorsement of AMISOM’s draft policy on the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse and helping to create an environment that is conducive for women and girls to report abuses. The AU and AMISOM should also make new responses to the problem a priority, notably the development of an investigative unit at the AU level.
No matter what happens at a policy level, it is evident that troop-contributing countries should hold courts martial in Somalia to facilitate the participation of local victims and witnesses at trial and show all Somalis that there is justice and accountability for wrongdoing. Beyond the legal duty to ensure justice, this would be an important contribution to AMISOM’s mentoring role for the Somali army.
9. Has Human Rights Watch done other research on UN peacekeepers in Congo and other countries who were involved in sexual exploitation and abuse?
Human Rights Watch is concerned about sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers and other armed forces wherever they occur, and has documented and reported on such abuses by UN troops in other contexts. As the AU strengthens and extends its peacekeeping operations in Africa, it is vital for it to learn from the UN’s early mistakes and to improve efforts to effectively prevent these abuses and hold perpetrators to account. The AU has the opportunity to implement a “zero-tolerance” policy early on and establish institutional frameworks that the UN only created after a series of high-profile scandals involving their forces that significantly undermined their credibility.
Even after the UN took active measures, the only response has often been to rotate those responsible for the abuses out of the UN mission. Only in a small number of cases were charges brought by the home country (whether civilian or military). Abuses by civilians in peacekeeping missions have often been overlooked in initial investigations.
The UN has carried out some effective initiatives, including strong investigations by an independent investigator outside of the board of inquiry process; strong and public reporting on sexual exploitation and abuse by the political leadership of the UN peacekeeping missions; and significant political backing for initial disciplinary action.