Somali women walking in central Mogadishu.

© 2013 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

Yesterday, United States Secretary of State John Kerry made an unprecedented move for someone serving in his position – he spent three hours in Mogadishu, Somalia. Unfortunately, despite goodwill and an important meeting with some civil society leaders, he missed a critical opportunity to publicly press the government for the kinds of reforms most likely to improve the basic rights of all Somalis.

In January 2013, just after the new government of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud took office, the US recognized a sitting government in Somalia after two decades without formal ties. Kerry’s unannounced visit, coupled with plans to upgrade the US diplomatic presence, marks a step forward in the normalization of diplomatic relations.

But Kerry left out three important issues, at least in public comments during his visit:

First, he could have called on the government to do more to prevent and respond to abuses against some of the country’s most vulnerable communities, particularly hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, including women and girls. He should also have pressed for action against widespread and pervasive sexual and gender based violence including sexual exploitation by men in uniform.

Second, he missed an opportunity to remind the government that any semblance of free and fair elections are only possible if the media is free to report on controversial issues and air divergent views without fear of violence or intimidation. That includes from the central and regional authorities. Somalia remains among the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist and this is unlikely to change until government officials lead efforts to better protect the media and free speech.

Lastly, Kerry could have underlined the importance of improving accountability and respect for the rule of law. Somalia may have a hard time improving security for all if the US focuses its support on the military. Ultimately, stability will depend on ending the long and abusive reign of armed groups. Justice sector reform is desperately needed, but training, such as for those in the civilian and military justice systems, can only be effective if the government demonstrates a genuine commitment to make much needed reforms in law and practice.

Kerry’s failure to emphasize the importance of rule of law and accountability was particularly stark because he specifically highlighted them in Kenya and during remarks regarding South Sudan on the same day. Making sure the State Department is consistently aligned with these rhetorical commitments is a hugely important next step, especially because there is already a history of weak follow-through. Somalis should have the same expectations of their government. The US government can play an important role in making that happen.