War crimes and the devastation of Somalia

Human Rights Watch (HRW) / December 10, 2008


Somalia is a nation in ruins, mired in one of the world's most brutal armed conflicts of recent years. Two long years of escalating bloodshed and destruction have devastated the country's people and laid waste to its capital Mogadishu. Ethiopian, Somali transitional government, and insurgent forces have all violated the laws of war with impunity, forcing ordinary Somalis to bear the brunt of their armed struggle.

Beyond its own borders Somalia has had a reputation for violent chaos since the collapse of its last central government in 1991. When Ethiopian military forces intervened there in late 2006 the country already bore the scars of 16 conflict-ridden years without a government.

But the last two years are not just another typical chapter in Somalia's troubled history. The human rights and humanitarian catastrophe facing Somalia today threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions of Somalis on a scale not witnessed since the early 1990s.

In December 2006 Ethiopian military forces, acting at the invitation of the internationally recognized but wholly ineffectual Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), intervened in Somalia against the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The ICU was a coalition of shari'a (Islamic law) courts that had taken control of Mogadishu in June 2006 after ousting the various warlords who controlled most of the city. At the time the ICU had begun what might have been a dramatic rise to power across much of south-central Somalia. But Ethiopia viewed that development with great alarm; leading figures associated with the ICU had openly threatened war on Ethiopia and talked of annexing the whole of Ethiopia's eastern Somali region.

Ethiopia's ally the TFG was corrupt and feeble and it welcomed the Ethiopian military support. In 2006 it had a physical presence in only two towns, provided no useful services to Somalis, and with the ICU's ascendancy was becoming increasingly irrelevant. The United States, which denounced ICU leaders for harboring wanted terrorists, supported Ethiopia's actions with political backing and military assistance.

The Ethiopian military easily routed the ICU's militias. For a few days it appeared that they had won an easy victory and that the TFG had ridden Ethiopia's coattails into power in Mogadishu. But the first insurgent attacks against Ethiopian and TFG forces began almost immediately and rapidly built towards a protracted conflict that has since grown worse with every passing month. Opposition forces coalesced around a broad group of ICU leaders, former parliamentarians, and others known as the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia, around the fundamentalist Al-Shabaab insurgent group and around numerous other largely autonomous armed factions.

During the past two years life in Mogadishu has settled into a horrifying daily rhythm with Ethiopian, TFG, and insurgent forces conducting urban firefights and pounding one another with artillery fire with no regard for the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in the city. The bombardments are largely indiscriminate, lobbed into densely populated neighborhoods with no adequate effort made to guide them to their intended targets. Insurgents lob mortar shells from populated neighborhoods that crash through the roofs of families living near TFG police stations and Ethiopian bases. Ethiopian and TFG forces respond with sustained salvos of mortar, artillery, and rocket fire that destroy homes and their inhabitants near the launching points of the fast-departed insurgents. Fighting regularly breaks out between insurgents and Ethiopian or TFG forces and all too often civilians are caught in the crossfire.

The warring parties in Somalia have been responsible for numerous serious human rights abuses. TFG security forces and militias have terrorized the population by subjecting citizens to murder, rape, assault, and looting. Insurgent fighters subject perceived critics or TFG collaborators—including people who took menial jobs in TFG offices or sold water to Ethiopian soldiers—to death threats and targeted killings. The discipline of Ethiopian soldiers in Somalia has broken down to the point where they increasingly are responsible for violent criminality. Victims have no way to file a complaint—the TFG police force has itself been implicated in many of the worst abuses, including the arbitrary arrests of ordinary civilians to extort ransom from their families.

Two years of unconstrained warfare and violent rights abuses have helped to generate an ever-worsening humanitarian crisis, without adequate response. Since January 2007 at least 870,000 civilians have fled the chaos in Mogadishu alone—two-thirds of the city's population. Across south-central Somalia, 1.1 million Somalis are displaced from their homes. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people are living in squalid camps along the Mogadishu-Afgooye road that have themselves become theaters of brutal fighting.

Thousands of Somali refugees pour across the country's borders every month fleeing the relentless violence. Freelance militias have robbed, murdered, and raped displaced persons on the roads south towards Kenya. Hundreds of Somalis have drowned this year in desperate attempts to cross the Gulf of Aden by boat to Yemen. In spite of the dangers, thousands make these journeys every month. As a result the Dadaab refugee camps in northeastern Kenya are now the largest in the world with a collective population of more than 220,000.

Somalia's humanitarian needs are enormous. Humanitarian organizations estimate that more than 3.25 million Somalis—over 40 percent of the population of south-central Somalia— will be in urgent need of assistance by the end of 2008. But violence, particularly targeted attacks on aid workers, is preventing the flow of needed aid. This past year has seen a wave of death threats and targeted killings against civil society activists and humanitarian workers in Somalia. At least 29 humanitarian workers have been killed in 2008 and the threat of more attacks has driven many of the very people Somalia most needs in this time of crisis to flee the country.

As shocking as these statistics are, the full horror of the crisis in Somalia can only be understood through the experiences of the ordinary people whose lives it has shattered. Human Rights Watch interviewed a young boy whose wounds from an insurgent bomb attack were festering in Kenya's under-resourced refugee camps. Others saw their relatives cut down by stray bullets during wild and indiscriminate exchanges of gunfire. One young man saw his parents shot and killed for arguing with TFG security personnel. A pregnant teenage girl told Human Rights Watch that she was gang raped by TFG forces. Another young man was overwhelmed with rage after seeing his sisters and mother raped by Ethiopian soldiers who had killed his father.

No party to the conflict in Somalia has made any significant effort to hold accountable those responsible for war crimes and serious human rights abuses. The grim reality of widespread impunity for serious crimes is compounded by the fact that both TFG and insurgent forces are fragmented into multiple sets of largely autonomous actors. TFG security forces are not regularly paid and often act as freelance militias rather than disciplined security forces.

Somalia's conflict has international as well as domestic dimensions. For Somalia's regional neighbors—Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Kenya—the conflict creates immediate security risks. Regional and western governments are currently trying to play an active role in supporting peace talks between the TFG and opposition groups in Djibouti. With key warring factions refusing to take part, however, these have made virtually no progress.

This report recognizes that there is no "quick fix" to bring about respect for human rights, stability, and peace in Somalia. However this does not justify a lack of political will to engage with problems that past international involvement in Somalia helped create, let alone policies by outside powers that are making the situation worse. Many key foreign governments have played deeply destructive roles in Somalia and bear responsibility for exacerbating the conflict.

The poisonous relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea have greatly contributed to Somalia's crisis. Eritrea has treated Somalia primarily as a useful theater of proxy war against Ethiopian forces in the country, while one of Ethiopia's reasons for intervening was a fear that an ICU-dominated Somalia would align itself with Eritrea and shelter Ethiopian rebel fighters as Eritrea has done.

Ethiopia has legitimate security interests in Somalia, but has not lived up to its responsibility to prevent and respond to war crimes and serious human rights abuses by its forces in the country. Ethiopia's government has failed to even acknowledge, let alone investigate and ensure accountability for the crimes of its force. This only serves to entrench the impunity that encourages more abuses.

United States policy towards Somalia largely revolves around fears of international terrorist networks using the country as a base. The United States directly backed Ethiopia's intervention in Somalia and has provided strong political backing to the TFG. But US officials have refused to meaningfully confront or even publicly acknowledge the extent of Ethiopian military and TFG abuses in the country. The US approach is not only failing to address the rights and suffering of millions of Somalis but is counterproductive in its own terms, breeding the very extremism that it is supposed to defeat.

The European Union and key European governments have also failed to address the human rights dimensions of the crisis, with many officials hoping that somehow unfettered support to abusive TFG forces will improve stability.

Now is the time for fresh thinking and new political will on Somalia. Human Rights Watch calls upon all of the parties to the conflict in Somalia to end the patterns of war crimes and human rights abuses that have harmed countless Somalis and to ensure accountability for past abuses. This can only come to pass with much stronger and more principled engagement by key governments that have hitherto turned a blind eye to the extent and nature of conflict-related abuses in Somalia.

International engagement must take into account the rights and needs of the Somali people. It should include better monitoring of past and ongoing abuses and, as a starting point, a commitment at the UN Security Council to establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate serious crimes in Somalia. Key governments should also use their diplomatic leverage with Ethiopian, TFG, and opposition leaders to insist upon accountability and an end to the daily attacks upon Somalia's beleaguered citizens.

In the short term, Human Rights Watch calls upon the TFG to immediately suspend officials implicated in serious human rights abuses pending the outcome of independent investigations. The Ethiopian government should launch a full investigation into abuses by Ethiopian military forces in Somalia and immediately halt the practice of indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas. Insurgent groups should immediately halt targeted killings of civilians, indiscriminate attacks, and obstructions to the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

In Washington, the new administration of US President Barack Obama should urgently review US policy in Somalia and the broader Horn of Africa and break with the failed approach of his predecessor. European governments should follow suit, beginning by reversing the harmful actions of European Commission policymakers who have funneled donor money to abusive TFG security forces. The UN Security Council should establish a Commission of Inquiry to map widespread international crimes and pave the way for ending the impunity that has helped create the catastrophic situation that prevails today.