Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

The government of the Union of Islamic Courts has been ousted but a weak and ineffectual Transitional Federal Government has left the country and people of Somalia in a state of chaos and violence with no protection against horrendous human rights violations, states Birgit Michaelis.

In Mogadishu, the air is thick with gunfire. Nearly every night, the sound of bullets and artillery fire can be heard throughout the city. Unidentified gunmen carry out attacks on Ethiopian troops. The presidential compound was targeted by heavy mortar fire; houses in the neighbourhood were also hit. The ambushes left many civilians and soldiers dead. Suspicion falls on Islamist remnants who have vowed guerrilla war. For their part, Ethiopian forces randomly open gun and artillery fire on civilians and have claimed several casualties. Warlords are back in the city and checkpoints, where clan militia raise funds by extorting money from motorists, have reappeared on roads leading out of the capital. Freelance militia and bandits are taking advantage of the power vacuum and there is an increase in robbery. Residents fear Mogadishu could slide back into the anarchy that gripped the city after 1991, when the former dictator Siad Barre had been ousted, and await to see whether the government will be able to cope with the chaos.

Until recently, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) controlled all but a small area of south and central Somalia. With Ethiopia’s support, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) only maintained control over its seat of government, the south western town of Baidoa. At the end of December, US-supported Ethiopian troops carried out a pre-emptive attack against Somalia. The invasion, in violation of international law and the UN Security Council Resolution 1725, proved easier than expected. The comparatively more powerful Ethiopian army allied with a militia loyal to the TFG to achieve their objective of regime change and overthrew the Islamists. The TFG is now seeking to install itself in Mogadishu and faces a huge challenge in trying to bring peace and security to the war-torn country.

Ethiopia is still reducing the numbers of its forces in Somalia. On 20 January, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council approved the deployment of a peacekeeping force for an initial period of six months. So far, only Uganda, Malawi and Nigeria have pledged to contribute to the AU force. Other countries are considering possible contributions. The mission's role would be "to provide support to the Transitional Federal Institutions in their efforts towards the stabilisation of the situation in the country and the furtherance of dialogue". Many Somalis doubt if the TFG, which has no military power, will be able to fill the power vacuum when the Ethiopian troops leave before the peacekeeping force is deployed in Somalia.

As violence escalates throughout the country, many commentators stress that after more than a decade of brutal fighting the Islamists, which controlled large parts of south and central Somalia from June to December 2006, established security and stability by expelling the hated warlords and offered something comparable to a government while the weak and divided TFG had been unable to reign. The UIC, with known militants within its leadership, imposed a harsh rule on the basis of a strict interpretation of Islamic law, the Sharia, in contrast with the moderate Islam that has dominated Somali culture for centuries. The hard-liners within the UIC wanted an Islamic Somali state where the Qur’ is the constitution and the Sharia is the only source of legislation. The secular constitution of the transitional institutions, which emanated from peace talks in Kenya from 2002-2004, is in contradiction of this plan. This fundamental contradiction was the most important obstacle to reconciliation between the UIC and the TFG. In the case of the emergence of an Islamic state in Somalia the transitional institutions would have been dissolved. The UIC’s interpretation of Sharia led to gross human rights violations such as public executions and public floggings. Their strict rule consisted of permanent violations of recognized international and African human rights treaties and standards.

In October last year, a group of children was arrested for playing football during the holy month of Ramadan in Mogadishu’s Boondheere district and detained in prison for over five hours. They were only released after their parents pledged that they will never again allow them to play ball. On 17 October an Islamic court released a fatwa to arrest all members of the National Music Committee of Somalia which forms part of the UNESCO’s International Music Council. Furthermore, it imposed the death penalty on the musicians for making music deemed as un-Islamic. A fatwa is a legal pronouncement in Islam made by a scholar permitted to issue judgments on Sharia. On 6 December, an Islamic court in Bulo Burto, southern Somalia, announced an edict that residents who do not pray five times a day will be beheaded. During prayer time, shops and tea houses should close and no one should be in the streets. The UIC restored security by ending years of massive human rights abuses against civilians by armed factions, but these few examples demonstrate that this happened very much at the cost of fundamental freedoms. Since the takeover of the Islamists thousands have fled the country for fear of being prosecuted or being forcibly recruited by the militias. It is doubtful if there was such an overwhelming support for the UIC as was widely reported.

The presence of foreign troops has not only profoundly changed the political dynamics in Somalia, but has also aggravated the already dire humanitarian and human rights situation in the severely impoverished country. Somalis are suffering the consequences of a triple humanitarian crisis: drought, flood and now conflict. An estimated 2 million people have been affected by the worst drought in a decade. Pastoralists in particular have been weakened by persistent droughts in recent years and have been forced to move their families to towns and villages in search of food and water. In November and December last year an estimated 400,000 people were directly affected by rivers that breached their banks and flash floods that followed heavy rainfall. Hundreds of towns and villages were hit, homes destroyed or seriously damaged and roads cut off. An estimated 1.4 million Somalis urgently need humanitarian assistance. To make matters worse, the recent fighting between the allied forces (Ethiopian and Somali government forces) and the Islamists complicates the humanitarian situation. Aid agencies have suspended some planned relief operations due to security concerns. In some regions, there is restricted access for humanitarian workers trying to reach vulnerable populations and there have been incidents of aid staff being harassed and detained by Ethiopian troops.

Between 65,000 and 70,000 people are estimated to have been displaced by the fighting between the TFG and the UIC. At least 1,000 people are estimated to have been killed, mostly between Mogadishu and Baidoa in south and central zones, of whom 700 have not been buried, the World Health Organization says. The US and Ethiopian air strikes in mid-January on Afmadow near the Kenyan border had a grave humanitarian impact as they left more than 40 people and several hundreds livestock dead. The animals safeguard the livelihood of rural communities. The bombardment took place in an area known as a very good pastureland, with the highest concentration of cattle in the Juba valley. Hundreds of families fled their houses. Most of those killed were in a convoy of donkeys carrying sugar to the outlying villages, which have been rendered inaccessible due to recent heavy rains. The raids, backed by the Somali government, targeted alleged Islamists and al-Qaeda members believed by the United States to be hiding in the region. The US denies any civilian casualties as international humanitarian law prohibits direct attacks on civilians or civilian objects. On 22 January, US forces carried out a fresh air strike in southern Somalia. The number of wounded civilians and killed livestock is still unknown. A Pentagon spokesman said the US would continue to pursue members of al-Qaeda, wherever they were.

There are reports that during the recent fighting camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) had come under grenade attack. Before the invasion Somalia counted 400,000 IDPs. The largest IDP population -an estimated quarter of a million people- lives in Mogadishu where for years they have been abused by gunmen who control their sites. The appalling situation of IDPs in Somalia has remained below any minimum acceptable standard, and is among the worst in Africa. Often IDPs remain displaced long even after the violence that caused their original displacement has abated. While remaining in situations of protracted displacement, many IDPs and other vulnerable populations face discrimination, restrictions on their freedom of movement and political rights, exploitation and physical violence, difficulties accessing basic social services as well as limited income earning opportunities. Most IDPs survive through a mixture of casual work and begging and their income is barely sufficient for one meal a day, resulting in high malnutrition and mortality rates. IDP camps are particularly dangerous places for women as the number of rapes is very high with an estimated one third of cases involving children under the age of 16. Now there are up to 70,000 more IDPs who will face discrimination because many of them are separated from their traditional support mechanisms, including their clan base. As long as insecurity prevails, their future is uncertain and unresolved displacement crises will remain constant sources of instability.

The situation of refugees who want to leave the country is no better. On 3 January, several thousand asylum seekers fleeing recent fighting in Somalia were stranded near the border with Kenya, which has blocked their entry. Kenya has stepped up security along its border with Somalia in a bid to prevent militias loyal to the UIC entering the country. Between 4,000 and 7,000 asylum-seekers have gathered around the border town of Dobley in the hope of entering Kenya. They are mainly women and children. Only after two weeks was the World Food Programme able to access the area and provide them with food assistance. Kenya already hosts more than 160,000 Somali refugees, but the closure of its border violates international law protecting refugees.

According to Ethiopian human rights defenders there is a crackdown on Oromo refugees within Somalia. During the last four decades, thousands of Oromo, which are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, fled persecution in their country and have sought refuge in Somalia. Since the arrival of Ethiopian troops in Somalia they become the target of harassments and arbitrary detentions. Some of them were reportedly forcibly returned to Ethiopia where they are at risk of serious human rights violations.

Civilian casualties far outnumber those of armed combatants. Women and children are most affected by fighting. Scores of women and children have been separated from their families or wounded in fighting between Somali government forces and remnants of the UIC. Women suffer disproportionately and differently from militarization and war. Fleeing without the protection of their communities or male relatives they face heightened risk of sexual violence, including rape. They may be forced to offer sex in return for safe passage, food and shelter. Further, they risk injuries from mines or unexploded ordnance and attacks by armed fighters. There are reports of women being raped by the allied forces during the recent conflict in what amounts to a war crime. Armed militia setting up roadblocks in Mogadishu also put women at risk of being raped. The factors which contribute to violence against women in armed conflict have their roots in the pervasive discrimination they faced before the conflict broke out. Women in Somali society are politically, socially and economically marginalized. They do not have access to political participation and were marginalized in the peace talks in Kenya in 2002-2004 leading to an under-representation in the TFG. Domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape are widespread, although there is a culture of denial. To safeguard the family’s honour, some rape victims are forced to marry the perpetrator. Early forced marriage occurs. Female genital mutilation continues to be inflicted on 99% of Somali girls. Girls’ education lags far behind boys’ education. Only 22% of children have access to primary school education with a third being girls and the Ethiopian invasion has severely affected school enrolment.

Children had featured prominently in recent fighting as active combatants. However, a spokesman for Somalia's Transitional Federal Government has denied recruiting underage soldiers. There are also reports that the UIC has declared publicly its intention to recruit from schools. In Mogadishu, children were randomly shot in the street while others risk being recruited to fight by re-emerging warlords. Thousands of Somali children have been separated from their parents and are unaccompanied making them prey to child traffickers and sexual exploitation. Some have lost one or both parents and others are left with no surviving family members. The psychological scars children bear after witnessing such attacks have long-term effects. Child soldiers, in particular, suffer deep-seated trauma that persists long after the fighting has ended.

This reflects the violations of children’s human rights on many fronts. Infant mortality is the highest in the world and a quarter of children are stunted from lack of food. Child labour is rampant. Some 200,000 Somali children (5%) have at some time in their lives carried a gun or been involved in militia activities. More than a quarter of both children and adults (26% and 31% respectively) have been exposed to a serious or traumatic event caused by conflict. In the absence of a functioning public service following the overthrow of the Siad Barre government and the disintegration of the state into civil war in 1991, a whole generation has been deprived of the right to education and most of the population has no access to health care.

Somalis are war-weary and desperate for peace and respect for human rights. Human rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent international human rights treaties and standards are indivisible, interdependent and inter-related. All rights are of equal value and cannot be separated. Violations of economic, social and cultural rights – such as failure to protect land rights, denying education rights and inadequate provision of health care – are linked with civil and political rights violations in patterns of denial. No human right can be realized in isolation from other rights. The large-scale violations of civil and political rights in Somalia demand a holistic response. The right to effective political participation, important with regard to clan hostilities, depends on a free media and the right to freedom of expression, but also on an educated and literate population. Land and housing rights will be better realized if a fair and effective system for the administration of justice is in place.

Amnesty International is making an urgent call for human rights to be made a priority. The TFG should ensure that it reflects the human rights aspirations of the Somali people. A first step would be to start dialogue and reconciliation with all groups and factions. A second one would be to make assiduous efforts for reconstruction. This includes measures such as back-to-school programmes, income-generation activities, establishment of a fair judicial system and a health care system, resettlement of internally displaced persons and the demobilisation and reintegration of militias. As the disarmament process is ongoing, demobilized members of faction militias should be offered alternatives such as education, vocational training and job opportunities. If they are not given an alternative to the gun, they will return to it, with all the consequences that entails. The Somali government now has a unique chance to turn desperation to hope.

* Birgit Michaelis is the country coordinator for Kenya, Tanzania and Somalia of Amnesty International - German section.

* Please send comments to or comment online at