Abuses by All Sides Contribute to Current Crisis
(Nairobi) – All parties to Somalia’s armed conflict have committed serious violations of the laws of war that are contributing to the country’s humanitarian catastrophe, Human Rights
Watch said in a report released today. All sides should immediately end abuses against civilians, hold those responsible to account, and ensure access to aid and free movement of people fleeing conflict and drought.
The 58-page report, “‘You Don’t Know Who to Blame’: War Crimes in Somalia,” documents numerous abuses during renewed fighting in the past year by parties to the 20-year-long conflict in Somalia. These include the Islamist armed group al-Shabaab, the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the African Union
peacekeeping forces (AMISOM), and Kenya- and Ethiopia-backed Somali militias. The report also examines abuses by the Kenyan police and
crimes committed by bandits in neighboring Kenya against Somali refugees.
“Abuses by al-Shabaab and pro-government forces have vastly multiplied the suffering from Somalia’s famine,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, “All sides need to take urgent steps to stop these unlawful attacks, let in aid, and end this humanitarian nightmare.”
The report, based on interviews with recently arrived Somali refugees in Kenya and other sources, examines two major TFG offensives against al-Shabaab since September 2010. Civilians have borne the brunt of the fighting, Human Rights Watch said.
All sides have used artillery in the capital, Mogadishu, in an unlawful manner that has caused civilian casualties. Al-Shabaab has fired mortars indiscriminately from densely populated areas, and the TFG and AMISOM forces have often responded in kind with indiscriminate counterattacks. As a result, civilians have not known where to turn for
protection. While al-Shabaab’s reported withdrawal from Mogadishu may bring some respite to civilians in the capital from the incessant fighting, future abuses are likely unless the warring parties take assertive measures to end them, Human Rights Watch said.
“Both sides don’t spare the public,” a woman who had fled Mogadishu told Human Rights Watch. “Sometimes it happens that the person you had breakfast with in the morning is killed by mortars in the afternoon.
Somalis also described to Human Rights Watch unrelenting daily repression and brutality in areas under al-Shabaab control. Harsh punishments, notably floggings and summary executions, including public beheadings, are common and meted out against those who violate the militants’ oppressive laws or who are accused of being traitors.
Al-Shabaab forcibly recruits children and adults into its forces. It deprives inhabitants under its rule of badly needed humanitarian assistance, including food and water, and prevents people from fleeing to safer areas.
The TFG has largely failed to provide basic security and human rights protections in the limited areas under its control, Human Rights Watch said. It and its allied militias have committed serious rights violations, including widespread arbitrary arrest and detention, restrictions on free speech and assembly, and indiscriminate attacks harming civilians.
Involvement by outside actors in Somalia has often been counterproductive and contributed to ongoing security threats. The United States, European Union, and United Nations provide support for the TFG without making a meaningful effort to press its leaders to curtail abuses. With only one year left in the TFG’s mandate, its international supporters should ensure that clear human rights benchmarks are established and achieved – including to improve accountability. If the transitional government does not achieve these basic objectives, other governments and the United Nations should reconsider their support, Human Rights Watch said.
AMISOM has in recent months taken measures to minimize civilian casualties during military operations. However, grave violations by its forces persist and the soldiers responsible have largely not been held to account.
Ethiopia and Kenya are parties to the conflict, having deployed units of their armed forces in military operations in southern Somalia in 2011. They have also provided military assistance to militias supporting the TFG. Yet neither Ethiopia nor Kenya has acted to ensure accountability for abuses by their troops or by the militias they support.
Human Rights Watch repeated its call for a UN commission of inquiry to investigate violations of human rights and the laws of war by all sides since the beginning of the conflict and to lay the groundwork for accountability. Human Rights Watch urged all parties to the conflict in Somalia to take concrete steps to protect civilians – notably respecting basic measures aimed at protecting civilians during attacks – and ensuring that humanitarian access is facilitated at all times.
“There is no quick fix to Somalia’s tragedy, but it’s clear that impunity for serious abuses perpetuates insecurity,” Bekele said. “International pressure to bring an end to abuses by all sides is more crucial than ever – a more secure and rights respecting Somalia would be less prone to violence and famine.”
Escalation in fighting has resulted in massive displacement of the population in Mogadishu, as well as from the border regions. An area along the Kenyan border referred to as “Jubaland” has been particularly affected, with the Kenyan government indicating it wants to convert the area into a buffer zone between its territory and al-Shabaab-controlled
areas. Kenyan ministers have called for Somalis to be assisted inside this “buffer zone,” instead of in Kenya, claiming that the area is safe.However, the area remains highly insecure and unstable.
Kenya has long been the host for several hundred thousand Somali refugees, a huge burden that has increased in the past year. Fighting and drought have driven hundreds of thousands of Somalis from their homes in 2011, including over 100,000 who have crossed into Kenya.
Somali refugees face serious challenges in Kenya, Human Rights Watch said. The journey to the Dadaab refugee camps is perilous. Human Rights Watch research since 2010 has found that refugees face police extortion and violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, and unlawful deportation to Somalia, with deportations continuing well into 2011. Refugees told Human Rights Watch that they took hazardous back roads to avoid the Kenyan police, but had been robbed and raped by bandits along those roads.
As of July 24, the refugee camps at Dadaab, originally built for
90,000 people, had a registered refugee population of 390,000. Recently
arrived Somali refugees face overcrowded and inhumane living conditions in the camps and registration delays in getting even minimal assistance.
The Ifo II extension camp is empty, and has been ready to shelter 40,000 refugees since November 2010, and should be used without delay. Human Rights Watch urged the Kenyan government – with significantly increased support from international donor governments – to make additional land available for camps. Human Rights Watch also renewed its
call on the Kenyan government to open a new refugee screening center in the border town of Liboi to register new arrivals and then transport them safely to the camps.
“We encourage the international community to provide aid inside Somalia, as well as to refugees in Kenya and Ethiopia,” Bekele said. “Somalia’s neighbors need to respect the right of all those fleeing Somalia to seek asylum.”
Selected Testimony from “You Don’t Know Who to Blame”
A 37-year-old woman from Mogadishu who fled indiscriminate shelling:
United Nations Should Establish International Commission of Inquiry
February 14, 2011
(New York) - The scale and severity of the
crimes during the intense fighting in Somalia in recent months
demonstrates the need for an international commission of inquiry, Human
Rights Watch said today. A recent Human Rights Watch investigation found
that all of the parties to the armed conflict have been responsible for
indiscriminate attacks on civilians since May 2010. Some of these
attacks may amount to war crimes.
The intense fighting in Mogadishu, the capital, between the Islamist
armed group al-Shabaab and the Somali Transitional Federal Government
(TFG) and African Union peacekeepers over the past eight months has
killed and wounded thousands of civilians and forced all but the poorest
residents to flee the capital.
"The world has for too long ignored the appalling cost to civilians of
the fighting in Mogadishu," said Rona Peligal, deputy Africa director at
Human Rights Watch. "An international commission of inquiry is urgently
needed to investigate war crimes committed in Somalia by all sides."
Al-Shabaab forces have also been responsible for targeted killings of
people allegedly linked to the transitional government, the forced
recruitment of children, and abuses against civilians under their
Mogadishu has been wracked by conflict since late 2006, when an
Ethiopian military intervention ousted a coalition of Islamic courts
from power. Although Ethiopian forces withdrew from the city by January
2009, insurgents continue to fight the transitional government and its
In May 2010 the armed opposition - including al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam
insurgents - began a new offensive to topple the TFG, which is
recognized internationally. The transitional government controls only a
few areas of Mogadishu. It is backed by more than 8,000 peacekeeping
troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), and Ahlu
Sunna Wal Jamaa militias, a moderate Somali Islamic group erratically
allied to the transitional government.
The offensive heightened over the Islamic month of Ramadan in August and
September, when al-Shabaab called for a "final offensive" to oust the
transitional government, shortly after al-Shabaab claimed responsibility
for the July 11 bombings in Kampala, Uganda. Al-Shabaab claimed the
bombings, which killed 76 people and wounded 70 others, were in response
to Uganda's leading political and military role in the Somalia
Tens of thousands of civilians fled the city between May and November
due to repeated, indiscriminate attacks of rocket and mortar fire by all
parties to the conflict, and other abuses.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported on January
27, 2011, that the two hospitals it supports in Mogadishu received a
record number of patients in 2010, including about 2,300 women and
children with war-related injuries.
In November, Human Rights Watch interviewed 82 refugees from Mogadishu
who had fled the offensive since May and sought refuge in the Daadab
refugee camp in northern Kenya. Human Rights Watch research indicated
that both al-Shabaab and the peacekeepers had intensified attacks in
late 2010, killing and wounding hundreds of civilians through the
indiscriminate use of heavy artillery, mortars, and rockets in populated
"The fighting in Mogadishu has provoked massive numbers of people to
flee the city in recent months," Peligal said. "But the poorest of the
poor remain in the city, with nowhere to go, no access to basic
services, and they suffer constantly from the ongoing conflict."
Indiscriminate Attacks by All Parties
Both sides conducted indiscriminate bombardments of populated areas from
May to November that resulted in scores of civilian casualties.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that civilians in Mogadishu were
trapped between the "hit and run" tactics of the insurgent al-Shabaab
fighters, who generally launch mortar rounds at transitional government
and peacekeepers' positions from populated areas and then flee, and the
indiscriminate response of the peacekeepers and transitional government
The laws of war prohibit indiscriminate attacks, which strike military
targets and civilians without distinction. Examples include attacks that
are not directed at a specific military objective, or that use weapons
that cannot be targeted at a specific military objective. Forces also
violate the laws of war when they move into densely populated areas and
conduct attacks without taking all feasible precautions to ensure that
the target is military and not civilian.
Many people interviewed by Human Rights Watch described a consistent
pattern: al-Shabaab would launch one or two rockets or fire a mortar
round at transitional government and peacekeeping positions within or
near populated areas under their control, prompting a sustained
bombardment with mortars and rockets by the peacekeepers and
transitional government forces. These heavy bombardments of civilian
areas have provoked the repeated displacement of residents.
Witnesses said that after launching their attacks, al-Shabaab fighters
would immediately leave the area in vehicles or hide among the
civilians. People described this kind of operation taking place in the
districts of Hodan, Halwadaag, Wardighley, al-Ashabya, K-13, Bar Huba,
and Bakara Market.
Yusuf, a 42-year-old man from Kismayo who went to Mogadishu during
Ramadan, told Human Rights Watch: "Al-Shabaab attacks from areas where
civilians are. They come to the neighborhood, mount their mortars,
shoot, and leave. [Some] run away and some others just hide in the
community. When AMISOM's response comes, there's nobody from al-Shabaab
Residents told Human Rights Watch that the peacekeepers typically
respond to the attacks with a sustained barrage of heavy artillery, used
indiscriminately. Muktar Barre Aden, a 43-year-old bus driver from the
Huruwe area in Mogadishu, said: "Both sides attack civilians...but the
main problem is AMISOM. They're shelling too much; they're just bombing
from their bases. What strategy is that?"
Other witnesses said that the peacekeepers responded with rockets and
mortars even toward populated areas where there was no evident military
objective. Areas inside the Bakara Market that have been repeatedly hit
include the fruit and vegetable area, the bus station, the gold area,
the clothes area, and the money exchange area - all with heavy civilian
traffic. The laws of war prohibit deliberate attacks on civilians and
civilian property, as well as attacks where the anticipated loss of
civilian life is disproportionate to the expected military gain.
A 30-year-old woman from Bakara Market said: "During Ramadan the worst days were the 21st, 27th, and 29th
days [August 31, September 6, and September 8]. There was a lot of
firing into Bakara. Al-Shabaab hit targets directly, but AMISOM hit
public places, especially the bus and parking at the market. I lived in
the center of the market. This was the worst place. The parking lot of
the market and the bus station and the place gold was sold were all hit
Human Rights Watch also received reports that the peacekeepers shelled
areas under al-Shabaab control intensively and indiscriminately in the
aftermath of the July 11 attacks in Kampala. A 37-year-old merchant in
Bakara Market from the Bar Huba area in Mogadishu told Human Rights
Watch: "The day after [Kampala] they [AMISOM] fired upon the Bakara
Market and Bar Huba. It was non-stop shelling for 24 hours. From that
day, [AMISOM] started targeting civilians more and more."
"Both al-Shabaab and the peacekeepers are conducting attacks with little
regard for the safety of the civilian population," Peligal said. "Those
responsible for indiscriminate shelling should be prosecuted for war
Failure to Warn Civilians
The laws of war require warring parties to take constant care to spare
the civilian population, and give effective, advance warning of attacks
that may affect the civilian population, unless circumstances do not
permit. Neither side in Mogadishu has provided sufficient warnings to
civilians in areas affected by planned offensives, Human Rights Watch
Witnesses in areas under government control said that neither the
transitional government nor the peacekeepers have ever distributed
information to civilians about imminent fighting and the necessity to
Human Rights Watch received conflicting reports about al-Shabaab's
conduct. In some cases, people told Human Rights Watch that al-Shabaab
disseminated flyers and made some limited public announcement using
megaphones to tell civilians to leave certain areas. But in other cases,
residents said al-Shabaab fighters stopped them from leaving areas
where heavy fighting was taking place.
Targeted Killings in Areas Under al-Shabaab Control
Witnesses and family members of victims described targeted killings by
alleged al-Shabaab members in areas under the control of transitional
government employees and their relatives, or people suspected to have
connections with the government.
A 25-year-old mother of two from Huruwe told Human Rights Watch that her father and two brothers were killed by al-Shabaab:
Anybody related to the TFG, even indirectly, is targeted with all of
his family. My father was a police officer. When [al-Shabaab] took over
the area, they were asking people in the neighborhood who was a TFG
member. And the neighbors spied on us. They came masked; you couldn't
even know who was shooting. My father was coming back to the house for
dinner; they shot him in the chest. He was in his police uniform. One of
my brothers ran toward him, and they shot him dead. Another brother was
killed later, after two months. He was beheaded. After his killing, we
all ran away.
Under the laws of war, police normally have the status of civilians.
However, police units that take part in military operations or otherwise
engage in military functions may be targeted as combatants. Individual
police officers may only be targeted when they are taking a direct part
in the hostilities. Everyone in custody must be treated humanely.
Another woman said her family was targeted during the Ramadan offensive
because she and her husband worked for the transitional government:
My daughter, my husband, and my mother were all killed by al-Shabaab.
This happened when they took over our area. My family was all killed and
I was injured, and I ran away. They were against all people working
with the TFG. Al-Shabaab says people working with the TFG are all
Christians; they used to call us from unknown numbers and threaten us.
After the killings, I was targeted every now and then; they used to come
to my place unarmed. And my family was destroyed, and I found myself
alone in a ruined house. Even now I live in fear.
Forced Recruitment of Young Men and Children by al-Shabaab
Young men and boys living in areas controlled by al-Shabaab in Mogadishu
are at increasing risk of being forcibly recruited by the insurgency,
dozens of people told Human Rights Watch. The vast majority of
individuals interviewed by Human Rights Watch were aware of the imminent
threat of forced recruitment, and families with boys cited the threat
as one of the main reasons to flee Mogadishu.
Family members consistently told Human Rights Watch researchers that al-Shabaab abducted children from duksis
(Islamic schools), playgrounds, and homes, coercing children into
joining by offering them money, phones, or food. The children were then
reportedly trained to fight on the front line, including as suicide
bombers. There have also been credible reports of the transitional
government and allied militia using children, but Human Rights Watch
could not confirm this. An international treaty to which Somalia is a
signatory prohibits any recruitment of individuals below the age of 18
into non-state armed groups.
"The increasing use of children as cannon fodder is a new low in the
conflict in Somalia." Peligal said. "Any commander who recruits or
coerces children to take part in the fighting is committing a war crime
Cairo Meeting Offers Opportunity to Reform Failed Intervention Policies
(New York) - Participants to this week's international meeting on Somalia should press for an immediate end to abuses against civilians by Somalia's transitional government, African Union forces, and armed opposition groups, Human Rights Watch said in an open letter today.
The International Contact Group, which brings together governments and intergovernmental institutions including the United States, European states, the African Union, the Arab League, and the United Nations to coordinate policy on Somalia, will meet on April 21 and 22, 2010, in Cairo, Egypt.
"The Cairo meeting is an important opportunity for the key international players to begin to fix their broken policies on Somalia," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The place to start is to support an international commission of inquiry into abuses by all sides."
The intervention of foreign governments in Somalia - including some represented in the contact group - has often proved counterproductive to promoting the security of civilians. In its letter to members of the International Contact Group, Human Rights Watch called on participants in the Cairo meeting to make it an urgent priority to re-evaluate their policies toward Somalia and to help end the impunity that fuels the worst abuses.
Somalia has been plagued by armed conflict since the collapse of its last functioning government in 1991 and is suffering a massive humanitarian crisis that has driven two million people from their homes.
On April 19, Human Rights Watch released a report, "Harsh War, Harsh Peace: Abuses by al-Shabaab, the Transitional Federal Government, and AMISOM in Somalia," which describes widespread abuses by all parties to the conflict.
The Islamist group al-Shabaab and other armed groups regularly fire mortar rounds indiscriminately into populated neighborhoods in the capital, Mogadishu, which is partly controlled by the Transitional Federal Government. These often result in retaliatory mortar attacks by transitional government forces and the 5,300-member African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which also strike civilians indiscriminately. Human Rights Watch interviewed people on both sides of the lines who witnessed family members being torn to pieces in such attacks, which violate the laws of war.
Human Rights Watch also documented pervasive abuses by al-Shabaab in the vast swaths of southern and central Somalia that are under its control. Based on over 70 interviews with victims and witnesses, Human Rights Watch found that the cost to the local population - especially to women - of the increased stability in many of the areas al-Shabaab has taken over since 2008 has been very high. Al-Shabaab has subjected populations under its control to targeted killings and assaults, repressive social control, and cruel punishments such as decapitations, amputations, and floggings that are meted out regularly and without due process.