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USA/Somalia: Obama's First Africa Test
Dec 14, 2008 (081214)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
With so many crises calling for attention, it may seem strange to
single out any one of them as the "first" test for the Africa
policy of the incoming Obama administration. Yet Somalia stands out
not only because it represents an international failure to respond
(as also in Darfur, the Congo, and Zimbabwe), but also for the fact
that in recent years short-sighted United States policy has
actively contributed to worsening an already desperate situation.
This policy disaster, moreover, has occurred with practically no
public debate, and no signals as yet that incoming officials plan
to change course.
A recent statement from the Enough Project warns that last-minute
Bush administration actions threaten to leave policy land mines for
the new administration in Somalia. And a new report from Human
Rights Watch denounces not only human rights abuses on all sides of
the conflict, but charges the United States, European powers, and
Somalia's neighbors with adding fuel to the fire.
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains the December 10 statement from
the Enough Project, and a press release and extracts from the
summary of the report ""So Much to Fear: War Crimes and the
Devastation of Somalia."
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Somalia and other resources, visit
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on U.S. Africa policy, see
For a January 2007 op-ed by AfricaFocus editor William Minter,
entitled "Don't Replay Iraq in the Horn of Africa," see
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Enough Project Releases Policy Statement on Bush Administration's
'Transition Land Mines' in Somalia
December 10, 2008
Media Contact: Eileen White Read, 202-741-6376
As the Bush administration prepares to leave office, it is
taking three ill-considered actions that threaten to exacerbate
the already catastrophic situation in Somalia and tie the hands
of the incoming Obama Administration. The Bush administration is:
- urging Ethiopia to keep its armed forces in Somalia until
after the administration leaves office;
- pushing for authorization of a U.N. peacekeeping mission to
protect the fractious and impotent Transitional Federal
Government after Ethiopia's departure; and
- moving to place Ethiopia's arch-rival Eritrea on the U.S.
State Department's State Sponsors of Terrorism list. There is
little indication that the Bush Administration has thought
through the implications of these major steps that would not only
prolong the violence on the ground, but would hijack the incoming
Obama Administration's policy prerogatives while leaving it with
an even more intractable crisis in the troubled Horn of Africa.
"These eleventh hour shifts in policy will only create more
blowback for the United States in the region, and serve as a de
facto recruiting tool for the hard-line Islamist militia, or
shabaab, that is wrapping itself in a mantle of Somali
nationalism fighting foreign forces," said Enough Project
adviser, and long-time Somalia expert, Ken Menkhaus, an Associate
Professor of Political Science at Davidson College.
Ethiopia is currently scheduled to withdraw its forces from
Somalia by the end of 2008 as part of the fragile U.N.-led
Djibouti peace process. The two-year Ethiopian occupation of
southern Somalia has been a magnet for violence and a growing
insurgency in Somalia. By urging Ethiopia to maintain its
presence in the capital, Mogadishu, the Bush administration is
handing the shabaab a recruitment bonanza while undermining the
credibility of moderate Somalis seeking to advance the Djibouti
"The Bush administration policy in Somalia has not only been
ineffective, it has made the situation on the ground considerably
worse," said Enough Project co-Chair John Prendergast. "It is not
too much to ask that the Bush team practice the maxim of 'first,
do no harm' before they depart. The incoming Obama administration
should have the chance to rethink Somalia policy, including its
counter-terrorism dimensions, without having to react to a
firestorm of bad ideas weeks before the inauguration."
The Bush Administration is also pushing for a U.N. Security
Council resolution to authorize a U.N. stabilization force for
Somalia to replace departing Ethiopian troops. This is a bad idea
on a number of fronts, and there is zero indication that the
administration or the U.N. is serious about putting in place a
genuinely credible force. There is no thirst among member states
to contribute troops in Somalia at the current moment, and
whatever U.N. forces could be scraped together would surely
become the main target of insurgent attacks. In short, the
Administration is pushing the United Nations to authorize a force
that is designed to fail. This policy is the worst of both
worlds: U.N. forces would be unlikely to create political or
military stability in Somalia while giving shabaab militias a new
foreign occupying force to attack.
Finally, by placing Eritrea on the U.S. State Department's State
Sponsors of Terrorism list, the Bush administration would push
Eritrea into a corner precisely at a time when they are willing
to demonstrate some flexibility. There may or may not be
sufficient evidence to make the case against Eritrea, but such a
strategically significant determination should not be made by a
lame duck administration. This determination has the potential to
spoil U.S. peacemaking efforts in Sudan and Somalia, and could
deepen the crisis in the Horn of Africa by fueling already
intense antipathies between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Designating
Eritrea as a State Sponsor of Terrorism would have no purpose
other than to shrink the Obama administration's diplomatic room
for maneuver in the region while possibly making the very real
counter terrorism imperatives in Somalia more difficult to
Somalia: War Crimes Devastate Population
Human Rights Watch
The combatants in Somalia have inflicted more harm on civilians
than on each other. - Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at
Human Rights Watch
Outside Powers Exacerbate Crisis Through Failed Policies
December 8, 2008
(Nairobi) - All parties in the escalating conflict in Somalia
have regularly committed war crimes and other serious abuses
during the past year that have contributed to the country's
humanitarian catastrophe, Human Rights Watch said in a report
released today. Human Rights Watch urged the United States, the
European Union, and other major international actors to rethink
their flawed approaches to the crisis and support efforts to
The 104-page report, "So Much to Fear: War Crimes and the
Devastation of Somalia," describes how the Somali Transitional
Federal Government (TFG), the Ethiopian forces that intervened in
Somalia to support it and insurgent forces have committed
widespread and serious violations of the laws of war. Frequent
violations include indiscriminate attacks, killings, rape, use of
civilians as human shields, and looting. Since early 2007, the
escalating conflict has claimed thousands of civilian lives,
displaced more than a million people, and driven out most of the
population of Mogadishu, the capital. Increasing attacks on aid
workers in the past year have severely limited relief operations
and contributed to an emerging humanitarian crisis.
"The combatants in Somalia have inflicted more harm on civilians
than on each other," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at
Human Rights Watch. "There are no quick fixes in Somalia, but
foreign governments need to stop adding fuel to the fire with
misguided policies that empower human rights abusers."
Somalia has been without a functioning government since 1991, and
a UN peacekeeping operation withdrew in failure in 1995. The
years since have been violent and chaotic. In December 2006,
Ethiopian military forces intervened to back Somalia's weak TFG
against a coalition of Islamic courts that had won control of
Mogadishu. In the past two years, the conflict has escalated
dramatically, and internationally backed peace talks have failed
to make any impact on the ground.
The report draws on interviews with more than 80 witnesses and
victims of abuses, who described attacks by all the warring
parties in stark detail.
Each party to the conflict has indiscriminately fired on civilian
neighborhoods in Mogadishu on an almost daily basis, leveling
homes without warning and killing civilians in the streets.
Insurgent forces have regularly carried out ambushes and roadside
bombings in markets and residential areas, and launched mortars
from within densely populated neighborhoods. Ethiopian forces
have reacted to insurgent attacks with indiscriminate heavy
rocket and artillery fire, with devastating impact on civilians.
TFG security forces and allied militia have tortured detainees,
and killed and raped civilians and looted their homes, sometimes
in the context of house-to-house joint security operations with
Ethiopian troops. Ethiopian forces, who were relatively
disciplined in 2007, have been more widely implicated in acts of
violent criminality this year. Insurgent forces have threatened
and murdered civilians they view as unsympathetic to their cause
and have forcibly recruited civilians, including children, into
The full horror of these abuses can be captured only through the
stories of Somalis who have suffered through them. Human Rights
Watch interviewed teenage girls raped by TFG security forces,
parents whose children were cut to pieces in their own homes by
Ethiopian rockets, and people shot in the streets by insurgent
fighters for acts as trivial as working as a low-paid messenger
for TFG offices. One young man described watching a group of
Ethiopian soldiers rape his mother and sisters in their home.
"And I was sitting there helpless," he said. "I could not help my
mother or help my sisters."
For many, the worst of it is being caught between all three sides
at once. One young man was given an ultimatum by radical Islamist
Al Shabaab fighters in his neighborhood to join them or face
retribution. Days later, he came home from school to find that
his mother had been killed and his house destroyed in an
unrelated artillery bombardment.
"The world has largely ignored the horrors unfolding in Somalia,
but Somali families are still left to confront violence that
grows with every passing day," Gagnon said. "Even those who try
to flee find that the violent abuses follow them."
Hundreds of thousands of Mogadishu's poorest residents, lacking
the money to travel further, have congregated in sprawling
displaced persons camps along the Mogadishu-Afgooye road, but the
indiscriminate fighting they fled has followed them there.
Tens of thousands of Somali refugees have also fled the country
this year. Kenya's Dadaab refugee camps are now the largest
concentration of refugees anywhere in the world, with nearly
250,000 inhabitants. But the journey itself is perilous. Human
Rights Watch interviewed many refugees who had been robbed,
raped, or beaten by freelance militias as they fled Somalia.
Kenya's border with Somalia is closed, leaving refugees at the
mercy of abusive smugglers and corrupt Kenyan police.
Hundreds of Somalis have drowned trying to cross the Gulf of Aden
to Yemen, often after being forced overboard or abandoned at sea
The United States, the European Union, and governments in the
region have taken few positive steps to address the worsening
situation in Somalia, and have too often taken actions that have
made it worse.
Ethiopia is a party to the conflict, but has done nothing to
ensure accountability for abuses by its soldiers. The United
States, treating Somalia primarily as a battlefield in the
"global war on terror," has pursued a policy of uncritical
support for transitional government and Ethiopian actions, and
the resulting lack of accountability has fueled the worst abuses.
The European Commission has advocated direct support for the
transitional government's police force without insisting on any
meaningful action to improve the force and combat abuses.
In recent months, the conflict has increasingly spread into
neighboring regions and countries in the form of bombings and
other attacks - precisely what Ethiopia's military intervention
in 2006 sought to prevent. During the latter half of 2008, there
have been suicide bombings in the previously more stable
semi-autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland, as well as
rampant piracy on the high seas, and kidnappings across the
border in Kenya.
"The Somali crisis is not just a nightmare for its people, it is
a regional threat and a global problem," Gagnon said. "The world
cannot afford to wait any longer to find more effective ways of
Human Rights Watch called for a fundamental review of policy
toward Somalia and the entire Horn of Africa in Washington, where
the Obama administration will have an opportunity to break with
the failed policies of its predecessor, and in European capitals.
It also called for the establishment of a UN-sponsored Commission
of Inquiry to investigate violations of international law, map
the worst abuses, and lay the groundwork for accountability.
"So Much to Fear"
Summary (excerpts only. For full summary, full report, translations
into Somali and Italian, as well as multimedia resources, see
December 8, 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
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. ...
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
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. ...
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. ... 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. ...
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
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. ...
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
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
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
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 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
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