Despite the 2012 formation of the Federal Government of Somalia and progress made toward elections and full governmental control of the country, populations remain at risk of attacks perpetrated by armed extremist groups, particularly Al-Shabaab, and the forces combatting them. After decades of armed conflict in Somalia, an estimated 2.6 million Somalis are internally displaced, with more than 270,000 newly displaced during 2019. Over 4.2 million Somalis, one third of the population, require humanitarian assistance, while the threat of famine persists in several regions.
According to the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia more than 595 civilians were killed and 440 abducted during 2018, with the vast majority of deaths attributed to Al-Shabaab. The UN Secretary-General’s 2019 report on Children and Armed Conflict also highlighted that abuses against children in Somalia had increased by 23 per cent since 2017, with at least 1,041 children killed and maimed during 2018.
Al-Shabaab fighters routinely violate International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL), including by torturing detainees, attacking hospitals and schools, targeting civilians, and using civilians as human shields. The group has blocked civilians from access to vital humanitarian assistance and continues to target the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and humanitarian convoys for attack. Al-Shabaab also actively recruits child soldiers, who comprise more than half of their forces. According to the UN Secretary-General’s report on Children and Armed Conflict, Al-Shabaab recruited more than 1,865 children during 2018.
Civilians have also been harmed during offensives by AMISOM and the Somali National Army (SNA) against Al-Shabaab, most recently in the Shabelle Hoose and Shabelle Dhexe regions. Some SNA and AMISOM forces tasked with providing civilian protection have at times posed a direct threat to civilians, committing rape, arbitrary detention and other grave violations of human rights. Airstrikes carried out by the United States in support of the Somali government have also resulted in civilian casualties.
In addition to the threat posed by Al-Shabaab, instability caused by tensions between the Federal Government of Somalia and federal member states as well as recurring territorial disputes between communities in the border regions of Galmudug, Puntland and Somaliland also pose a risk to vulnerable civilians.
Despite political advances, the Federal Government of Somalia currently lacks the capacity to adequately protect civilians from the predations of various armed groups. Armed groups have routinely taken advantage of the unstable security situation to carry out attacks on the civilian population and the forces protecting them, possibly amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity. While the African Union has trained AMISOM forces to respect IHL and IHRL and advised on methods to reduce civilian harm, large-scale military offensives against Al-Shabaab still pose a threat to vulnerable populations. Despite challenges, AMISOM remains the main source of safety and security in Somalia.
The Federal Government of Somalia and AMISOM have a Responsibility to Protect civilians from war crimes and crimes against humanity as they battle against Al-Shabaab and other armed extremist groups.
During 2018 the Federal Government of Somalia, federal member states, AMISOM, and other stakeholders agreed on an updated Transition Plan to gradually turn over responsibility for security to the Somali government by 2021.
On 31 May the UN Security Council (UNSC) passed Resolution 2472 renewing AMISOM’s mandate until 31 May 2020, including reducing AMISOM’s troop ceiling by 1,000 to 19,626 by 28 February 2020 in line with the Transition Plan. On 14 November 2019 the UNSC passed Resolution 2444 renewing the partial arms embargo for Somalia until November 2020, noting that the government of Somalia has the primary responsibility to protect its population and must improve the capacity of the national security forces.
International partners should continue to support efforts aimed at defeating Al-Shabaab and enhancing national governance, as well as protecting and promoting human rights in Somalia. The UNSC should continue to reevaluate AMISOM’s 2021 drawdown date and monitor progress on Transition Plan programs to ensure the end of mission does not endanger Somalia’s fragile security and stability.
The Federal Government of Somalia, AMISOM and allied forces, including the United States, must ensure that their military campaigns against Al-Shabaab are carried out in strict adherence with IHL and IHRL. A coordinated political strategy aimed at countering violent extremism should also be implemented in order to prevent recruitment to Al-Shabaab and other armed groups.
All alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Somalia must be properly investigated and the perpetrators held accountable, regardless of rank or affiliation.
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