African Union Troops Vacate Base in Somali University

Human Rights Watch, July 12, 2017

By Bede Sheppard, Deputy Director, Children’s Rights Division, Human Rights Watch

There was a marching band, a choir, dignitaries, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

On Tuesday, some 300 Burundian soldiers serving in the African Union peace support force in Somalia (AMISOM), finally abandoned their military base on the Somalia National University campus in Dharkenley district, west of Mogadishu. The troops have been encamped at the university for 10 years.

This is good news and offers hope for the return of academic studies to the university. But it’s also a good moment to reflect on what the AU can do to avoid such military use of an academic institution in the future.

Schools and universities in Somalia have been used as military bases, both by AMISOM forces and the al-Shabaab militants they are fighting. This has led to the damage and destruction of vital education institutions by turning them into military targets. Students have been injured and killed in attacks on schools that were being used by fighters.

The occupation of schools and universities has also interrupted students’ studies. In early 2012, when Ethiopian troops used Hiraan University as a military base, the university was forced to set up a makeshift campus inside the town of Beletweyne.

The AU should end any use of schools and universities by its peacekeepers. In 2016, the AU Peace and Security Council encouraged all its member countries to join the Safe Schools Declaration – an international political commitment to take commonsense steps to better protect students, teachers, schools, and universities during times of war. One of these recommendations is to refrain from using schools and universities for military purposes.

To date, 66 countries have endorsed the declaration, including 18 members of the AU, Somalia among them.

Last month, the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations released a new policy for protecting children in their peace operations. The policy notes that “United Nations peace operations should refrain from all actions that impede children’s access to education.” Reiterating a prohibition in the UN Infantry Battalion, the policy states that “recognizing the adverse impact of the use of schools for military purposes, in particular its effects on the safety of children and education personnel, the civilian nature of schools, and the right to education, United Nations peace operations personnel shall at no time and for no amount of time use schools for military purposes.”

The AU should adopt similar rules and protections for peacekeepers serving under its flag.

That would really be deserving of making a song and dance about.