Will London Respond to Somalia’s Needs?

50 Countries will meet in London on May 7 to support the nation-building project in Somalia. It is crucial that women, children and displaced people are at the forefront of the debate.
Think Africa Press, May 1, 2013

Article | 1 May 2013 | By Laetitia Bader

I met Fatuma in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, late last year. A few days before, she had been raped by an armed militia man while she slept in one of the city’s camps for displaced people. She had nowhere to turn for redress. Months earlier, 13-year old Abdi told me how he had been kidnapped from school by armed members of the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab and forced to serve in Mogadishu’s battle zones. I asked Abdi, who had fled to Kenya in late 2011, about his hopes for the future:

“We, the children, are suffering, our fathers are killed, our mothers suffer, and we have been taken to the front line. We love our country and want to be its leaders.”

Prioritising the most vulnerable

As representatives from over 50 countries gather in London on 7 May to pledge support for the new Somali government, which is barely eight months old, Abdi and Fatuma’s stories continue to resonate. The conference co-chairs, the Somali and UK governments, along with others, are expected to make a commitment to support police and judicial reform, which they have identified as top priorities, and to provide technical assistance to tackle sexual violence. But these much-needed resources will only contribute to durable improvements if the rights of the most vulnerable Somalis – children, women, displaced people – are placed at the forefront of debates.

Despite much heralded improvements since Somalia’s long transitional period ended and a new official government officially took over in August 2012, Somalia remains home to one of the world’s worst human rights crises. The 14 April attacks on the Mogadishu courts, claimed by al-Shabaab, killed 22 people, including three prominent lawyers and a judge, and highlighted the ongoing vulnerabilities. Government forces, allied militia and others have raped, beaten and assaulted internally displaced people, restricted their access to food and limited their movement.

Al-Shabaab targets civilians perceived to be spies or collaborators throughout south-central Somalia. In areas under its control, the group administers arbitrary justice and imposes harsh restrictions on rights. Reports persist of children being forcibly recruited to fight. The group has turned schools into battlegrounds, using them as weapons depots and firing positions, sometimes with children and teachers still inside. In Mogadishu and other towns which are no longer under al-Shabaab control, boys and men risk arbitrary arrest and detention by government forces and their affiliates on suspicion of al-Shabaab ties.

The need for accountability

The story of Somalia throughout two decades of conflict is one of abuses of civilians by all sides with little or no effort being made to bring the abusers to account. Addressing this mistreatment has rarely been on anyone’s agenda. Somali journalists and activists pay a heavy price for their efforts to bring these issues to national and international attention. On 21 April, Mohamed Ibrahim Raage was killed by armed assailants, the second journalist this year.

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s government appears willing to break this legacy of impunity by making government forces more accountable for their actions and reforming the country’s dysfunctional justice system. Donors have given the government time to find its feet, but in London they need to press for specifics. One draft conference communique I saw says very little about the plight of ordinary Somalis and does not identify concrete measures that will convert rhetoric into reality. Meaningful progress will depend in particular on excluding rights abusers from government forces, building both civilian and military accountability, and protecting women’s and children’s rights.

The message from donors such as the UK, US and European Union should be clear: rights abusers, including those responsible for sexual violence, have no role in the future Somali security apparatus. Any security sector support needs to lead to well-vetted, trained and accountable forces. The country needs a civilian police force and an army that ordinary Somalis can turn to for protection, one that provides redress for wrongdoings. Somalis should be able to access civilian complaint mechanisms when things go wrong. And the government should remove children from its forces and protect schools from attacks or any military use by all warring parties.

Accountability will obviously require a functional justice system. The recent high-profile, groundless prosecutions of a woman who alleged rape by government forces and of the journalist who interviewed her underline the need for serious reforms. Concretely, the government can promote basic fair trial rights by imposing a moratorium on the death penalty and ending trials of civilians in military courts. Improving security at the courts and protection for lawyers and judges is also key.

Somali women and girls have suffered unaddressed abuses for far too long, from grinding repression under al-Shabaab to sexual violence by all sides. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague has stated that preventing and responding to sexual violence in conflict is his personal priority – he has a unique opportunity in Somalia to safeguard women’s rights and improve their access to justice. Plans should include building the capacity of police, prosecutors and judges to deal with cases of sexual violence and recruiting more women to be police officers. Medical and psychosocial support is equally critical.

Only by building a more rights-abiding Somalia will Fatuma’s needs for redress and Abdi’s dreams for an education be fulfilled. The London conference should be an important step for both of them.

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