Human Rights in Somalia

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 09.57.56The formation of the Federal Government in September 2012 brought in a renewed hope of political stability and transition to Somalia[1]. While the Federal Government is internationally recognised, the self-declared Republic of Somaliland and the autonomous regions of Puntland continue to function separately. Relations between the federal government and Puntland was tense in 2014 before the two parties signed an agreement in October of the same year.

After several delays due to instability, elections were finally held in Somaliland in June 2010. International observers concluded that the election met international standards and they were deemed free and fair. No major incidents were recorded and power was handed over peacefully, underlining the democratic progress being made in the country.

A joint military offensive launched by the National Army of the Federal Government and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) was tasked with regaining territory claimed by the Islamic insurgent group al-Shabaab in central and southern Somalia. Considerable progress has been made with the operations recovering several al-Shabaab strongholds; the terrorist group continues to undertake organised attacks and still poses a considerable threat in the region.

The federal government, despite the international recognition and support, remains weak when it comes to providing nationwide security and stability. It greatly depends on AMISOM’s support to protect peace and security in key parts of the country. Al-Shabaab has lost control of most of the cities since 2011 including Mogadishu and Kismayo, while its military and financial capacity is eroded. Despite these setbacks, according to analysts, al-Shabaab remained resilient due to “support from local clans and the perception among elders that it remains a plausible alternative to corrupt institutions in Mogadishu.”[2] The terrorist group continues to control many rural areas in southern and central Somalia. It has also managed to stage orchestrated terror attacks in both Somalia and Kenya.

Attributed to the long running internal conflict the human rights situation is dismal by all standards. Though the relative stability witnessed in the last few years created somewhat of a breathing space, rampant violations and abuses best characterise the state of human rights in Somalia. The unlawful recruitment, abduction, torture and killing of noncombatants, as well as the use of rape and other forms of sexual violence are widespread in the country. There is a serious dichotomy in Somalia; state institutions lack the capacity to meet their human rights obligations, while other non-state actors are active perpetrators of human rights abuses, where impunity remains a deep-rooted obstacle.

Corruption is rampant at all levels according to the latest Corruption Index.[3] While this poses a serious threat to the rule of law in the country, the current administration has taken positive steps to reduce the misuse of funds. An anti-corruption commission has been established with the aim of cracking down on corruption and holding officials accountable for the misappropriation of funds.

The situation for human rights defenders in the country
Due to the role journalist’s play in bringing to light sensitive issues such as human rights violations; they are continually subjected to threats and harassment. In 2014, two journalists and one media professional were killed while several others were injured in attacks mainly perpetrated by al-Shabaab. Death threats directed at journalist are common and have led many individuals into self-censorship or exile in order to reduce the personal risks involved.

Similar threats and attacks have been directed at human rights defenders (HRDs) in Somalia. Like journalists, HRDs are a vulnerable group living in a hostile human rights environment. Several activists have been threatened, attacked and killed for the work they have done on issues such as corruption, impunity, sexual and gender based violence and abuses by armed groups. Al-Shabaab has been responsible for the kidnapping, torture and murder of several civil society figures and has launched targeted attacks against international aid organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Similar attacks have also been instigated by al-Shabaab against human rights lawyers and other legal officials working on bringing about much needed judicial reforms.

While the federal government has condemned these attacks and has enforced various task forces to investigate the murders, no meaningful progress has been made. Impunity and corruption remain a deep-rooted problem.

Read our full analysis of the East & Horn of Africa Region in our Regional Report East & Horn of Africa.

Main Human Rights in Focus

The right to life and physical integrity

A bloody armed conflict continues to be waged between government forces, the AMISOM and the Islamic militant group al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab forces have been rooted from most of their strongholds but it has come at a considerable cost to the civilian population. Hundreds of thousands of noncombatants have been caught in the crossfire of military operations, revenge attacks and inter-clan conflicts.

Al-Shabaab forces continue to adopt brutal punishments against people accused of spying or rejecting their strict interpretation of Islamic law. Public flogging, amputation, stoning as well as summary executions are common in areas controlled by Al-Shabaab. Severe restrictions continue to be placed on women, derogations of which have led to public stoning and beheadings. Reports also suggest al-Shabaab’s continued recruiting child soldiers who were then subsequently used on the front line as carriers, spies, suicide bombers and brides to al-Shabaab militants. The use of schools as battlegrounds that intentionally put students and teachers in harms way is of grave concern and underscores the vulnerability of the group in Somalia. Schools have been occupied and used to store weapons, effectively making them military targets and denying students their right to education.

Government and AMISOM troops are accused of serious abuses. Several allegations have been documented of sexual exploitation by AMISOM troops who prey on vulnerable women in exchange for medicine, food and money for sexual favors.

Capital punishment is still enforced by Somalia’s military courts. The summary execution of people accused of belonging to the al-Shabaab terror group is a common trend that has been adopted by authorities. 14 people were executed in 2014 having been accused of working with the terror group. Displaced persons that are found at camps have been subjected to rape, beatings and discrimination and have restricted access to food and shelter, reports indicated.

The deteriorating humanitarian situation has further aggravated the human rights environment in Somalia. The prolonged conflict, drought and increasing food prices has resulted in 1 million Somalis unable to meet their basic food requirements and a further 2.1 million on the verge of slipping into acute food insecurity.

The sustained conflict has resulted in the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians and insecurity has adversely affected the operating environment for humanitarian personnel. 2014 saw over 2,000 violent incidents committed against humanitarian workers and their assets including the death of six aid workers. Al-Shabaab has also blocked vital trading routes, which has caused major disruptions to aid agencies attempting to deliver humanitarian support to certain towns.

The right to liberty and security of person

Arbitrary arrests and detention of suspected al-Shabaab affiliates continues to be undertaken by security officers. Similarly the arbitrary arrests and detention of journalists and human rights defenders has increased as the government aims to clamp down on important public interest debates.

Conditions in prisons and detention centers are harsh and at times life threatening. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, lack of healthcare and inadequate food and water are all problems that plague the prison population in Somalia. In the al-Shabaab controlled regions, dilapidated buildings are often used to detain prisoners. It has been estimated that thousands have been incarcerated in inhuman conditions for minor offences such as smoking, drinking or not wearing a hijab.

The right to a fair trial and an effective remedy

As a result of the long lasting conflict, Somalia’s judiciary remains weak and ineffective. Access to justice and equal treatment under the law cannot be guaranteed due to the lack of resources, capacity and training of judicial officials. Consequently, many civilians have been tried before military courts for crimes that are not within the courts jurisdiction. Defendants are often refused the right to choose their own counsel, prepare their defense and appeal their conviction. Furthermore, the rapid executions that took place last year call into question the quality of justice in these courts, which have been accused of falling short of international fair trial standards.

Regions that are still under the control of al-Shabaab militants are governed under Islamic law. Consequently draconian punishments are enforced for people found guilty which include public floggings, amputations and executions.

The sexual abuse faced by displaced persons is very rarely reported, as the victims fear reprisals and stigmatisation from the troops, police and their own families. The few cases where these crimes have been reported did not lead to prosecution as the investigations were deeply flawed and the victims regularly harassed.

The right to the freedom of expression

Harassment and abuse of journalists in Somalia remains an issue of grave concern. Somalia is still considered to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist[4], with arbitrary arrests, beatings and killings against the group regularly being reported.

Attempts by media houses to publish or air reports that are unfavorable to the government are met with raids and crackdowns, conducted by the police and Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA). In 2013 a local media house was raided by NISA when reports that they were going to publish incriminating articles surfaced. 19 journalists were arrested with several claiming to have been violently abused while they were interrogated and detained. While the majority of the journalists were eventually released, four of them were remanded on trumped up charges, including high treason and inciting violence. 53 journalists have been killed in Somalia since 1992.

A new media bill that has been drafted by the federal parliament could also lead to further restrictions on the freedom of expression. Under the bill, media houses have to register for a license to legally publish any news. This essentially threatens media outlets to compromise themselves on stories they publish for fear of license withdrawal. The bill also allows for the censorship and limitation of news that is considered harmful to the state and people. The National Media Council has been given added powers under the bill allowing them to impose severe sanctions on journalists and media houses, including hefty fines, for ill-defined offences. The controversial bill ultimately restricts what is allowed to be published and further increases state control over the media.

The right to freedom of assembly and association

The constitution of Somalia guarantees the right to freedom of assembly and association. Nevertheless, the volatile environment in Somalia has made it very difficult for civil society groups and NGOs to effectively operate. Attacks by al-Shabaab forces on UN aid workers have resulted in reduced activities and presence of aid agencies.

Despite constitutional provisions protecting press freedom and the freedom of expression, these rights continue to be restricted by Somaliland authorities. Journalists face increased interference and harassment for reporting on sensitive issues such as corruption and nepotism. Several privately owned newspapers have been shut down in the past two years, for their reporting on alleged corruption and mishandling of finances within the government.[5] Private radio stations are not prohibited in Somaliland but complete governmental control over the issuing of licenses has resulted in very few independent radios stations that are operational.

The right to protection against discrimination

With a conflict that has spanned two decades coupled with the lack of access to healthcare services, many people in Somalia have been left with several forms of disabilities. Persons living with a disability in Somalia form a vulnerable group subjected to a myriad of abuse, including unlawful killings, rape and other forms of sexual violence, forced evictions and limited access to health services, food and water.

Stigmatisation remains a serious issue, as people with disabilities are often considered a burden and are at times rejected or abandoned by family members and friends. Children born with disabilities are subjected to neglect, separation and discrimination and are often prohibited from attending school and participating in public life.

Due to the perception of people with disabilities constituting a supposed burden they are often considered of less value in society, girls with disabilities are often forced to marry older men where they are subjected to verbal and physical violence. Forced marriages and spousal abuse are not criminalised in Somalia, so most incidents go unreported and uninvestigated. Once again a disabled persons perceived vulnerability puts them at higher risk of being raped and subjected to other forms of sexual violence. Furthermore the forced eviction of disabled people by government and private actors continue to occur regularly despite the obligations the state has to prohibit this.

Sustained conflict, violence, human rights abuses and natural disasters have resulted in the displacement of an estimated 1.1 million Somalis. Food insecurity, sexual and gender-based violence, forced evictions and lack of access to justice remains the most prevalent issues. High levels of sexual and gender-based violence and exploitation have been reported in camps and settlements due to the vulnerability of the group and the scarcity of basic goods and services, which are often promised in exchange for sexual favors.

The forced evictions of internally displaced persons (IDPs) are a common occurrence in Mogadishu with as many as 14,000 persons being forcefully evicted in 2014. Many of the members of the affected group report the use of intimidation, force and violence and receiving no prior notice of the eviction.

The Role of Civil Rights Defenders in Somalia
Civil Rights Defenders has been present in the region since 2012 and has been partnering with local networks, individual human rights defenders and NGOs. In Somalia we work closely with human rights advocates and organisations working to protect HRDs in the country. So far our work includes organising trainings on digital security and advocacy on human rights and international instruments. Our presence in the country is relatively new, but we envision expanding and deepening our partnerships with local organisations in the coming years.

Categories: Country Reports.
Regions: East Africa and Somalia.