Wednesday, December 05, 2007

UN: Atrocities Fuel Worsening Crisis in Horn of Africa

UN Security Council Should Press Ethiopia and Somalia to Put an End to Abuses

(New York, December 3, 2007) – The United Nations Security Council should urgently press the Ethiopian and Somali governments to end the grave human rights abuses that are fueling the worsening humanitarian crisis in Somalia and eastern Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, Human Rights Watch said today.
" The humanitarian suffering we see in Somalia and Ethiopia’s Somali region is the direct result of serious international crimes. "
Steve Crawshaw, UN advocacy director at Human Rights Watch

On December 3, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, John Holmes, concludes a one-week visit to the Horn of Africa. Last month, UN officials described the situation in Somalia as the worst humanitarian crisis in Africa.

“The humanitarian suffering we see in Somalia and Ethiopia’s Somali region is the direct result of serious international crimes,” said Steve Crawshaw, UN advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Concerned governments and the UN Security Council need to press Ethiopia and Somalia to end these abuses and ensure accountability for their armed forces.”

The conflict in Somalia has steadily intensified since last December, when Ethiopian forces supporting the Somali Transitional Federal Government ousted the Islamic Courts Union from Mogadishu. Ethiopian forces quickly came under attack from a growing coalition of insurgent groups, and fighting in March and April 2007 forced as many as 400,000 residents of the city to flee their homes.

Both sides were responsible for war crimes during the fighting, including deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

Clashes intensified again in November, driving tens of thousands of people from Mogadishu yet again. The November clashes have been marked by increasing brutality toward civilians, including summary executions and enforced disappearances of individuals by Ethiopian forces.

Aid workers and the media have also been targeted by the warring parties. Eight journalists have been killed this year. The transitional Somali government has repeatedly shut down media outlets. Three of Mogadishu’s independent radio stations and a human rights organization remain closed.

The Somali government has repeatedly harassed and obstructed humanitarian organizations trying to assist the displaced population. The mayor of Mogadishu, former warlord Mohamed Dheere, detained the head of the UN’s World Food Program (WFP) for five days in October, causing WFP to temporarily suspend food distributions to at least 75,000 people.

“Key governments are ignoring the rampant human rights abuses in Somalia at their own peril,” said Crawshaw. “Their action is a catastrophe for victims today, and it’s also likely to radicalize younger Somalis and create tomorrow’s fighters.”

The conflict in Somalia is also affecting the region. Since early this year, part of eastern Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State known as the Ogaden, which borders Somalia, has experienced a sharp escalation in a longstanding conflict between the Ethiopian government and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a rebel movement that claims it is fighting for self-determination for the region.

The ONLF attacked a Chinese oil installation in April, and Ethiopian military forces launched a brutal crackdown in June, targeting civilians perceived to be supporting the ONLF in five key zones of Somali Region. ONLF forces have also been responsible for abuses, particularly killings of suspected collaborators and the use of anti-vehicle mines in indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

Human Rights Watch has found that Ethiopian troops have used scorched-earth tactics to depopulate the rural areas and terrorize rural communities in the Somali Region. Their crimes include the burning of villages, public summary executions, sexual violence against women and girls, and confiscation of livestock – the main asset of the predominantly pastoralist population.

The Ethiopian government imposed a trade and commercial blockade on much of the affected region and expelled the International Committee of the Red Cross from Ethiopia’s Somali Region in July.

Although Ethiopia and the UN recently signed an agreement to increase humanitarian assistance to civilians in the country’s Somali Region, there are credible reports of ongoing abuses.

Human Rights Watch welcomed UN Under-Secretary-General John Holmes’s visit to the region and his call for further investigation of abuses in the Ogaden.

“Improving civilian access to humanitarian assistance in the Ogaden is a positive step,” said Crawshaw. “But unless the Ethiopian government lifts the trade blockade, ends these appalling crimes, and ensures accountability, it will be too little, too late.”


A blind alley

So why didn't Ethiopia's allies - the European Union, Britain and the United States, who provide Ethiopia with millions of dollars' worth of development assistance each year and who are also providing substantial support to the TFG - do more to stop these violations?

The answer is as depressing as it is obvious. Ethiopia and its Somali proxies, including a large number of warlords with notorious records of abuse from earlier conflicts, are perceived by the EU and US government as key allies in the "war on terror" and are doing the west's dirty work against Somalia's Islamists. Behind the scenes the US has been helping the Ethiopian military effort and interrogating suspects in Ethiopian detention.

The "realistic" rationale of western policymakers goes like this: some of the Islamists, whose power the Ethiopians say they are seeking to destroy in Somalia, are aligned with al-Qaida; unless they are defeated the country will be "Talibanised". The apparent conclusion of such reasoning is that rights abuses and violations of the laws of war are regrettable but unavoidable.

This "realistic" approach is dangerously simplistic and shortsighted. There may well be some Al-Qaeda element active in Somalia: that needs to be dealt with. But Somalia is essentially a country of clan politics and the war that Ethiopia and its backers have now precipitated is rapidly evolving into a clan war - broadly pitting the Darod clan which dominates the TFG, against the Hawiye clan which supported the Islamic Courts Union.

There is now a lull in the conflict and Ethiopia claims that its opponents have been defeated. But the armed opposition to Ethiopia and the TFG gains greater support from Somali nationalists and Islamists alike with every day the Ethiopian troops remain on Somali soil. Branding them all as terrorists is inaccurate and misleading. Before they were dislodged by Ethiopia, the Islamists were widely seen by Somalis as having brought more peace and stability to Mogadishu than it had seen for over fifteen years.

The current western-backed Ethiopian approach to Somalia will lead to a mountain of civilian deaths and a litany of abuses. The policy risks precipitating exactly the sort of human-rights disaster in Somalia as the one the west rightly condemns in Darfur. This approach will only strengthen the hand of the extremist minority in Somalia, handing al-Qaida another potential theatre of militant action, and another opportunity to present themselves internationally as defenders of Islam against western aggression.

Washington, London and Brussels are in a blind alley in Somalia. They should rethink a policy which is encouraging serious abuses, and come up with one which prioritizes the protection of civilians. They should start by issuing a clear call to all sides in this conflict to observe and uphold the rules of war and human-rights standards.

TAKEN FROM : Human Rights Watch

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