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Somalia: a failing counter-terrorism strategy

About the author
Tom Porteous is the London director of Human Rights Watch.
The west’s policy in Somalia is fuelling rather than resolving a devastating conflict, says Tom Porteous.

When Ethiopian troops defeated Somalia's Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in Mogadishu last December and January it looked like a cakewalk. But since then the armed opposition to Ethiopia's presence in Somalia - and to their Somali allies - has grown. In April 2007, Mogadishu was hit by the heaviest fighting in fifteen years.

Getting reliable information from Somalia is difficult and dangerous. But a clear pattern has emerged of serious violations, including indiscriminate use of heavy weapons in densely populated civilian areas and obstruction of humanitarian assistance to displaced, injured and vulnerable civilians.

Since fighting dramatically escalated at the end of March, hundreds of civilians have been killed and at least 300,000 displaced, according to United Nations estimates. Many of those forced to flee are living in desperate circumstances without sufficient food, water, shelter or medical supplies, easy prey to extortion and abuse by the warring parties.

Tom Porteous is the London director of Human Rights Watch

Also by Tom Porteous in openDemocracy:

"Anti-terrorism: new leadership, new strategy"
(28 November 2006)

Abuses have been being perpetrated by all sides in this complex conflict: Ethiopian forces, Ethiopia's Somali allies in the transitional federal government (TFG), and those resisting the Ethiopian intervention, including militias loyal to the Hawiye clan and groups aligned to the ICU. But it is the Ethiopians with their superior weapons who are doing much of the harm in Mogadishu.

Ethiopia has also participated in a regional programme of arbitrary detentions and unlawful renditions of individuals of interest to Addis Ababa and their allies in Washington.  With Kenyan cooperation, Ethiopia has rounded up scores of "terrorism suspects" who fled the initial Ethiopian intervention in Somalia in December 2006-January 2007.

These "suspects" include many women and some infants as young as seven months. Although Ethiopia recently admitted holding forty-one people, mainly foreign nationals, and released five people, there are many more individuals languishing in Ethiopian jails without access to legal counsel or independent monitors.

Ethiopia is also using the crisis as a pretext to clamp down on its own domestic insurgents, lumping together its armed opponents in Somalia and Ethiopia alike in the convenient catchall basket of terrorism.  

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.

Also in openDemocracy on the crisis in Somalia:

Harun Hassan, "Somalia at the crossroads"
(10 January 2007)

Harun Hassan, "Somalia: the way forward"
(13 February 2007)

Harun Hassan, "Somalia: Mogadishu's ghost days"
(5 April 2007)

Edward Denison, "The Horn of Africa: a bitter anniversary"
(13 April 2007)

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.


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