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Somalia: “Another problem in another place”

The UN’s Independent Expert on Somalia, Shamsul Bari in his latest report to the Human Rights Council is urging the international community in the strongest terms to involve itself more in the crisis that is Somalia. In a document that paints the bleakest possible picture of the country, Bari describes a country where two generations of children have now gone without schooling, where women suffer appalling discrimination, where children as young as nine are recruited as fighters, a country so degraded that thousands are ready to risk the very real possibility they will be murdered when they attempt the ocean crossing to Yemen. Now, Islamist hard-liners have seized the opportunity and taken over in many areas, Bari says.

An informal internally displaced settlement in Bossaso, northern Somalia - © OHCHR Photo/Marco KalbuschIn Somalia’s central and southern regions a culture of impunity flourishes in the absence of any institutional safeguards or rule of law. Bari describes reports from UN human rights staff that in areas controlled by insurgents, ad hoc tribunals are judging and sentencing civilians without due process, imposing death sentences by stoning or decapitation, and ordering amputation of limbs and other punishments.

He reports that ninety eight percent of Somali women suffer female genital mutilation, domestic violence against women is widespread throughout the country and as victims women have no legal recourse. Rape and other forms of gender-based violence are generally dealt with by the clans and are often solved, according to the report, by the payment of blood money or forced marriage between the victim and the perpetrator.

Children suffer terribly in Somalia. They are always at risk because of the fighting and consequent dangers of homelessness and famine but additionally there is emerging evidence the report finds, that all sides to the conflict target adolescent boys as fighters. These boys are vulnerable because they have no other means of earning a livelihood. Bari says after 20 years of conflict, two generations of children have now gone without an education. 

With no possibilities of a life in Somalia, vast numbers of people have crossed the border and now sit in refugee camps in neighbouring Kenya and Yemen. The Dadaab refugee camps to the south, in Kenya, house 300,000 people, the largest concentration of refugees anywhere in the world. In the first six months of this year alone, an additional 36,000 people sought refuge there. Since May another 12,000 have moved north and are waiting on the coast to attempt what is often a deadly crossing to camps in Yemen. In 2008 more than a thousand refugees reportedly drowned because they were thrown overboard or forced out of their boats too far from shore.

Severe droughts are common to the region and it is estimated that by August an additional half a million people needed humanitarian aid, bringing to 3.7 million the total numbers in need of support. One in every five Somali children is malnourished, a figure that has also worsened over the past few months.

UN’s Independent Expert on Somalia, Shamsul Bari and Human Rights officer Idrissa Kane meet with internally displaced women in  Somalia - © OHCHR Photo/ Marco KalbuschIn his previous report to the Council in February 2009, Bari described Somalia as one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. He says that is still the case and the crisis has in fact deepened this year because of the emergence of hard-line Islamist opposition forces. “The human rights and humanitarian law situation in the country,” he says, “continues to swing between bad and worse, as it has for almost two decades.” 

Despite all of this, Bari says there’s reason to believe events in Somalia have reached a “critical juncture” which could yield positive results if handled properly. These developments, he says, offer some hope of an end to the impasse: the agreement signed last year between the warring factions has for the first time given the general population reason to hope; Ethiopian troops withdrew in December removing much of the antipathy directed against the Government; the adoption of strict Sharia law by the opposition forces is not generally supported; and the adoption by the Government of moderate Sharia law appears to have calmed inter-clan rivalry and violence.

The Independent Expert makes many recommendations aimed at institutional rebuilding and restoration of rule of law in Somalia. Chief among them is the provision of physical security, the ending of impunity and protection of basic human rights. Bari suggests a “road map” with clear objectives and a timeline that also plans the restoration of economic, social and cultural rights.

Bari says he finds it deeply painful that “otherwise knowledgeable people” are largely ignorant of the situation in Somalia. “For most, it is another problem in another place,” he says. “It is of the utmost importance that the international community recognize that Somalia is not only facing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today, but also a very serious security challenge linked to global terrorism which, if not handled urgently, could worsen.”

21 October 2009