UN human rights chief says reports suggest possible war crimes in Somalia

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said Friday it is clear that grave violations of international human rights and humanitarian law — possibly amounting to war crimes — are being committed in Somalia, as fighting continues to ravage the capital Mogadishu, and the situation in South Central Somalia remains extremely precarious.

Pillay said that attacks against civilians have been one of the main features of the conflicts that have engulfed Somalia since 1991. “In this new wave of attacks, it is clear that civilians — especially women and children — are bearing the brunt of the violence,” she said. “There needs to be a much greater effort to protect civilians. Displaced people and human rights defenders, aid workers and journalists are among those most exposed, and in some cases are being directly targeted.”

Pillay said UN human rights officers have been interviewing refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) who fled after the recent upsurge in violence in Mogadishu and south and central areas of the country which began in early May.

Witnesses have told UN investigators that the so-called Al Shabaab groups fighting to topple the Transitional Government have carried out extrajudicial executions, planted mines, bombs and other explosive devices in civilian areas, and used civilians as human shields. Fighters from both sides are reported to have used torture, and fired mortars indiscriminately into areas populated or frequented by civilians. There has also been increasing evidence in recent months concerning the scale and nature of child recruitment by various forces fighting inside Somalia, which is also a serious violation of international human rights and humanitarian law. The majority of these children are aged 14 to 18.

“Some of these acts might amount to war crimes,” Pillay said.

The work of human rights defenders and journalists in Mogadishu has become extremely precarious. Since the beginning of the year, six journalists have been killed in Mogadishu, four of them apparently victims of targeted assassinations, while the others were killed in cross fire.

The High Commissioner urged all parties to the conflict to abide by the provisions of international human rights and humanitarian law. “It is vital that the fighting and violence stop as soon as possible,” she said. “It is difficult to influence the combatants in an anarchic situation like that affecting much of Somalia, but essential that efforts continue at both the domestic and international levels.”

“Once order has been restored — and one day order will be restored — those responsible for human rights violations and abuses should, and I hope will, be brought to justice,” she said. “The gathering of evidence, by all who are in a position to do so, has to continue so that those committing these terrible crimes in Somalia will one day receive their due punishment before a court of law, and their victims will finally see justice being done.”

For the time being, however, in Mogadishu and southern and central regions, regular judicial institutions have ceased to function. UN human rights staff have received credible reports that in areas controlled by insurgent groups, ad hoc tribunals are judging and sentencing civilians without due process and in violation of Somali as well as international law.

The punishment handed down by these tribunals include death sentences by stoning or decapitation, as well as amputation of limbs and other forms of corporal punishment. Places of religious significance and cemeteries are also reported to have been destroyed by the so-called Al Shabaab groups.

More than 200,000 people have been displaced in the past two months alone, and hundreds of civilians are believed to have been killed and wounded. The total number of people displaced inside Somalia from this and earlier conflicts is now believed to be around 1.2 million. Aid agencies’ efforts to provide assistance to the displaced are being seriously constrained by security conditions.

The situation in Somalia is also affecting neighboring countries, especially Kenya, which is housing a total of 280,000 refugees, mostly Somalis, in Dadaab — which is one of the biggest, oldest and most congested refugee camps in the world. Since the beginning of the year, some 36,000 new refugees from Somalia have arrived at Dadaab, with a noticeable increase in arrivals in June.