Human Rights in Somalia

Updated October 2017



Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 18.09.35After two decades of internal armed conflict, the formation of Somalia’s Federal Government in September 2012 brought renewed hope of political stability and transition to the country. While the the Federal Government is internationally recognised, the self-declared Republic of Somaliland and the autonomous regions of Puntland continue to function separately.

Until signing an agreement in October 2014, the relationship between the Federal Government and Puntland were tense. The agreement foresaw a process of establishing a new federal parliament as well as an election of a president through a nationwide universal election by 2016. However, the process run from September 2016 to February 2017 and resulted in the election of Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmaajo” as new President. Also the promise of a universal election was broken in favour of an indirect election. This was reportedly due to the “security situation, the absence of the necessary legislative and institutional preparations and a lack of political will”. Despite the enormous challenges, the new President is hoped to usher a new era of optimism, reconstruction and peace.

Download the full report as pdf: Human Rights in Somalia.

The first election in the self-declared independent Somaliland was held in 2010 and deemed free and fair by international observers. No major incidents were reported, and the power was handed over peacefully, which underlined the democratic progress in the region. In 2015 however, the Guurti – the Upper House of Elders – postponed the elections by extending the current Government’s mandate for two years without consulting the electoral commission. This caused political protests and several protesters were detained in parts of the region. Furthermore, due to a severe drought and political disagreements, the Presidential and Parliamentary elections have been postponed from March 2017 and will instead be held in November 2017. The incumbent president is reportedly keen to keep his democratic credentials and is not seeking a re-election.

The Federal Government’s Somali National Army (SNA) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) have, in a joint military offensive, launched the task of regaining territory that has been claimed by the Islamic insurgent group al-Shabaab in central and southern Somalia. While the operations have led to considerable progress in recovering several al-Shabaab strongholds, it has also sparked to rivalries. Meanwhile, al-Shabaab continues to conduct targeted attacks against civilian and keeps posing a considerable threat in the region.

Despite international recognition and support, the Federal Government remains week when it comes to bringing plans into action for nationwide security, stability and justice. It is dependent on the AMISOM’s support to be able to uphold peace and security in key areas of the country. Although al-Shabaab has lost control of most cities since 2011, including Mogadishu and Kismayo, and its military and financial capacity has eroded, the terrorist group remains resilient. It is, according to analysts, due to “support from local clans and the perception among elders that it remains a plausible alternative to corrupt institutions in Mogadishu”. Al-Shabaab still controls many rural areas in southern and central Somalia, and it continues to conduct terror attacks in both Somalia and neighbouring Kenya. And as the severe drought continues to cripple the country, the recruitment opportunities rise, along with the possibilities of launching new attacks.

In Somalia, the human rights situation is dismal by all standards. This is to a great extent attributed to the long-running internal conflict. The relative stability that has been visible over the last few years has created somewhat of a breathing space, but rampant violations and abuses still characterise the state of human rights in the country. Unlawful recruitment, abduction, torture, and killing of civilians remain widespread issues. Impunity and the lack of accountability continues to be deep-rooted obstacles, not least since state institutions lack the capacity to meet their human rights obligations at the same time as non-state actors remain active perpetrators of human rights violations in this vicious circle.

Corruption is rampant at all levels, according to the latest Corruption Index. 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 addressing corruption and holding officials accountable for the misappropriation of funds. Furthermore, the new government has taken on a stronger commitment for human rights with the instalment of an independent National Human Rights Commission. However, despite the efforts, little has happened in practice, and the legislation is lacking teeth. Ineffectiveness continues to follow the efforts to build the democratic institutions that Somalia so desperately needs.


The situation for human rights defenders in the country


In Somalia, Human rights defenders (HRDs) is a vulnerable group which is forced to operate in a hostile human rights environment. Several HRDs have been threatened, attacked and killed for the work that 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 kidnappings, torture and murders of several civil society figures, and the group has launched targeted attacks against international aid organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working on human rights related issues.

Al-Shabaab has instigated similar attacks against HRDs such as aid workers, journalists, human rights lawyers, and other legal officials working on bringing about much needed reforms. In the volatile situation, these professions have increasingly become targets of extrajudicial killings. Journalists who are shedding light on sensitive issues such as human rights violations are continuously subjected to threats and harassment. In 2016, two journalists were killed as a consequence of their work for human rights and a transparent society. As death threats are common, many individuals have entered into self-censorship or exiled.

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 deep-rooted issues when it comes to state responsibility.


Civil and Political Rights in Focus


The right to life and physical integrity

Somalia acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1990. However, the armed conflict, waged between Government forces, the AMISOM, and al-Shabaab, continues to violate the right to life, security and protection from arbitrary executions. Al-Shabaab’s forces have been ousted from most of their strongholds, but it has come at a considerable cost for the civilian population. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been caught in the crossfire of military operations and indiscriminate attacks by Government forces, inter-clan conflicts, and targeted killings by al-Shabaab.

Somalia ratified the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) in 1990, but al-Shabaab continues to use brutal punishments against people accused of spying or rejecting their strict interpretation of Islamic law in Somalia. Public flogging, amputation, stoning, and summary executions are common in areas controlled by al-Shabaab. Severe restrictions are placed on women, and derogations have led to public stoning and beheadings.

Reports also suggest that al-Shabaab continues to recruit child soldiers to be used on the front line as carriers, spies, suicide bombers and brides to militants in the terrorist organisation. The use of schools as battlegrounds, which intentionally put students and teachers in harm’s way, is of grave concern and underscores the vulnerability of youth in Somalia. Schools have been occupied and used to store weapons in, making them military targets at the same time as students are denied their right to education.

The Government’s SNA and the AMISOM’s troops have also been accused of serious human rights violations. Several allegations have been documented, such as sexual exploitation by AMISOM troops who prey on vulnerable women for sexual favours in exchange for medicine, food, and money. In terms of accountability, a group of Ugandan peacekeepers were sentenced for violating the rules and regulations of peacekeeping earlier in 2017.

Capital punishment is still enforced by Somalia’s military courts. Summary executions of people who have been accused of belonging to al-Shabaab is a common trend which has been adopted by the authorities. In 2016, death penalty sentences were handed to a group, 12 of whom children, accused of aiding the terrorist organisation. The death penalty has been negotiated by the UN with the Puntland authorities, who have stated to back down, but the enforcement of that statement is yet to be fulfilled.

The sustained conflict has resulted in a mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians. Reports indicate that many of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have been found in camps have been subjected to rape, beatings, discrimination, and have had restricted access to food and shelter. While host states of Somali refugees, such as for example Sweden, have advocated their return as they claim that conditions are improving, the deteriorating humanitarian situation continues to aggravate the human rights environment in Somalia. The persistent conflict, drought, and increase in food prices have resulted in 6.7 million Somalis in need of assistance, and 3.2 million Somalis are reportedly exposed to acute food insecurity.

Insecurity has adversely affected the environment for humanitarian personnel and aid workers. In 2016, aid workers and their assets were subjected to reoccurring violent incidents, and between January and October it led to the deaths of nine aid workers. Al-Shabaab has also blocked vital trading routes, which has caused major disruptions for aid agencies which are attempting to deliver humanitarian support to certain towns.


The right to liberty and security of person

Somalia’s National Intelligence Agency (NISA) has acted outside its mandate in its counter-terrorism operations, and has had several allegations of unlawful arrests, arbitrary detentions and mistreatment have been directed towards it. Arbitrary arrests and detentions of suspected al-Shabaab affiliates continues to be undertaken by security officers. Similarly, the arbitrary arrests and detentions of journalists and HRDs have increased due to the Government’s aim to crack down on important public interest debates.

Conditions in prisons and detention centres are harsh and at times life threatening. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, lack of health care, and inadequate food and water resources are all issues 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 inhumane conditions for minor offences such as smoking, drinking or not wearing a hijab. People who suffer from psychosocial disabilities are being held against their will under prison-like conditions and without judicial oversight.


The right to a fair trial and an effective remedy

Somalia’s judiciary and civilian trial courts remain weak and ineffective. Access to justice and equal treatment under law cannot be guaranteed due to the lack of resources, capacity and training of judicial officials. Crimes affiliated with al-Shabaab takes the resources that are available and, consequently, many civilians have instead been tried before Somalia’s military courts for crimes that are not within that court’s jurisdiction and are hence denied international fair trial standards. Defendants are often refused the right to choose their own counsel, prepare their defence, and appeal their conviction.

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, including public floggings, amputations and executions.

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


The right to the freedom of expression

In Somalia, harassment and abuse of journalists remain issues of grave concern. The country continues to be considered the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, and threats of arbitrary arrests, beatings and killings are regularly reported to be carried out against the group. A majority of the journalists are targeted because they cover al-Shabaab activities, politics, the war, and human rights. This is also a governmental problem as 98 percent of the murder cases pass with complete impunity. As a result, Somalia was in both 2015 and 2016 placed as the worst country in the world on the Global Impunity Index.

Attempts by media houses to publish or air reports that are unfavourable to the Government have been met with beatings, raids and crackdowns conducted by the police and the NISA. In areas controlled by al-Shabaab, the independent media is banned to enter, and the terrorist group is a grand perpetrator when it comes to attacks and killings of journalists. Between 1992 and 2016, 62 journalists have been killed in Somalia. Additionally, in 2016, several media houses were shut down by government forces in order for them to better be able to control and punish journalists for conveying any form of criticism against the ruling power.

In 2016, a new media law which further restricts the freedom of expression was introduced. Under the bill, media houses are forced to register for a licence in order to legally publish any news or air foreign media. The bill also allows the Government to censor or limit news that are considered as harmful to the State and the people. Under the bill, the National Media Council has been given added powers which allows them to impose severe sanctions, including hefty fines, on journalists and media houses for ill-defined offences. The controversial bill ultimately restricts what is allowed to be published and further increases the state control over the media. It essentially threatens media outlets to censor themselves in order not to have their license withdrawn. Instead of protecting the freedom of expression, the law rather provides additional tools of control in the state toolbox.

Despite constitutional provisions that protects press freedom and the freedom of expression, the rights are continuously restricted by the Somaliland authorities. Journalists face increased interference and harassment for reporting on sensitive issues such as corruption and nepotism. In the past two years, several private owned newspapers have been shut down after having reported on alleged corruption and mishandling of finances by the Government. Private radio stations are not prohibited in Somaliland. However, since the Government completely controls the issuing of licenses, very few independent radio stations can operate in the country.


The right to freedom of assembly and association

Although the constitution of Somalia guarantees the right to freedom of assembly and association, the volatile environment in the country has made it very difficult for civil society groups and NGOs to organise and operate effectively. Their work, and their right to freedom of assembly and association, is severely restricted by the ongoing violence in Somalia. Furthermore, the targeted killings of HRDs also harms the right to peaceful and legitimate assembly and association within the field of human rights. As a consequence, several organisations have been forced to shut down.

Alongside the fighting and the imposed restrictions on human rights work, al-Shabaab’s attacks and abductions of UN aid workers have resulted in reduced activities and presence of aid agencies in the country. The access and possibility for aid organisations and humanitarian workers to operate in the country has thus become increasingly difficult and continues to be a major problem.


The right to political rights

Prior to the establishment of the Federal Government in 2012, Somalia’s state authorities had ceased to function due to the conflict in the country. Still, the chance of effective political participation in public affairs and the right to vote remain limited. There are currently no legally excitant and recognised political parties. It is instead clans and kinship that, to a large extent, set the political agenda. Other problematic factors are the lack of accountability, corruption and nepotism. In addition, the influence of individuals and the civil society is very limited, in particular when it comes to women and minority groups.

The main objective of the state-building process is to create a platform, including legislation, for a political party system through the electoral process of the present Government. The role of clan identity as a quota basis of political participation is still a key question as it risks codifying fixed identities.


The right to protection against discrimination

The provisional constitution of 2012 includes a non-discriminatory clause which, in particular, mentions that women should be included in all branches of the Government. In Somalia, women, ethnic minorities and persons living with disabilities are particularly vulnerable groups.

An estimated 1.5 million Somalis have, as a result of the conflict, violence, human rights abuses, and natural disasters, been internally displaced. Displaced persons live under further threats of discrimination, food insecurity, sexual and gender-based violence, forced eviction, and the lack of access to justice. It has been reported that there is a high level of violence in the camps and settlements, as well as a scarcity of basic goods and services which are things that are often promised in exchange for sexual favours.

Forced evictions of internally displaced persons are common occurrences in Mogadishu and in 2014, around 14.000 forced evictions were carried out. Furthermore, in a single month in March 2015, as many as 21.000 persons were evicted. Many in the affected group have reported about the use of intimidation, force and violence, as well as about not receiving any notice prior to the eviction.

The two-decade long conflict, together with the lack of healthcare services, many Somalians have been left with various types of disabilities. In Somalia, persons living with disabilities form a particularly vulnerable group that is 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. As stigmatisation of disabilities remain a serious issue, people with disabilities are at times rejected or abandoned by family members and friends. Children who are born with disabilities are not seldom subjected to neglect, separation and discrimination, and are often prohibited to attend school and participate in public life. Furthermore, the forced evictions of people living with disabilities carried out by the Government and private actors continue to occur regularly despite the State’s obligations to prohibit it.

Girls with disabilities are often forced to marry older men where they are subjected to verbal and physical violence. Forces marriages and spousal abuse are not criminalised in Somalia, which means that most incidents are neither reported nor investigated. The perceived vulnerability of people living with disabilities puts them at higher risk of being raped and subjected to other forms of sexual violence.

Furthermore, persons with psychosocial illnesses are often reported to suffer discrimination and difficult conditions in institutions in Somaliland. Patients at mental health facilities often fall victims of serious abuse and prison-like conditions such as chaining, beating, overcrowding, and involuntary treatment. Not seldom, people with psychosocial illnesses are held against their will with no judicial support nor any chances of challenging their detention under due process.


The role of Civil Rights Defenders in the region


Civil Rights Defenders has been present in the region since 2012, and has been partnering with local networks, individual HRDs and civil society organisations. In Somalia, Civil Rights Defenders works closely with human rights advocates and organisations who are working to protect HRDs at risk in the country.

Among our partners in Somalia are the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders Somalia (NCHRDs), Witness Somalia, Iniskoy for Peace and Development Organization (IPDO).

In addition, Civil Rights Defenders has, since 2012, continuously organised training on digital security and advocacy on human rights and international instruments. We also provide emergency support to HRDs at risk. Currently, in addition to our capacity building support, we are preparing to include Somali HRDs in our Natalia Project – the world’s first assault alarm and positioning system for human rights defenders at risk.

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