Sexual Terror and Impunity in Somalia

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(Photo: United Nations Photo / Flickr)

Two summers ago, a Somali mother publicly recounted a harrowing experience of sexual abuse and humiliation at the hands of African Union troops in Mogadishu.

Somali troops, she said, had violently kidnapped her, ostensibly to investigate whether she had ties to the terrorist group al-Shabaab. However, when the troops delivered her to an African Union base in Mogadishu, she was brutally gang raped and tortured.

No one has been held responsible for this crime. And there’s evidence to suggest that it might just be the tip of the iceberg.

As international tribunals from Rwanda to Yugoslavia have attested, rape is used as a weapon of war in a variety of conflict situations. In Somalia, according to the United Nations, sexual violence remains “one of the most serious and recurrent human rights violations.”

Although atrocities committed by al-Shabaab are more likely to make headlines, much of this violence appears to occur at the hands of the troops charged with protecting the country from the al-Qaeda-linked militia.

Abuse of Power

In a report released last year entitled “The Power These Men Have Over Us,” Human Rights Watch meticulously detailed widespread sexual exploitation and abuse by soldiers from the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM.

According to the report, AMISOM troops in Mogadishu “have abused their positions of power to prey on the city’s most vulnerable women and girls. Soldiers have committed acts of rape and other forms of sexual abuse, as well as sexual exploitation — the abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes.”

Perhaps most egregiously, according to Human Rights Watch, some AMISOM troops — who are charged in part with “facilitating humanitarian assistance” — have used their access to aid as bait to abuse vulnerable women, especially internally displaced persons. The report documented that girls as young as 12 had gone to AMISOM bases in search of medicine or water, only to be raped or sexually exploited with impunity.

On paper, international and regional organizations operating in Somalia have policies on the prevention of sexual abuse and exploitation.

The UN Assistance Mission in Somalia, or UNSOM, for example, has a strong human rights mandate to monitor, investigate, and prevent “violations of international humanitarian law committed in Somalia, including through the deployment of human rights observers.” Speaking in a forum on the prevention of sexual abuse and exploitation held in Mogadishu for AMISOM personnel, Mane Ahmed — the mission’s gender officer — told participants, “The Mission has a zero-tolerance policy to sexual exploitation and abuse, and this is the message I would like to pass on to you and everybody.”

However, AMISOM has no functional mechanism in place to prevent sexual abuses perpetrated by its troops. Additionally, there seems to be unwillingness on the part of AMISOM, UNSOM, and the Somali government to carry out an impartial and thorough investigation when such serious allegations are raised.

Indeed, when the Somali mother came forward in 2013, even before any investigation had been set up, a spokesman for AMISOM troops fervidly and spuriously denied the charge and fulminated against the woman and anyone who supported her.

Failed Investigations

Amid a growing public outrage, then-Prime Minister Abdi Shirdon announced that “the government will not tolerate human rights violations against the Somali people” and hurriedly appointed a ministerial committee to investigate the veracity of the allegation.

The chairperson of the committee, Dr. Maryam Qasim, publicly promised to leave no stone unturned to establish the truth about the case and help the victim get the justice she deserves. But it seems that neither the Somali government nor those from the AU coalition took the allegation seriously. According to Human Rights Watch, the “flawed investigation points to security officials trying to silence both those who report the pervasive problem of sexual violence and those who help rape survivors.”

To complicate the matter further, merely two months after the committee was formed, Shirdon lost a confidence vote in parliament and the ministers concerned lost their jobs. The ministers could have handed over the case to their respective successors to continue the investigation, but they didn’t. Instead, they allowed the suffering of Somali women at the hands of the AMISOM troops to continue unabated.

Furor over the subsequent Human Rights Watch report fueled calls for another investigation. “The Somali government expects AMISOM to respond to these allegations, and anyone found responsible will be held to account,” promised Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Assuring Somalis that their government “remains committed to ensuring perpetrators of any crime against its civilians are brought to justice,” Prime Minister Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed appointed a new committee to investigate the allegations raised by human rights observers.

However, it was clear from the outset that the government was not serious about the new investigation. A high-ranking government officer, who was present during the first meeting of the committee, told me that most committee members made it clear that they did not believe the Human Rights Watch report and even made facetious remarks about it.

Most members of the committee, he added, hadn’t read the document at all. As a result, nothing happened.

Taking Responsibility

“I was scared he would come back and rape me again or kill me,” one woman told Human Rights Watch following her assault. “I want the government to recognize the power these men have over us and for them to protect us.”

The Somali government should take this responsibility seriously. A thorough investigation should be conducted as to which troops have been involved in sexual violence, and those found liable for committing or abetting these rapes should be held to account.

Additionally, the donor countries that fund AMISOM — including the United States — bear partial responsibility for these crimes if they don’t put mechanisms in place to prevent them.

There are a few hopeful signs, at least. Last January, Caroline Vaudrey of the UK Foreign Office’s peacekeeping team attended a training course for the African Union troops in which they discussed the prevention of sexual violence. “I see they have a clear understanding of the international framework and had a new set of tools and mechanisms they could use to prevent and respond to sexual violence,” she reported.

But in the absence of political will to prosecute offenders, the most important tools are lacking.

Ahmed Ali M. Khayre is a Somali-Dutch human rights and humanitarian law researcher and lawyer. He can be reached at ahmedakhayre@gmail.com.