World, Africa

US must not harm civilians, repeat past violations in new Somalia mission: Rights group

Human Rights Watch urges US military to correct course, credibly probe allegations that it caused loss of life, property

Andrew Wasike   | 20.05.2022
US must not harm civilians, repeat past violations in new Somalia mission: Rights group

NAIROBI, Kenya

As the US moves to redeploy hundreds of troops to Somalia, it makes efforts to minimize civilian harm, ensure justice for abuses and focus on civilian protection as a priority, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Friday.

“Previous US military operations in Somalia resulted in the loss of life and property to Somali civilians that the US neither recognized nor provided with redress,” the rights group said in a report.

Washington has been involved in military operations against al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group, in Somalia since at least 2007, with US airstrikes increasing significantly in 2017.

However, in the last month of his presidency, former President Donald Trump ordered approximately 700 American troops out of the East African country.

In a major policy reversal conducted at the Pentagon’s request, his successor Joe Biden approved the redeployment “to enable a more effective fight against al-Shabaab, which has increased in strength and poses a heightened threat,” according to the White House.

The troops that will be sent to Somalia will come from current deployments in the region, and will have conducted what the White House called “episodic” missions in the country following Trump’s January 2021 withdrawal.

Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at HRW, said US officials must be “very clear on how their forces will avoid harming Somali civilians during military operations.”

“They will need to work closely with Somali and African Union authorities to avoid repeating past laws of war violations and promptly and appropriately respond to civilian loss,” she stressed.

Culture of impunity for civilian loss

HRW pointed out that “considerable loss of civilian life in US airstrikes and during joint operations, including attacks that were apparent violations of the laws of war” has been documented.

During the previous deployment, the US military “denied many incidents of civilian harm,” the report said.

The rights group said it recorded two US airstrikes in February and March 2020 “that killed seven civilians in apparent violation of the laws of war.”

“While the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) acknowledged responsibility for the Feb. 2 incident, which killed a woman and injured her two sisters, both children, and her grandmother, none of them received compensation,” the report said.

HRW urged the US military to “correct course and ensure that it takes all civilian harm allegations seriously, and credibly investigates them.”

“A culture of impunity for civilian loss breeds resentment and mistrust among the population and undermines efforts to build a more rights-respecting state,” Bader said.

“The US government recognizes the need to credibly investigate and compensate for civilian harm, but the military has yet to make this a reality.”​​​​​​​

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