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All parties in the escalating conflict in Somalia have regularly committed war crimes and other serious abuses during the past year that have contributed to the country's humanitarian catastrophe, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Human Rights Watch urged the United States, the European Union, and other major international actors to rethink their flawed approaches to the crisis and support efforts to ensure accountability.
The 104-page report, "So Much to Fear: War Crimes and the Devastation of Somalia," describes how the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the Ethiopian forces that intervened in Somalia to support it and insurgent forces have committed widespread and serious violations of the laws of war. Frequent violations include indiscriminate attacks, killings, rape, use of civilians as human shields, and looting. Since early 2007, the escalating conflict has claimed thousands of civilian lives, displaced more than a million people, and driven out most of the population of Mogadishu, the capital. Increasing attacks on aid workers in the past year have severely limited relief operations and contributed to an emerging humanitarian crisis.
"The combatants in Somalia have inflicted more harm on civilians than on each other," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "There are no quick fixes in Somalia, but foreign governments need to stop adding fuel to the fire with misguided policies that empower human rights abusers."
Somalia has been without a functioning government since 1991, and a UN peacekeeping operation withdrew in failure in 1995. The years since have been violent and chaotic. In December 2006, Ethiopian military forces intervened to back Somalia's weak TFG against a coalition of Islamic courts that had won control of Mogadishu. In the past two years, the conflict has escalated dramatically, and internationally backed peace talks have failed to make any impact on the ground.
The report draws on interviews with more than 80 witnesses and victims of abuses, who described attacks by all the warring parties in stark detail.
Each party to the conflict has indiscriminately fired on civilian neighborhoods in Mogadishu on an almost daily basis, leveling homes without warning and killing civilians in the streets. Insurgent forces have regularly carried out ambushes and roadside bombings in markets and residential areas, and launched mortars from within densely populated neighborhoods. Ethiopian forces have reacted to insurgent attacks with indiscriminate heavy rocket and artillery fire, with devastating impact on civilians.
TFG security forces and allied militia have tortured detainees, and killed and raped civilians and looted their homes, sometimes in the context of house-to-house joint security operations with Ethiopian troops. Ethiopian forces, who were relatively disciplined in 2007, have been more widely implicated in acts of violent criminality this year. Insurgent forces have threatened and murdered civilians they view as unsympathetic to their cause and have forcibly recruited civilians, including children, into their ranks.
The full horror of these abuses can be captured only through the stories of Somalis who have suffered through them. Human Rights Watch interviewed teenage girls raped by TFG security forces, parents whose children were cut to pieces in their own homes by Ethiopian rockets, and people shot in the streets by insurgent fighters for acts as trivial as working as a low-paid messenger for TFG offices. One young man described watching a group of Ethiopian soldiers rape his mother and sisters in their home. "And I was sitting there helpless," he said. "I could not help my mother or help my sisters."
For many, the worst of it is being caught between all three sides at once. One young man was given an ultimatum by radical Islamist Al Shabaab fighters in his neighborhood to join them or face retribution. Days later, he came home from school to find that his mother had been killed and his house destroyed in an unrelated artillery bombardment.
"The world has largely ignored the horrors unfolding in Somalia, but Somali families are still left to confront violence that grows with every passing day," Gagnon said. "Even those who try to flee find that the violent abuses follow them."
Hundreds of thousands of Mogadishu's poorest residents, lacking the money to travel further, have congregated in sprawling displaced persons camps along the Mogadishu-Afgooye road, but the indiscriminate fighting they fled has followed them there.
Tens of thousands of Somali refugees have also fled the country this year. Kenya's Dadaab refugee camps are now the largest concentration of refugees anywhere in the world, with nearly 250,000 inhabitants. But the journey itself is perilous. Human Rights Watch interviewed many refugees who had been robbed, raped, or beaten by freelance militias as they fled Somalia. Kenya's border with Somalia is closed, leaving refugees at the mercy of abusive smugglers and corrupt Kenyan police.
Hundreds of Somalis have drowned trying to cross the Gulf of Aden to Yemen, often after being forced overboard or abandoned at sea by traffickers.
The United States, the European Union, and governments in the region have taken few positive steps to address the worsening situation in Somalia, and have too often taken actions that have made it worse.
Ethiopia is a party to the conflict, but has done nothing to ensure accountability for abuses by its soldiers. The United States, treating Somalia primarily as a battlefield in the "global war on terror," has pursued a policy of uncritical support for transitional government and Ethiopian actions, and the resulting lack of accountability has fueled the worst abuses. The European Commission has advocated direct support for the transitional government's police force without insisting on any meaningful action to improve the force and combat abuses.
In recent months, the conflict has increasingly spread into neighboring regions and countries in the form of bombings and other attacks - precisely what Ethiopia's military intervention in 2006 sought to prevent. During the latter half of 2008, there have been suicide bombings in the previously more stable semi-autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland, as well as rampant piracy on the high seas, and kidnappings across the border in Kenya.
"The Somali crisis is not just a nightmare for its people, it is a regional threat and a global problem," Gagnon said. "The world cannot afford to wait any longer to find more effective ways of addressing it."
Human Rights Watch called for a fundamental review of policy toward Somalia and the entire Horn of Africa in Washington, where the Obama administration will have an opportunity to break with the failed policies of its predecessor, and in European capitals. It also called for the establishment of a UN-sponsored Commission of Inquiry to investigate violations of international law, map the worst abuses, and lay the groundwork for accountability.
Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.
"Today and every day let's honor King as we end racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the denial of healthcare, militarism, and this false narrative of Christian nationalism," said Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis.
To mark Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, leaders of a modern iteration of the slain civil rights champion's final campaign called on U.S. politicians from both sides of the aisle—many of whose policies and actions are like those King condemned as the "evil triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism"—to step up and meet the needs of the country's poor and low-income people.
Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival released a video demanding the Biden administration and every member of Congress "meet with poor and low-wealth people, religious leaders, economists, lawyers, and public health specialists to address the systemic policy violence that threatens the soul of our nation."
"When prophets are killed or assassinated, our job is to pick up the baton and continue the work," campaign co-chair Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II said in the video. "Sadly, many will go to King events today and claim to honor the prophet. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle will go while even today, they are standing diametrically opposed to the things he fought for: addressing systemic poverty, addressing racism, ensuring voter protection, just immigration policy, just treatment of Indigenous people, healthcare for all, and dealing with the war economy and militarism."
As they do each year, officials—including Republican lawmakers who voted against an MLK Day holiday, the U.S. government King called "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today," and its agencies like the FBI that tried to destroy King—all took to Twitter to sing his praises.
Poor People's Campaign Petition Congress to Truly Honor MLK Legacy | Press Conferencewww.youtube.com
Rev. Liz Theoharis, also a co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, said in the video that "this Martin Luther King Day, we must continue a campaign for social, political, and economic rights, not simply commemorate a man. Today and every day let's honor King as we end racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the denial of healthcare, militarism, and this false narrative of Christian nationalism. Let us fight poverty, not people."
The video also includes messages from low-income Americans and advocates calling for healthcare, living wages, "and more so everyone can thrive."
"I live in North Carolina. I work 60 hours a week and more and I still don't make enough money to live comfortably," Matthew Byars said in the video. "I'm chasing the American Dream, but I'm living the American nightmare. Raise the minimum wage. Impacted people matter too."
King, along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, launched the original Poor People's Campaign in December 1967, months before he was assassinated in Memphis while supporting a strike by Black sanitation workers. King said the movement's demands were $30 billion for anti-poverty programs, full employment for all, a guaranteed universal income, and the annual construction of 500,000 affordable homes.
SCLC president Ralph Abernathy led the campaign after King's murder, and in May 1968—just weeks after King's murder—his widow, Coretta Scott King, led demonstrators in a two-week protest in Washington, D.C., where participants demanded an Economic Bill of Rights.
Camp life in Resurrection City 1968www.youtube.com
Thousands of poor people camped on the National Mall in a community called Resurrection City, which stood for six weeks—including on the day when Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) was assassinated on June 5—until police violently destroyed it and evicted the protesters.
"At a time when online mobilizations were one of the few forms of protest available to the public, Twitter was seemingly asked to shield the powerful from criticism," said one campaigner. "That should worry all those who care about accountability."
Drugmaker BioNTech and the German government pushed Twitter to "hide" posts by activists calling on Big Pharma to temporarily lift patents on Covid-19 vaccines—a move which would have given people the Global South greater access to the lifesaving inoculations, a report published Monday by The Intercept revealed.
Twitter lobbyist Nina Morschhaeuser "flagged the corporate accounts of Pfizer, BioNTech, Moderna, and AstraZeneca for her colleagues to monitor and shield from activists," according to The Intercept's Lee Fang. An email from Morschhaeuser said the German Federal Office for Information Security also contacted Twitter on behalf of BioNTech, whose spokesperson, Jasmina Alatovic, asked the social media giant to "hide" activist tweets targeting her company's account for two days.
Morschhaeuser, meanwhile, requested that colleagues track the hashtags #PeoplesVaccine—a movement for the temporary lifting of patent protections—and #JoinCTAP, a reference to the World Health Organization's Covid-19 Technology Access Pool. Morschhaeuser further warned that the advocacy group Global Justice Now shared an online signup form for a December 2020 People's Vaccine Day of Action.
"The allegations in this article suggest that government and industry tried to silence legitimate criticism during a crisis," Maaza Seyoum, Global South convener at the People's Vaccine Alliance, said in a statement Monday. "At a time when online mobilizations were one of the few forms of protest available to the public, Twitter was seemingly asked to shield the powerful from criticism. That should worry all those who care about accountability."
\u201c\ud83d\udce2 REACTION: German government and @BioNTech_Group asked Twitter to censor vaccine equity critics.\n\nNew #TwitterFiles piece by @lhfang shows how they worked to silence activists demanding a #PeoplesVaccine\n\nRead our reaction: https://t.co/VyaSBIbWnS\n\n1/\u201d— The People's Vaccine (@The People's Vaccine) 1673889107
Global Justice Now director Nick Dearden also noted the troubling timing of BioNTech's censorship request during a period of global pandemic lockdowns.
"To try and stifle digital dissent during a pandemic, when tweets and emails are some of the only forms of protest available to those locked in their homes, is deeply sinister," he told The Intercept.
It is not clear to what extent Twitter took any action on BioNTech's request. In response to Morschhaeuser's inquiry, several Twitter officials chimed in, debating what action could or could not be taken. Su Fern Teo, a member of the company's safety team, noted that a quick scan of the activist campaign showed nothing that violated the company's terms of service, and asked for more examples to "get a better sense of the content that may violate our policies."
But it shows the extent to which pharmaceutical giants engaged in a global lobbying blitz to ensure corporate dominance over the medical products that became central to combating the pandemic. Ultimately, the campaign to share Covid vaccine recipes around the world failed.
While U.S. President Joe Biden in 2021 heeded activists' calls and joined most of the Global South in backing a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver at the World Trade Organization, most rich nations—including Germany—oppose the policy and have, along with Big Pharma, fought to thwart it.
"If the German government wants to show that it is now willing to side with public health over private profit, it must change its approach to pandemic response," Seyoum asserted. "That means backing efforts at the World Trade Organization to improve access to generic Covid-19 medicines and treatments, supporting the World Health Organization's mRNA Hub in South Africa, and standing up to corporate interests in negotiations over a Pandemic Treaty."
Critics rebuke U.S. climate envoy for calling Sultan al-Jaber a "terrific choice."
Progressives on Monday reacted with outrage and disbelief after U.S. climate envoy John Kerry backed the appointment of Sultan al-Jaber to lead the the United Nations' annual conference on the climate emergency, saying the CEO of the United Arab Emirates' state-run oil company was not only qualified to preside over the summit, but that his background strengthened the case for his presidency.
As Common Dreamsreported last week, the UAE named al-Jaber as president of the 28th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28), scheduled to begin in November—a decision that was met with scorn from campaigners as al-Jaber is heads the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and a renewable energy firm in which ADNOC holds a 24% stake.
"I think that Dr. Sultan al-Jaber is a terrific choice because he is the head of the company. That company knows it needs to transition," Kerry told the Associated Press Sunday, despite the fact that scientists and advocates across the globe have also known for decades that policymakers must lead a rapid transition away from oil and gas-generated energy. "He knows—and the leadership of the UAE is committed to transitioning."
Advocates have warned that the UAE has not made clear how it plans to reach its stated goal of being carbon neutral by 2050, especially as it plans to increase production of crude oil by a million barrels per day.
The UAE is expected to become "the third largest expander of oil and gas production" between 2023 and 2025 as ADNOC embarks on the second-largest expansion of oil production of any company in the world, locking in more than 2.7 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions.
But when asked by Sky News Arabia about whether al-Jaber would have a conflict of interest at the conference, where leaders are expected to be pushed to take significant emissions-reduction steps, Kerry dismissed the concern.
"That's a first blush, very simplistic way to look at this," Kerry said, adding that "the only way we will meet this crisis and protect our citizens and build an economy for the future, is by reducing emissions."
Putting the ADNOC executive—who is also the UAE's climate enjoy and minister of industry and technology—in charge of COP28 drew comparisons from Progressive International leader Yanis Varoufaki to naming "a jihadist to oversee religious tolerance" or "a Nazi to oversee racial harmony."
"What could go wrong?" labor historian Erik Loomis asked sardonically.
\u201cJeffrey Dahmer placed to oversee anti-cannibalism commission. \n\nhttps://t.co/D7Yyz2MMAw\u201d— Erik Loomis (@Erik Loomis) 1673888060
COP28 will follow the two most recent international climate conferences, held in Glasgow, Scotland and Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where hundreds of fossil fuel lobbyists were in attendance and policymakers failed to hammer out a final agreement requiring countries to phase out oil, coal, and gas extraction.
Kerry toldSky News Arabia that the UAE was not "involved in changing" the outcome of the COP26 and COP27 talks.
The former secretary of state acknowledged that there would be "a level of scrutiny" aimed at al-Jaber's appointment.
"And I think that's going to be very constructive," he told the AP. "It's going to help people, you know, stay on the line here. I think this is a time, a new time of accountability."
Acknowledging Kerry's negotiating of the Paris climate agreement in 2015—which despite its many flaws and shortcomings represents the strongest global pact ever reached on the issue—Leo Roberts of the climate think tank E3G said on social media that the U.S. politician's endorsement of el-Jaber represents "a really rather spectacular fall from grace."