The announced decision by the United States to redeploy several hundred American troops to Somalia, as part of a joint operation with the Somali government and African Union forces, should make the protection of civilians a priority. Previous U.S. military operations in Somalia have resulted in the death and loss of property of Somali civilians that the United States has neither recognized nor granted reparations.
“US officials must be very clear about how their forces will avoid harming Somali civilians during military operations,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “They will need to work closely with Somali and African Union authorities to avoid repeating past violations of the laws of war and to respond quickly and appropriately to civilian casualties.”
The United States has been involved in military operations against the Islamist armed group Al-Shabab in Somalia since at least 2007. As of 2017, US airstrikes in Somalia increased significantly. At the end of 2020, the Trump administration ordered the approximately 750 American soldiers to leave Somalia.
Somalia’s new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has welcomed the return of around 500 US troops to the country. Al-Shabab continued to carry out indiscriminate and targeted attacks against civilians and forcibly recruited children. In 2021, Al-Shabab fighters killed dozens of people they accused of working or spying for government and foreign forces. Somali security forces have committed serious abuses against those accused of belonging to Al-Shabab, including illegally detaining and sometimes prosecuting children in military courts.
Human Rights Watch, other rights groups, and the media have previously documented massive civilian casualties in US airstrikes and joint operations, including attacks that were apparent violations of the laws of war. .
During the previous US deployment, the US military denied numerous incidents of civilian harm. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any families, civilians killed, who received reparations or other reparations for their losses, or of anyone held accountable for wrongdoing.
Human Rights Watch documented two US airstrikes, on February 2 and March 10, 2020, that killed seven civilians in apparent violation of the laws of war. While the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) admitted responsibility for the February 2 incident, which killed a woman and injured her two sisters, two children and her grandmother, none of them received compensation.
AFRICOM maintains that those killed in the March 10 strike were Al-Shabab fighters. Relatives told Human Rights Watch that four of the five men killed were civilians who had traveled to Al-Shabab-controlled areas for a hearing over a customary land dispute. Relatives said they had offered to speak to AFRICOM but had received no response. They continue to express their frustration that their relatives have been branded as Al-Shabab fighters.
Recent New York Times reports have highlighted the harm done to civilians during US military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. In response to public pressure, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said earlier this year that he would reform the US Army’s procedure for dealing with civilian casualties, ordering the military to create an action plan Civil Damage Mitigation and Response (CHMRAP). This reform plan must include Somalia, Human Rights Watch said.
Generally, the U.S. government can provide reparations or “ex-gratia payments” for loss of property, injury, or loss of civilian life, including cases where the laws of war have not been violated. . Other forms of condolences available include acknowledgment of responsibility and provision of medical care. The United States Congress has appropriated funds and a directive to the Department of Defense to make ex gratia payments to survivors for civilian casualties or injuries in which there is no admission of legal liability.
AFRICOM has in recent years offered some level of transparency regarding civilian casualty assessments, including publishing quarterly civilian casualty assessment reports since April 2020. However, these are still a far cry from what is necessary to ensure credible justice for victims, including for past cases. . AFRICOM has since 2019 admitted killing five civilians and wounding 11 others in five separate strikes in Somalia. It has established reporting systems for injured civilians, but affected communities are unaware of or unable to access these channels. Some relatives who have filed a complaint have not received any feedback.
The U.S. military should course-correct and ensure that it takes all allegations of civilian harm seriously and credibly investigates them. That means interviewing civilian witnesses and not rushing to deny that civilians were killed, Human Rights Watch said. US commanders should set the civil defense tone for all forces moving into Somalia as part of the mission and hold accountable those found responsible for wrongdoing.
“A culture of impunity for civilian casualties breeds resentment and distrust 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 civilian harm, but the military has yet to make that a reality.”
(With contributions from APO)