Minimize Civilian Harm, Ensure Justice for Abuses
(Nairobi) – The reported United States decision to redeploy several hundred US troops in Somalia, as part of a joint operation with the Somali government and African Union forces, should make civilian protection a priority. 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.
“US officials should be very clear on 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 laws of war violations and promptly and appropriately respond to civilian loss.”
The US has been involved in military operations against the Islamist armed group Al-Shabab in Somalia since at least 2007. Beginning in 2017, US airstrikes in Somalia increased significantly. In late 2020, the Trump administration ordered the approximately 750 US troops out of Somalia.
Somalia’s new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has welcomed the return of approximately 500 US troops to the country. Al-Shabab has continued to conduct indiscriminate and targeted attacks on civilians and has forcibly recruited children. In 2021, Al-Shabab fighters killed dozens of people it accused of working or spying for the government and foreign forces. Somalia’s security forces have committed serious abuses against individuals accused of Al-Shabab membership, including unlawfully detaining and at times prosecuting children in military courts.
Human Rights Watch, other rights groups, and the media have previously documented considerable loss of civilian life in US airstrikes and during joint operations, including attacks that were apparent violations of the laws of war.
During the earlier US deployment, the US military denied many incidents of civilian harm. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any families, of the civilians killed, that received amends or other redress for their losses, or that anyone was held accountable for wrongdoing.
Human Rights Watch reported on 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) acknowledged responsibility for the February 2 incident, which killed a woman and injured her two sisters, both children, and her grandmother, none of them received compensation.
AFRICOM maintains that those killed in the March 10 strike were Al-Shabab combatants. Relatives told Human Rights Watch that four of the five men killed were civilians who had travelled to Al-Shabab-controlled areas for a customary land dispute hearing. The relatives said they have offered to speak with AFRICOM but have heard nothing back. They continue to express frustration that their loved ones have been labelled as Al-Shabab combatants.
Recent reporting by the New York Times has highlighted the harm caused to civilians during US military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. In response to public pressure, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said earlier this year that he would reform the US military’s procedure for handling civilian casualties, directing the military to create a Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMRAP). This reform plan needs to include Somalia, Human Rights Watch said.
As a matter of policy, the US government may provide redress or “ex gratia payments” for loss of property, injury, or loss of civilian life, including cases in which the laws of war were not violated. Other available forms of condolence include acknowledging responsibility and providing medical care. The US Congress has allocated funds and a directive to the Defense Department to make ex gratia payments to survivors for civilian loss of life or injury in which there is no admission of legal responsibility.
AFRICOM has, in recent years, offered some level of transparency around civilian casualty assessments, notably publishing quarterly civilian casualty assessment reports since April 2020. However, these still fall far short of what is needed to ensure credible justice for victims, including for past cases. AFRICOM has, since 2019, admitted to killing five civilians and injuring 11 others in five separate strikes in Somalia. It has established some reporting systems for civilians harmed, but affected communities do not know about or cannot access these channels. Some relatives who have filed complaints have received no feedback.
The US military should correct course and ensure that it takes all civilian harm allegations seriously, and credibly investigates them. This means interviewing civilian witnesses and not rushing to deny that civilians have been killed, Human Rights Watch said. US commanders should set a tone of civilian protection for all forces heading to Somalia as an integral part of the mission and hold accountable those found responsible for wrongdoing.
“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.”