The rights group urges civil protection as the United States announces redistribution of forces to Somalia

NAIROBI (AXADLE) The reported US decision to relocate hundreds of US troops to Somalia as part of a joint operation with the Somali government and African Union forces should make civil protection a priority, Human Rights Watch said today .

Previous U.S. military operations in Somalia resulted in the loss of life and property to Somali civilians, which the United States neither recognized nor provided redress.

“U.S. officials should be very aware of how their forces will avoid harming Somali civilians during military operations,” said Laetitia Bader, director of the Horn of Africa at Human Rights Watch. “They will have to work closely with the authorities in Somalia and the African Union to avoid repetition. Previous laws on war violations and 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, U.S. airstrikes in Somalia increased markedly. By the end of 2020, the Trump administration ordered the approximately 750 U.S. troops out of Somalia.

Somalia’s new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has welcomed about 500 US troops back into the country. Al-Shabab has continued to carry out arbitrary and targeted attacks on civilians and has forcibly recruited children. In 2021, al-Shabab fighters killed dozens of people they were accused of working for or spying for the government and foreign forces. Somalia’s security forces have committed serious abuses against people accused of al-Shabab membership, including illegal detention and sometimes the prosecution of children in military courts.

Human Rights Watch, other rights groups, and the media have previously documented significant civilian casualties in U.S. airstrikes and during joint operations, including attacks that were blatant violations of the laws of war.

During the previous U.S. deployment, the U.S. military denied many incidents of civilian casualties. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any families, whether they killed civilians who received compensation or other redress for their losses, or that someone was held responsible for offenses.

Human Rights Watch reported on two U.S. airstrikes, on February 2 and March 10, 2020, that killed seven civilians in apparent violations of the laws of war. While the U.S. African Command (AFRICOM) acknowledged responsibility for the February 2 incident that killed a woman and injured her two sisters, both children and her grandmother, neither 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 traveled to Al-Shabab-controlled areas for a regular hearing on land disputes. The relatives said they had offered to talk to AFRICOM but had not heard anything back. They continue to express frustration that their loved ones have been branded as Al-Shabab combatants.

Recent reports from the New York Times have highlighted the damage 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 U.S. military’s procedure for dealing with civilian casualties and instruct the military to create an action plan for civilian damage mitigation and response (CHMRAP). This reform plan must include Somalia, Human Rights Watch said.

As a matter of policy, the U.S. government may provide compensation or “ex gratia payments” for loss of property, damage or loss of civilian life, including cases where the laws of war were not violated. Other forms of condolence available include acknowledgment of responsibility and the provision of medical care.

In recent years, AFRICOM has offered a degree of transparency regarding civilian accident assessments, in particular the publication of quarterly reports on civilian casualty assessments since April 2020. However, these are still far from what is necessary to ensure credible justice for victims, including for previous cases, Human Rights Watch said. AFRICOM has since 2019 admitted to killing five civilians and wounding 11 others in five separate attacks in Somalia. It has established some reporting systems for civilian casualties, but affected communities do not know or cannot access these channels. Some relatives who have lodged complaints have not received feedback.

The U.S. military should set the course and ensure that it takes all civilian injury allegations seriously and investigates them in a credible manner. That means interviewing civilian witnesses and not rushing to deny that civilians have been killed, Human Rights Watch said. U.S. commanders should set a tone of civilian protection for all forces heading to Somalia as an integral part of the mission and hold those found guilty of misconduct accountable.

“A culture of impunity for civilian casualties breeds anger and distrust among the people and undermines efforts to build a more rights-respecting state,” Bader said. “The U.S. government recognizes the need to credibly investigate and compensate for civilian damage, but the military has not yet made this a reality.”

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