SOMALI HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS AND THE FORTHCOMING
By Khalif Hassan Ahmed, Information and Documentation Officer, Novib
With the IGAD-led Somali Reconciliation Conference in the middle of the power-sharing phase, calls to prioritize human rights from the start of the five-year transitional period are growing among international and local human rights organizations. Somalia has a background of massive human rights abuses going back to the repressive military regime of Siyad Barre and the subsequent continuation of the violations during the period of the civil war following the collapse of the Somali State in 1991. The first phase of the current peace conference culminated with the signing of declaration of cessation of hostilities, which has been violated by the signatory leaders and others, letting the atrocities continue within Somalia. How can Somalis now recover and heal from the culture of impunity created during the past decades in Somalia?
Somali human rights defenders have been involved in an advocacy and awareness campaign towards respect for the universal declaration of human rights in which Somalia became signatory after its independence in 1960. The human rights defenders, with support from international partners, have played a key role in campaigning against the perpetration of abuses. They recently attended a workshop organized by Novib Somalia to revisit their past work and chart the way forward.
The human rights organizations have carried out investigation and documentation of human rights violations during the past year and following intensive training on international standards on documentation. However and despite the major role played at home by the human rights defenders, international coverage is still inadequate. External attention and pressure on those committing the violations would enable to promote awareness and attract the attention of the international community. As part of the efforts to make the Somali situation known, two human rights defenders attended the annual UN Human Rights Commission conference held in Geneva early this year and presented a status report on the human rights situation in 2003 (available on
Although women’s rights in Somalia are contentious and their defense shakes the male-dominant culture, Somali women play a significant role in the socio-economic development of Somalia, which needs to be recognised in the field of rights. In recognition of their role, a 12% representation in the emergent structures from Mbagathi is endorsed by the Transitional Federal Charter. This is currently being tested at the ongoing parliament selection process by the clans, over which Somali women have already expressed dissatisfaction. Somali political leaders interviewed by /Novib Discussion Platform/ have agreed with the importance of significant women representation in the political landscape. However others disagree with such opinion and see women as having all the necessary rights and support from the international community while men remain vulnerable. They argue that all pillars of Somali society are grounded and empowerment of one of its segment would be a source of conflict.
Two human right defenders and women activists, Aina Abukar Ga`al and Zamzam disagree with that contention and believe that the emancipation of women has been hindered by male patriarchy from time immemorial. “The male-dominated culture”, in their opinion “empowered men in education leaving behind women. This attempt to uplift women to an equal status should not be politicised and should be seen as a positive contribution to the ailing society”, they argued.
Protection and prevention of child abuse is another sector targeted by civil society actors. The younger generation of Somalia have missed opportunities in the areas of education and this would mean a gap in the future reconstruction of Somalia. Zamzam, a representative of an organisation working on prevention and protection of child abuses located in Mogadishu, felt that many challenges lay ahead but their advocacy and awareness exercises would mean a lot in the near future.
Scholars have argued, “that actors emerging from civil wars are more concerned with protecting their own interests than reconciliation.” When this is the case, fear might define the state machineries. Based on previous and current experiences of post peace agreement situations, human rights need to be prioritised during the transition period. Whether this is feasible in Somalia would require practical answers. The challenge would be what the German Philosopher- Roy Baumeister called the /magnitude gap/ in his comparison of the victim and perpetrators perspectives. In his assessment, offenders generally tend to undervalue the significance and consequences of their acts, while victims understandably feel the full weight of their suffering. A human rights defender interviewed felt that the first challenge for Somalia would be the need to have a government and referred to the Somali parable of the man who was struck with an arrow both at the back and the buttock to explain the situation: first, the arrow at the buttock has to be removed to enable the victim to sit. In any case, Somalis should believe in accountability and focus on the future. Those behind the violations should be asked to promote reconciliation.
The human rights defenders also supported the idea of organising a human rights workshop/training for the transitional structures as a first step towards establishing a culture respectful of human rights. The first step is to assist the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in understanding and committing to the notion of human rights. The faction leaders have to understand the reasons for the violations and ask thereafter for forgiveness to generate reconciliation. General human rights education for the public as well as fair access to justice should the prioritised.
A faction leader once interviewed by /Novib Discussion Platform/ on the possibility of forming a commission to look into previous violations argued that everybody in Somalia played a role in the human rights abuses and would be impractical to implicate the integral part of the nation. The human rights defenders agree with this predicament, but claim that responsibility would ultimately go to the one claiming to be an authority in that particular area.
Some claim that the human rights organizations are resource-driven and only speak the language of the donor community. The human rights defenders feel that they are principle-driven and emerged from an existing need and not encouraged by an outside force. They argued that NGOs are a new phenomenon to Somalia and therefore difficult to understand and accept by some segments of the community, specially taking into account mistakes and problems some of them have created in the past.
The human rights defenders in their message to Somalis in Somalia as well as in the Diaspora said, “Somalia is for Somalis and for this to happen a sense of patriotism among faction leaders and the civil society has to prevail in theory and practice. Peace is power and this can be realised through compromise and promotion of the culture of peace.” As for IGAD and the international community, the defenders stressed the need for impartiality and mainstreaming of human rights in the process. This component, in their opinion has been overlooked. The faction leaders would have not acted without an outside pressure to commit them to the formation of a government. “The infant structure from Mbagathi cannot address the challenges at home and would require sustained support by the international community; Somalia today is full of ammunition and disarmament has to be made a priority to enable implementation of the government programmes,” they advised.