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Before leaving Somalia, African Union should provide compensation for civilian harm


Wednesday February 28, 2024

 


IMAGE: Ugandan soldiers of African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM) patrol in Merka, Southern Coastal Somalia, on September 19, 2019. (Photo TINA SMOLE/AFP via Getty Images) 

The African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), formerly known as AMISOM, plans to exit Somalia by the end of December 2024. For the mission’s credibility, and as a gesture of respect to civilians, it is critical that ATMIS provide amends, including through monetary compensation such as condolence payments, to the numerous civilian victims harmed by the mission’s forces. This compensation is crucial, given the impact of combat operations over the many years of ATMIS’ deployment.

The ATMIS drawdown is already underway. In the past year, through two phases thus far, the force has withdrawn a total of 5,000 troops from Somalia, reducing the initially deployed 17,000-strong contingent from neighboring countries to about 12,000. In theory, unless the Somali government requests a delay, subject to approval by the United Nations Security Council, ATMIS is scheduled to fully withdraw by the end of this year. Upon ATMIS’s withdrawal, the Somali National Army (SNA) will have to assume full responsibility for the country’s security.

Background

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The original African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), ATMIS’ predecessor, was deployed in Somalia in 2007 with a mandate to protect and support the weak, fragile government in Mogadishu, and to reduce the threat posed by al-Shabaab and other armed opposition groups opposed to the government in Somalia. At its peak in 2014, it grew to a force of more than 22,000 African troops from Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Sierra Leone. AMISOM, from the start, was never a peacekeeping force in the conventional sense, as there was no peace to keep in Somalia. Unlike typical conventional peacekeeping forces, the operational environment in Somalia, at one time ranked the most dangerous country in the world, has been difficult for the troops. AMISOM found itself fighting a counterinsurgency campaign against al-Shabaab, and filling in as the de facto army for a long time.

AMISOM transitioned to ATMIS in April 2022, following an agreement between the Somali government and the African Union for a phased drawdown. Combined, ATMIS and AMISOM have been deployed in Somalia for 17 years. The withdrawal from Somalia is mainly driven by donor fatigue, as the European Union, the mission’s main financier, has reduced funding over the years. Somalia’s traditional partners, including leading security assistance providers such as the United States, the EU, and the U.K., also feel it’s time Somalia and its own internal security forces took charge of the country’s security. Thus, over the years, they have been actively engaged in strengthening the capabilities of the SNA in anticipation of ATMIS’s departure.

African Union forces have caused civilian harm over the many years of the mission’s deployment in Somalia, particularly during the initial years between 2007 and 2011. Throughout its 17-year deployment, only a handful of condolence payments have been made by the peacekeepers, primarily by the Ugandan contingent, as the African Union and its international partners have not invested significantly in amends. With the African peacekeepers now withdrawing from the country, it is crucial for the AU and its partners to ensure that Somali civilians are compensated for death, injury, and property damage resulting from ATMIS’s and AMISOM’s many years of combat operations.

Evolving Civilian Protection Practices 

When it was first deployed, AMISOM did not have an explicit civilian protection mandate. While AMISOM troops achieved significant military successes against al-Shabaab over the years, these operations – often in dense urban centers – exacted a considerable toll on the Somali civilian population. While comprehensive statistics are challenging to obtain in a vast and complex country with multiple actors and no precise recording of civilian harm, AMISOM’s operations caused significant harm to the Somali civilian population, especially in its early stages. The findings of the last comprehensive three-year joint assessment report conducted on the protection of civilians in Somalia by United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for the period ended December 2019, attributed 2 percent of the total 5,133 civilian casualties recorded (2,338 killed and 2,795 injured) to AMISOM.

In particular, during the liberation of the capital city of Mogadishu between 2008-2011, the protection of civilians arose as a primary concern, with significant costs for the mission’s credibility. Specifically, civilians found themselves caught in the crossfire between government forces supported by AMISOM and al-Shabaab insurgents. Urban warfare in Mogadishu unfolded along traditional frontlines, with government forces and AMISOM controlling one part of the city while al-Shabaab controlled another. Trenches and sandbag walls demarcated the boundaries between warring factions.

In these circumstances, all parties heavily relied on artillery and other indirect fire weapons, exposing civilians to significant risks of death, injury, and property damage. Al-Shabaab  frequently launched mortar attacks on AMISOM positions from densely populated Mogadishu districts, prompting retaliatory indirect fire from AMISOM. Civilians also frequently found themselves caught in the crossfire between al-Shabaab and government forces supported by AMISOM as the frontlines in Mogadishu moved unpredictably, sometimes daily.

The African Union and its partners took notice of civilian protection concerns when fears emerged that growing concerns of civilian casualties were undermining missions’ operational success and credibility. Measures were subsequently taken to better protect civilians at risk. In particular, significant reforms were needed in AMISOM’s rules of engagement and indirect fire policy to minimize civilian harm.

In 2011, at the request of the African Union, the organization where I work, the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), and other experts were asked to advise on revisions to AMISOM’s Indirect Fire Policy (IDF). The revision recommended the creation of a Civilian Casualties Tracking, Analysis, and Response Cell (CCTARC) within AMISOM, dedicated to tracking civilian casualties and responding to harm to civilians. The cell began tracking all AMISOM-related civilian casualties in June 2015. Through the CCTARC, AMISOM also committed to developing a mechanism for making amends or condolence payments for civilian harm.

The revision of AMISOM’s IDF policy introduced a more stringent chain of command for the use of mortar and artillery fire. It also mandated the creation of “no-fire zones” around civilian infrastructure such as hospitals, residential areas, markets, religious sites, and internally displaced persons camps. Following these reforms and the shift of operations away from major urban centers, instances of civilian harm caused by AMISOM decreased.

Continued Accountability Challenges 

Despite these improvements, harm to civilians and their properties by AMISOM/ATMIS persists – as does the mission’s legacy of harm as it plans its transition.

Most of the casualties reportedly caused by ATMIS currently result from retaliatory or indiscriminate fire from ATMIS troops when attacked by al-Shabaab using improved explosive devices (IEDs), landmines, or grenades. Equally, although the number of incidents seemed to have declined during the three-year period of the above-referenced U.N. report, a significant source of harm inflicted by ATMIS/AMISOM has been from AU vehicles inadvertently harming civilians while traveling at high speeds in Mogadishu and other cities in south-central Somalia. Additionally, mortars fired by ATMIS at al-Shabaab fighters’ positions, particularly in Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), sometimes land in civilian areas, resulting in civilian casualties, injuries, and property damage.

For instance, in July 2023, a father interviewed by this author reported that his son’s family was injured, and their house destroyed when an ATMIS mortar hit their house in Bariire, Lower Shabelle region, at night. The family, consisting of the son, his wife, and their three sons, suffered injuries, with some being severe, and they were all hospitalized in Medina hospital in Mogadishu for 23 days. ATMIS expressed regret, acknowledging responsibility for the mortar launched from their nearby base. They informed the family that they reported the incident to ATMIS headquarters in Mogadishu. The family has not received any form of compensation, even after visiting ATMIS headquarters, despite the fact that some family members are still nursing injuries and receiving medication.

Under the CCTARC, ATMIS/AMISOM has conducted preliminary investigations into alleged violations of civilian harm caused by its troops. In instances in which a prima facie case was established, the mission convened boards of inquiry to investigate these violations and assess civilian harm. Additionally, the mission has provided additional training on the protection of civilians for its troops. In some cases, ATMIS/AMISOM leadership publicly acknowledged and expressed regret for civilian casualties, acknowledging the harm caused by its forces.

CCTARC, however, has faced challenges both operational and political, and has not received sufficient prioritization from the mission, the African Union, troop-contributing countries, and donors. The cell has also faced staffing challenges. It is important to note that by no means has the CCTARC collected and investigated all cases of civilian harm attributed to AMISOM/ATMIS, which could number dozens annually according to some estimates. Ultimately, legal accountability for violations is dependent on the individual troop contributing country who were expected to conduct their own investigations after AMISOM’s investigations or boards of inquiry findings. Consequently, there was at least one reported instance in which a country providing troops, Uganda, enforced legal accountability by punishing its troops for causing harm to civilians.

The Need for Amends 

ATMIS has struggled to provide compensation or assistance to civilian victims and families affected by its operations. Despite almost  a decade of operation of CCTARC, there have been only a few instances, notably by the Uganda contingent, of condolence or “ex gratia payments,” mostly through unofficial channels. However, as a mission, ATMIS has been unable to offer any form of monetary compensation or assistance to victims due to the lack of a funding stream to support such initiatives.

In 2016, AMISOM drafted Standard Operating Procedures (SoPs) for compensating civilian harm in Somalia. However, these efforts were unsuccessful due to the lack of financial support from the African Union and donors. In a media interview in June 2023, the special representative of the chairperson of the African Union Commission (SRCC) for Somalia and Head of ATMIS, Ambassador Mohammed El-Amine Souef, lamented the lack of funds for “ex gratia payments.”

In Somalia, making amends is culturally significant, as the payment of “blood money,” or “Magdaw,” is a customary practice. Somali victims place great importance on it,  and many affected communities feel frustrated by the unmet expectations.

As the peacekeepers prepare to exit the country, international partners must assist ATMIS troops in acknowledging, recognizing, and providing appropriate assistance and amends for civilian harm resulting from ATMIS actions. ATMIS represents an important precedent for future African Union Peace Support Operations (PSOs), as the most significant, longest-running, and largest AU/PSO mission to date, so the AU, troop-contributing countries, and  donors should be interested in making sure it sets an example that other missions can follow. Making amends is essential for both moral and strategic reasons, as well as a gesture of respect to Somali victims. Most importantly, it is crucial for building confidence with Somalis as the force transitions out of Somalia.
 


 

Abdullahi Abdille Shahow (@a_abdille) is an East Africa Researcher for Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), an international nonprofit working to improve protection for civilians caught in conflict zones. In this role, he leads CIVIC’s regional research into security issues affecting the protection of civilians in the East Africa region. Abdullahi has ten years of experience researching conflict and security, governance, migration, and development issues in the Horn of Africa region. He has worked or consulted for the International Crisis Group (ICG), Sayara International, the EUTF Research and Evidence Facility (REF), Transparency International, the HORN Institute, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), among others. His work has been published in African Arguments, HORN Bulletin, The New Humanitarian, World Politics Review, The Elephant, and Think Africa Press, among other outlets. He is also on LinkedIn. 



 





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