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Human Rights Watch Urges Accountability, Reassessment of Somalia Priorities

A new report from Human Rights Watch asks the United States, the European Union, and other major powers to redefine what it calls their "flawed" approach to the crisis in Somalia and urges them to support efforts to bring greater accountability to the offenders. The 104-page report released Monday argues that all sides are responsible for mounting dangers over the past two years and that the combatants are inflicting more damage on civilians than on each other. Human Rights Watch Africa director Georgette Gagnon says that outsiders, including the soon-to-take-office Obama administration, need to re-evaluate fundamental views about the Horn of Africa conflict in order to stop fueling the war crimes and rights abuses that Human Rights Watch says are being committed by all sides in the conflict.

"There needs to be first, some sort of record of accountability and justice to show all those civilians who have been displaced and killed over the past many years that there's a new way of looking at the situation and that the various international actors will not continue to tolerate abuses by the TFG (Transitional Federal Government), by the Ethiopian troops, and by the insurgents. We also are calling on the Obama administration to appoint a new, high-level, very experienced envoy to the Horn (of Africa region) to assist with the ongoing talks between the parties," she said.

Human Rights Watch is also requesting that the United Nations assign a special Commission of Inquiry to hold offenders accountable for abhorrent acts. Africa director Gagnon says it is needed to shift the focus back to civilians' rights and away from the war on terror. In defining the conflict in Somalia for too long as a battlefield in the global war against terror, she argues, the Bush administration has been limited to a policy of uncritical support for both the transitional government and invading Ethiopian forces, and a resulting absence of accountability over the past two years continues to fuel some of the worst abuses against civilians in the 17-year conflict.

"Their need for protection is greater than it has ever been. They are constantly bombarded in their neighborhoods. They've been assaulted, murdered, and raped, even by those so-called forces that were supposed to be there to provide some protection. They've been used as human shields, targeted as collaborators by one side or another. And of course, no one is being held accountable," she noted.

Ethiopia recently announced its intention to withdraw the troops which entered Somalia in December of 2006 in order to bolster its own security concerns and help the TFG gain stronger governing leverage in the country. However, Monday's Human Rights Watch report says that contrary to stabilizing conditions, Addis Ababa's intervention has fueled new attacks and bombings that have encouraged the conflict to spread into neighboring regions and across borders.

Ethiopia on Monday quickly issued a response to the Human Rights report, calling its methods flawed, based on hearsay, and rejecting accusations of crimes it says are being committed by other forces and parties in the conflict. The report blames all sides for atrocities committed in Somalia, and cites previously semi-autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland, as well as refugee camps across the Kenyan border and piracy in the Gulf of Aden as new sources of instability. Georgette Gagnon says that peace talks in Djibouti are one avenue where international powers can promote greater understanding and accountability.

"One area they could look at is, who are the players at the talks, for example. Are all the key parties being represented? And being much more vigorous in setting timelines for the talks, ensuring that those at the table are aware and can make decisions for those fighting on the ground. Also, the new (Obama) administration should look more seriously at the question of civilian protection, who should be providing it, how it should be provided. It's urgent. There needs to be much more international engagement on that," says Gagnon.