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Human Rights Watch says Somaliland Democracy Teetering

The autonomous region of Somaliland is in danger of losing its democratic and human rights gains if its leadership does not soon mend its ways, according to a human rights group. The group accuses the international community of harmful neglect and calls for new international engagement before critical elections are delayed again.

A report released by Human Rights Watch cautions that Somaliland is at a crucial juncture after an unlikely recent history of democratic progress and relative stability in the Horn of Africa.

Besides accusing the Somaliland government of stifling public dissent and of bypassing the country's legal system, the group's greatest concern is the likely possibility of further delays in the scheduled presidential election.

The election is currently set for September. But the election has already been pushed back 18 months, and Human Rights Watch researchers accuse Somaliland President Dahir Riyale Kahin of purposefully dragging his feet in organizing the poll.

Human Rights Watch senior researcher Chris Albin-Lackey says Somaliland's unique success story within a region where human rights violations are the norm should give additional impetus to the fight to save the territory's threatened democracy.

"In a way it is precisely the things that Somaliland has done well that makes these issues so important, because those gains - so fragile and so rare in this part of the world - are now very much under threat, and could begin to unravel if the government does not change course," he said.

The northwest Somali region declared its independence from the rest of Somalia in 1991 after the central government in Mogadishu was toppled.

The region has since operated autonomously, but has yet to be recognized as an independent state by any outside nation - leaving the territory in legal limbo for nearly two decades.

According to Albin-Lackey, the sensitivity of the recognition issue in Somaliland provides the international community with substantial leverage to pressure the government. He says the West's continued refusal to treat Somaliland at all separately from the war-torn areas of central and southern Somalia represents a missed opportunity.

"What is really needed is a new policy framework on the part of international donors that looks at the realities here on the ground in Somaliland and engages with those in-and-of-themselves and a much greater willingness to invest time and resources to following what is going on here and finding effective ways both to provide assistance and to pressure the government to do the right thing," he said.

Somaliland has cooperated with the United States and other Western nations in combating terrorism and piracy as part of its quest to receive international recognition.

The report suggests the raging Somali conflicts elsewhere have had a chilling effect on the territory's democratic processes. According to the report, the Somaliland people are wary of too strongly standing up for their rights out of fear of upsetting the territory's fragile peace.