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HRW Says US Intervention Worsening Somalia Crisis

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This past year, Somalis have experienced the worst violence in a decade. In a new report, Human Rights Watch says the United States is only making the crisis worse. The report states, “The United States, treating Somalia primarily as a battlefield in the global war on terror, has pursued a policy of uncritical support for transitional government and Ethiopian actions, and the resulting lack of accountability has fueled the worst abuses.” We speak to HRW’s Leslie Lefkow. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Two years after US-backed Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia, they are set to withdraw from the war-ravaged country by the end of this year. The African Union, meanwhile, has announced it will extend the mandate of its 3,400-member force in the capital city of Mogadishu by another two months.

The US-backed transitional government is facing new setbacks after an official appointed to be prime minister last week just resigned, following opposition from the Somali parliament and threats of sanctions from East African leaders.

This past year, Somalis have experienced the worst violence in a decade, according to the group Doctors without Borders, that lists Somalia among the worst humanitarian crises of the year. A new report by Human Rights Watch states, “The last two years are not just another typical chapter in Somalia’s troubled history. The human rights and humanitarian catastrophe facing Somalia today threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions of Somalis on a scale not witnessed since the early 1990s.”

Over a million Somalis have been displaced from their homes, and thousands have been killed. Two-thirds of the population in Mogadishu, the capital, have fled. The Human Rights Watch report is called “So Much to Fear.” It says the United States is only making the crisis worse. The report states, “The United States, treating Somalia primarily as a battlefield in the global war on terror, has pursued a policy of uncritical support for transitional government and Ethiopian actions, and the resulting lack of accountability has fueled the worst abuses.”

I’m joined on the phone right now from Amsterdam by one of the authors of the report. Leslie Lefkow leads Human Rights Watch’s Horn of Africa research team.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Leslie. Your major findings?

LESLIE LEFKOW: Thanks for having me on the program. Yeah, this report that we’ve just released is the second major investigation that we’ve done into what’s been happening in Somalia over the last two years, and we find that all of the warring parties, so the Ethiopians, the forces of the Somali transitional government and the insurgents, have all been responsible for massive and heinous abuses: indiscriminate bombardment of civilians, looting, rape, arbitrary detentions on a tremendous scale. And it’s really the effect of these crimes, these very serious international crimes, that have forced two-thirds of the population of Mogadishu to flee the city in a way that we really haven’t seen anywhere else in the world perhaps since the war in Chechnya some years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the role of, well, for example, out country, the United States? What role has it played in Somalia?

LESLIE LEFKOW: Well, the US policy in Somalia has been problematic on two levels. It’s been problematic because the most visible face of US policy has been twofold. It’s been a series of air strikes in different parts of Somalia, targeting suspected terrorists, individuals. There have been a handful of individuals who were suspected of having links to al-Qaeda who have been sheltering in Somalia for some years. And the US has launched at least four air strikes at different times over the last couple of years, most of which have failed to hit the target and have hit civilians, injured civilians and killed civilians instead. So that’s been problematic, because, you know, the fact that civilians have been the main casualties of these attacks has been a source of real grievance to Somalis.

The second layer of the problem is the fact that the US is perceived as backing the Ethiopian intervention unconditionally. The US and Ethiopia are very close partners in the war on terror in the region in the Horn of Africa, and the fact that Ethiopian forces have also been committing serious abuses and that these abuses have been met with utter silence in Washington by the US makes — it creates the perception among many Somalis that the US doesn’t care what the cost of this war is on civilians and really has no concern for the welfare of ordinary Somalis.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think needs to happen right now, Leslie Lefkow?

LESLIE LEFKOW: Well, you know, Somalia is a very complex problem. There are many layers to it. There’s regional layers. There’s an internal political crisis. But I think, you know, there are a number of steps that Human Rights Watch sees where we think we could — you know, that could lead to some progress. And number one among those is the need for accountability. One of the problems is Somalia has been considered to be a kind of free-fire zone by all of the parties, by the Ethiopians, by the US, you know, where anything goes. And we need to see a new awareness and recognition of the crimes that have happened, so, you know, statements condemning these crimes, statements that we would see coming out of Washington if it were probably any other country. So that kind of recognition of the crimes and real support for accountability, an end to this impunity that has governed — you know, that has reigned in Somalia for years now. So, for example, we would like to see the US support a commission of inquiry to investigate the crimes by all parties and to look at different kinds of mechanisms to bring the perpetrators of crimes to justice.

But there are other — you know, there are other political steps that also need to be taken. There needs to be real support for an inclusive political process that will include all the actors. One of the main problems with the peace process over the last eight months has been that the main group with the guns, the more radical Islamic groups that control much of southern Somalia, are actually not involved in the peace process.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to talk more about the peace process with a Somali activist who I just met in Stockholm. I want to thank you, Leslie Lefkow, for joining us, of Human Rights Watch. And we will link to your report on our website,

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