Department of Defense accused for deaths of civilians in Somalia
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Last Tuesday, Amnesty International published a report investigating civilian= casualties in Somalia as a result of U.S. airstrikes against extremist group Al-Shabaab. The report, “The Hidden U.S. War in Somalia: Civilian Casualties from Air Strikes in Lower Shabelle”, accuses the U.S. military of participating in “attacks that may have violated international humanitarian law (IHL) and could, in some cases, constitute war crimes.”
On March 20th, two days after the report’s publication, the U.S. Department of Defense issued an official response.
“U.S. Africa Command disputes an Amnesty International report alleging that the command is responsible for civilian casualties in Somalia.
“The human rights groups says five Africa Command strikes between June 2017 and the end of 2018 killed civilians. The command, which was allowed input into the report, says the strikes were directed against al-Shabab terrorists and did not hit any civilian targets.”
Government officials from Africa Command also claim that Al-Shabaab is known for falsely claiming civilian deaths or coercing community members into making false statements.
The U.S. has been involved in conflict in Somalia since 1993, with intervention ranging from “advise and assist” tactics to drone attacks. Since 2017, the administration has approved certain measures contributing to the relaxation of lethal force policies. Additionally, the number of U.S. airstrikes in Somalia has increased greatly in this timeframe. According to CNN,
airstrikes against the terrorist organization, who formally declared allegiance to Al Qaeda in 2012, rose from only 15 in
2016 to 47 in 2018.
The reason for an increase in the density of attacks is also relatively uncertain, considering President Trump has expressed interest in diminishing U.S. involvement in extremist conflicts in other parts of the world. CNN reported that defense officials have told them that this can be attributed to “successes that local Somali security forces have been having in combating Al-Shabaab.” However, Luke Hartig, former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, suggests that “many of our commanders probably see a renewed urgency to degrade the enemy quickly and forcefully,” before a perceived impending withdrawal of U.S. involvement in Somalia.
Over the past year, multiple human rights groups have expressed concern over US involvement in Somalia. In February, progressive political journal The Nation released a feature called “Inside the Secretive U.S. Air Campaign In Somalia” investigating ‘questionable’ U.S. military activity in Somalia. Last March, thirteen nongovernment organizations, including the Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the American Civil Liberties Union, released a formal joint statement criticizing the lack of transparency concerning U.S. military activity in Somalia and Yemen.
“These concerns about U.S. policy are heightened by recent changes in U.S. practice,” the statement said. “In the first year
of the Trump administration, there has been a dramatic increase in U.S. lethal operations in Yemen and Somalia, including a number of concerning incidents involving credible allegations of civilian casualties … these trends and incidents heighten our concerns about the U.S. loosening its policy rules on the use of force.”
Essentially, the concern around which 2018 statement revolved, as well as that which Amnesty International targeted in their recent accusations against the U.S. military, is the loosening of the guidelines for potential airstrike targets.
In their report, Amnesty International published that “according to General Bolduc, all military-aged males observed with known Al-Shabaab members, inside specific areas..are now considered legitimate military targets.”
Along with other human rights groups, Amnesty International called upon the US Government in their report to conduct
thorough investigations into these allegations, recognize civilian casualties, and “provide victims of violations of international humanitarian law, and their families with access to justice and to full reparation.”