January 23, 2012 | Erin Weir
It was six months ago that famine was declared in Somalia. The steady flow of refugees already fleeing conflict was joined by a torrent of new asylum seekers – people fleeing because of hunger and looking for a more hopeful place in which to re-build their lives. During the past six months, hundreds of thousands of people made their way to neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, and aid organizations scrambled to ramp up their operations in order to serve these new arrivals.
And then, in October, this humanitarian catastrophe was amplified by a new threat. The security dynamics changed dramatically when two MSF staff were kidnapped from Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp – triggering a Kenyan military intervention into Somalia. The Kenyan Government – already frustrated by the rash of kidnappings by Somali insurgents that had taken place on its soil, and weary of the wave of new refugees entering their country – announced that it was not receiving any new refugees in Kenya. Instead, Kenya’s government would create a “buffer zone” inside Somalia. Kenya argued that Somalis could stay in their own country, and suggested that aid organizations should move into this “buffer zone” and deliver aid there.
But the Kenyan government failed to consider – or perhaps failed to care about – the inevitable humanitarian fallout of its actions. Within Somalia, fighting in the border region has hindered the ability of Somali civilians to reach Dadaab, and aid organizations have had difficulty operating alongside the fighting.
In Dadaab itself, insecurity has vastly increased. IEDs – a new phenomenon in the camp – have been placed to target the Kenyan security forces that operate there for the protection of aid workers and refugees. Registration of new refugees has halted at the insistence of the government. But refugees continue to arrive, making it even more difficult to track who is living in the camp. In addition to this, all non-essential humanitarian operations inside Dadaab have been suspended, leaving major gaps in the services available to the nearly half a million people in the camps.
It is against this backdrop that the African Union and the UN Security Council are negotiating changes to the African Union mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The AU is seeking to bolster the force’s size and expand its mandate to more explicitly include offensive actions outside of the Somali capital, Mogadishu. The AU Peace and Security Council (the AU equivalent of the UN Security Council) has already authorized an increase of the AMISOM troop ceiling to 20,000 soldiers. The issue is currently under discussion at UN headquarters in NY, where some Security Council members are pushing for a resolution before the end of February.
At present, AMISOM troops have tenuous control of Mogadishu, alongside forces loyal to the Transitional Federal Government. They have increasingly lead operations outside the capital, and have been working to support the Kenyan intervention. The changes under discussion in New York include the possibility of transferring the Kenyan forces inside Somalia to AMISOM control, as well as changes to the AMISOM concept of operations.
As these discussions progress, it is critical that Security Council Members take to heart these three key considerations:
While AMISOM is often characterized as a peacekeeping force, AMISOM is not neutral or impartial. The AMISOM force is very clearly a party to the conflict and must adhere to International Humanitarian Law (the law of armed conflict). AMISOM commanders have already acknowledged that fact, instituting new policies in 2011 aimed at minimizing civilian harm. As the force’s offensive operations extend beyond Mogadishu, it is absolutely critical that the international community maintains pressure on AMISOM to be vigilant in its efforts to minimize civilian harm, and provide AMISOM with the technical capabilities (staff, equipment etc.) to make this possible.
These resources must include some key civilian capacities that, so far, have not been made available to AMISOM. Specifically, AMISOM needs to have in-house civilian investigative capabilities in order to conduct its own investigations into the negative and unintended consequences of its actions, as well as a Public Information capacity to better inform civilians of its mandate and intent, and to counter the highly effective propaganda efforts of Al Shabab and other spoilers in Somalia.
Whether AMISOM continues to support Kenyan military activity or absorbs Kenyan forces into its own ranks, it is critical that AMISOM respects the right that Somali civilians have to seek asylum outside the country. AMISOM actions must never seek to block access to Kenya, or to support the involuntary return (refoulment) of Somali civilians from Kenya back to Somalia.
In addition to the humanitarian consequences of the heightened military operations, it is important that policy makers take into consideration the many unsuccessful interventions and operations that have occurred over the past twenty years. External military intervention in Somalia has never produced the sort of political stability and security that the international community has sought. The impulse to “do something” coupled with the complexity of the situation must not overshadow the devastating effects that have been borne by civilians on both sides of the Kenyan border – and will be again.