Last week, the U.S. government recognized a government of Somalia for the first time since 1991. In his remarks to Secretary of State Clinton, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud spoke of Somalia emerging from a period of chaos to one of peace. This new Somalia, he said, will make a "valuable contribution to the region and the world at large." If Somalia is to be a shining example, it should start by ending impunity for war criminals and giving victims justice.
Somalia's transition must reckon with its past. The Somali state's collapse in 1991 did not emerge from a vacuum: it was precipitated by years of brutal violence under the Mohamed Siad Barre dictatorship. Under Barre's 21-year regime, government forces tortured, summarily executed, raped, and even launched aerial bombing raids on civilian populations. The armed groups that overthrew Barre in 1991, and the remnants of that regime, continued the cycle of violence.
To date, no individual has been held to account for these crimes--in Somalia. However, accountability efforts have been made against former Barre-regime officials living in the U.S. The Center for Justice and Accountability has brought three cases in U.S. courts on behalf of Somali victims. Last November, a U.S. federal court of appeals denied immunity to Mohamed Ali Samantar, former Somali Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, for crimes against humanity and torture. That same month, a district court in Ohio ruled that Colonel Abdi Aden Magan, the former Chief of Somalia's National Security Service was liable for torture. Another torture suit is pending against Colonel Yusuf Abdi Ali (a.k.a "Tukeh"), a former Brigade Commander in the Somali National Army.") Each of these cases was filed under U.S. universal jurisdiction laws that permit civil suits for human rights violations.
President Sheikh has made a commitment to restore faith in governance and the rule of law. His first step should be to hold to account former officials and warlords who brought Somalia over the brink. His second is to end impunity for human rights abuses committed in the wake of Somalia's collapse. To date, cases of gender based violence, child soldier recruitment, and attacks against journalist have gone unpunished.
Lessons can be learned from the cases in the U.S., but President Sheikh can look closer to home as well. Local activists and government officials in the northern region of Somaliland have begun to excavate mass graves and document evidence of war crimes. The Somali government should build on these efforts and end the impunity of suspected war criminals like General Mohammed Said Hersi Morgan or Maslah Mohamed Siad Barre. Both have been accused of overseeing widespread and systematic abuses under Siad Barre. And both currently split their time between Somalia and Kenya.
It will be difficult to restore confidence in government with such perpetrators still at large. After victory in his case against Samantar, Aziz Deria, whose father and brother were abducted by Somali officials and never seen again, observed that holding former officials "formally accountable for atrocities in Somalia's civil war is the best way for Somalia to move forward. Clan retribution can be set aside when people can be assured of justice through the legal system."
The words of President Sheik speak of stability and hope. But to achieve these goals, Somalia must begin transparent human rights investigations and provide redress to victims.