I don't even have the excuse of being in Mogadishu at the moment.
Honourable subcommittee members, thank you very much for inviting me to present on the current situation of human rights in Somalia.
Members of the committee, thank you very much for inviting me to appear today. My presentation will be in English, but I will be pleased to answer your questions in French at the end.
Armed conflict abuses by all parties to the conflict in Somalia, coupled with this new humanitarian crisis, continue to take a very heavy toll on civilians in Somalia. As we know and as you have mentioned, in February, following a very protracted and quite controversial selection process, a new president came to power, and also a new government came in.
The new administration has definitely taken some important steps, notably, first and foremost, by making this humanitarian crisis a priority from the start, taking steps to clarify the structure of the security forces, and at the same time taking steps to establish a national human rights commission. But political infighting, and in particular infighting with the new interim federal member states, has greatly delayed critical justice and security sector reforms.
I'd like to focus my comments on a few areas. First of all are ongoing attacks, including targeted attacks against civilians, in the context of ongoing conflicts and in the context of security operations against the armed Islamic group al Shabaab; abuses by al Shabaab; impunity for abuses by security forces and others on the ground; the situation of the internally displaced population; sexual violence; and recruitment and use of children, including detention of children for security-related offences.
To start off with, military operations in Somalia continue to have a devastating impact on civilians, resulting in deaths, injuries, and also massive displacement of the civilian population, as does a reigniting of the whole range of inter-clan conflict in many different parts of south central Somalia. Security forces have continued to unlawfully kill and wound civilians, often during infighting between these forces over land, control over roadblocks, disarmament operations, but also during aid distribution.
On June 9, for example, 13 civilians were killed and 20 injured during a food distribution in Baidoa, which was very much one of the towns at the epicentre of the humanitarian crisis this year when different regional forces started fighting amongst themselves.
Civilians have also been targeted and also face indiscriminate attacks in fighting over resources and political positions, clan militia, and regional forces. For example, in Lower Shabelle, very much a hot spot since 2013 in particular, there is a very long-term clan conflict and tensions. In the contested town of Galkayo, we have seen on several occasions in 2013 and again last year, etc., fighting at the border between the two parts of Galkayo.
According to the UN, the African Union forces on the ground as well as other foreign forces have been responsible for a significant number of civilian casualties during ground operations and air strikes.
I was just in Mogadishu interviewing survivors of a Kenyan air strike that took place on September 26 in the Gedo region. Four camel herders were injured in that strike, and they lost 20 camels. This is not the first; there have been many strikes by the Kenyan forces that have wrongfully targeted civilians and killed livestock in an incredibly poor region.
At the same time, in this context we are seeing very limited accountability. In terms of what exists by way of accountability structures, in Mogadishu the government has relied very much on its national intelligence agency, which has no legal mandate to arrest or detain, to try to investigate a whole range of cases. I continue to document very serious abuses by this intelligence agency—due process abuses, but also coerced confessions.
Linked to this, the government continues to rely, both in south central but, we've seen, increasingly in Puntland as well, on military courts that do not comply with international due process in trials of individuals who are passing before these courts.
Since 2011, these courts have been trying almost all of the terrorism-related cases. As we know, these courts are also sentencing people to death following very questionable and controversial proceedings.
At the same time, as in peacekeeping missions, the African Union forces on the ground basically rely on troop-contributing countries to hold their own troops to account. Again and again over the years, we have documented abuses by these African Union forces, but also very limited willingness on the part of troop-contributing countries to hold their forces to account.
In one relatively recent example in 2016, the Ethiopian forces in the Bay region went into a village and killed 14 elders, which devastated the village. The African Union forces' headquarters at the time said they would investigate. They did send in a board of inquiry to investigate. The report was never made public and the community was never compensated.
Obviously, one of the key perpetrators of abuses in the country continues to be al Shabaab, which continues to control large swaths of south central Somalia. Al Shabaab continues to commit very serious abuses in areas under their control, like arbitrary executions. Over the last week, we have again seen the execution of individuals who were accused of spying for foreign forces and for the government forces. As I will explain a bit more, it continues to forceably recruit adults, but also children, and to extort taxes through threats on incredibly poor communities, including communities that have been most devastated by the drought.
We've also seen how al Shabaab has often played a very key role in clan conflict. I think coming back once again to the Lower Shabelle region where you have very big animosities between the Habar Gidir and Bimaal clan. Over the years, al Shabaab has shifted sides and hats and we have documented, just this year, how they were involved in attacks on a whole range of villages in Lower Shabelle, targeting the Bimaal community, by abducting civilians, particularly elders, stealing livestock, and also committing arson. They literally devastated this tiny community and are burning down villages. I spoke to many of those who were displaced at the time who fled to Mogadishu and there were at least 15,000 people displaced just from those concentrated attacks in May.
At the same time, we've definitely seen an increase in civilian casualties, as a result of al Shabaab claimed or attributed attacks by vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices in Mogadishu. I was in Mogadishu when the second bomb attack recently happened, which you mentioned. Obviously, the October 14 bomb is indescribable on many levels. The junction where this attack happened is one where a whole range of individuals would go through. School buses were coming through. It's where internally displaced people would go looking for menial and daily tasks. As you know, the figure at the moment is 358 killed. The reality is that there are probably many more who we will never identify.
There are abuses against children, who are obviously key to the future of Somalia. Time and again, very much the first victims of the human rights and humanitarian crisis are children. We continue to see how armed groups kill and maim children and also target schools.
For example, on April 18, unidentified rebel groups fired mortars in the middle of the day in central Mogadishu. No one claimed responsibility for this attack, but it hit a school and a home and it killed an eight-year old girl and another civilian. I spoke to many of the children who were inside that school when the mortar hit. Imagine the trauma of the children and the fear of going back to school after such an attack and so, obviously, think of long-term consequences on individuals who are going through this ongoing fear and trauma.
At the same time, according to the UN, al Shabaab has doubled recruitment of children since 2016. I was in Baidoa two weeks ago, where I was speaking to communities that have been targeted since June this year, by what is the most recent pressure on communities to hand over children to attend al Shabaab-controlled Koranic schools, or madrasas. I was speaking to relatives, but also to children themselves who have been pushed towards government-controlled towns, so that they would not be recruited by al Shabaab. Therefore, they're dropping out of their schools. They're often being separated from their parents and they're in towns where the humanitarian conflict is already pretty dire and this is obviously not helping matters.
Obviously, abuses against children don't end when they escape for the children who have been recruited by al Shabaab. I have spoken to many children who had been with al Shabaab and escaped but then faced abuses at the hands of the government.
The federal government has committed to rehabilitating children linked to al Shabaab. On the one hand, we have seen some improvements in terms of handing over children to UNICEF and child protection actors, but our recent research shows very much how this is still very arbitrary. Many children spend a prolonged time in intelligence detentions and face very abusive treatment inside, with no access to their families, no access to lawyers, and some of them, a handful of them, are then handed over to the military courts and prosecuted.
We have documented a number of such cases in Mogadishu, and also in Puntland. In Puntland, over the last year, 11 children were sentenced to death. In other cases, their sentences were overturned, but still, very lengthy prison terms were upheld. It's a real issue in terms of evidence of government commitment to treat children as what they are first and foremost: victims who require support and rehabilitation.
Given the significant humanitarian support that Canada gives to Somalia, I would like to turn to the humanitarian context and obviously, in particular, the situation of the displaced community. As I said, there has been massive displacement over the last year. According to the UN, we've seen about 900,000 new displacements. Obviously a lot of that is linked to the drought, but in Somalia, drought, insecurity, and conflict are often very closely linked. At the moment, there is most likely to be a population of about 2.1 million who are displaced, mainly into government-controlled towns, on the outskirts of towns, where humanitarian access in itself is very difficult.
In terms of abuses, there is a whole range of indiscriminate violence, sexual violence, but also forced evictions, including by government forces. Over the first four or five months of this year, we saw again about 60,000 forced evictions of displaced communities, primarily in Mogadishu. That means they're basically being pushed more and more to the outskirts of town, to places where humanitarian access is very limited but also where vulnerability and insecurity is much higher.
It is important to underline also within this context the shrinking asylum space for Somalis, notably in neighbouring Kenya. We've done a lot of research over the last year or so, looking at the impact of the Kenyan government's decision to close what was the world's largest refugee camp, Dadaab. We investigated the UN's alleged voluntary returns program for Somalis at the time, and we came to the conclusion that, given the push factors in Kenya, this could not be a voluntary return.