Somalia: Inadequate US Airstrike Investigations

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Two United States airstrikes in Somalia in early 2020 killed seven civilians in apparent violation of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said today. US forces have not adequately investigated a February 2 strike killing one woman at her home, and a March 10 attack that killed five men and a child in a minibus.

Human Rights Watch found no evidence of a military target involving the Islamist armed group Al-Shabab in either airstrike. Neither the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) nor the Somali government is known to have contacted family members to investigate the attacks or assess their claims for redress. The US military should ensure that its investigations into civilians killed and injured during US military operations in Somalia are thorough, impartial, and transparent.

“The US military has not seriously investigated two recent airstrikes in Somalia in which civilians were killed and wounded in apparent violation of the laws of war,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Reaching out to civilians seeking redress is not only the right thing to do, it will also help make its civilian casualty assessments more accurate.”

Between February and May, Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 people by phone, including relatives of those killed in the February and March strikes – 4 of whom visited the scene in its immediate aftermath – and assessed publicly available information about the airstrikes.

In its initial quarterly report on civilian casualty assessments published on April 27, 2020, AFRICOM said it examined 20 alleged airstrikes that caused civilian casualties between February 2019 and March 2020, and was still investigating 7 additional incidents, 2 of which Human Rights Watch investigated. The Human Rights Watch investigations found that 7 civilians were killed and 3 injured and found no evidence that they had links to Al-Shabab. Human Rights Watch was not able to identify the intended targets of the strikes, which occurred in Al-Shabab-controlled territory.

On the evening of February 2, at least one airstrike hit a home in Jilib, a town in the Middle Juba region, instantly killing a woman possibly between age 18 and 20 and injuring her two sisters, both children, and her grandmother. One of the girls, about 14, and the grandmother, about 70, sustained serious injuries. AFRICOM released a statement acknowledging that US forces carried out a strike that day in the “vicinity of Jilib” and reported that one “terrorist” was killed. AFRICOM’s initial assessment concluded that there were no civilian casualties. It has since said that it is still investigating.

On March 10, near the town of Janaale in Lower Shabelle, at least one airstrike hit a private minibus killing at least six passengers, including a child. Four of the passengers had attended a land dispute hearing in the town that morning and were heading home toward Mogadishu when the attack occurred.

A relative of one victim who visited the site that evening said he saw only two bodies and charred flesh. The brother of another victim who visited the scene the following morning said: “I only recognized the shoes of my brother and his belt. The license plate [of the minibus] was cut off and was in the ground, and the only thing left of the vehicle was the tail end and tires. Otherwise, the vehicle was totally destroyed.”

AFRICOM reported on the same day that it had conducted a strike in the vicinity of Janaale, killing five “terrorists.” It said that it was aware of social media reports of civilian casualties and that it would review any information provided, including by third parties.

Relatives of those killed in both incidents publicly denied AFRICOM’s designation of their relatives as Al-Shabab members and called on AFRICOM and the Somali government to meet with them. As of late May, AFRICOM had not contacted any of the relatives of the victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch, all of whom said they had not received any payment or assistance from the US or Somali governments.

A relative of the boy killed in the minibus strike told Human Rights Watch:

We request that they stop killing innocent people. They have to make sure is it a soldier or a civilian, they need to identify exactly [who they target] before they launch the attack. We also request that there be compensation, from Somali government and US government with help of Somali government.

AFRICOM’s previous investigations of airstrikes appear to have been inadequate, Human Rights Watch said. In its April report, AFRICOM said that it received information from third parties, including traditional and social media and nongovernmental organizations. But it made no mention of contacting or seeking to contact witnesses or family members of alleged victims. In a 2018 case in which AFRICOM acknowledged civilian casualties, Amnesty International found that neither AFRICOM nor the US embassy had contacted or provided redress to the relatives of civilians killed.

The US government authorizes commanders to provide ex gratia or “condolence” payments to families harmed by US military action. These payments are voluntary and are not an admission of fault or responsibility. AFRICOM stated in a June 1 letter to Human Rights Watch that no payments have been made in either of the two incidents of civilian casualties it has acknowledged in Somalia since 2017. It said it was continuing to work with the Somali government and the US State Department “on appropriate measures to address unfortunate instances of civilian casualties.”

AFRICOM recently set up an online public reporting portal, which includes Somali translation software, on which alleged civilian casualties can be reported. But this reporting mechanism is not accessible for many Somalis living in remote areas or where the internet is banned, including many in Al-Shabab-controlled areas, Human Rights Watch said.

AFRICOM should promptly contact relatives of civilian victims of the February, March, and other US airstrikes to ensure that their accounts and requests for redress can be heard, Human Rights Watch said.

The laws of war require parties to an armed conflict to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects. Deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on civilians, including attacks in which there is no military target, are prohibited. Warring parties have a duty to investigate allegations of serious laws-of-war violations and to provide redress for loss or damages caused by violations. Serious violations committed deliberately or recklessly are war crimes.

US forces operating in Somalia have an obligation to not only address alleged laws-of-war violations, but also to adopt measures to minimize the likelihood of civilian harm. Recurring cases in which civilians have been killed or injured and there was no evident military target indicate a need for the US forces to reassess their approach to targeting and to adopt all necessary measures to meet their international legal obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

“AFRICOM seems determined not to uncover whether its airstrikes killed civilians or violated the laws of war,” Bader said. “The military chain of command should recognize that not only does it have a legal obligation to investigate, but that basic decency toward the families of those harmed means providing financial assistance and an apology, not silence.”

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