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Al Shabab not the only guilty party in Somalia's famine, violence

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Stuart Price/Reuters

(Read caption) Vehicles of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the Transitional Federal Government are seen outside Mogadishu Stadium, the former headquarters of terrorist group Al Shabaab, in this photograph released by the African Union-United Nations Information Support Team on Aug. 6.

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If you thought the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces were the good guys in Somalia’s famine and civil war, Human Rights Watch has news for you:

All parties to Somalia’s armed conflict have committed serious violations of the laws of war that are contributing to the country’s humanitarian catastrophe, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. All sides should immediately end abuses against civilians, hold those responsible to account, and ensure access to aid and free movement of people fleeing conflict and drought.

The 58-page report, “‘You Don’t Know Who to Blame’: War Crimes in Somalia,” documents numerous abuses during renewed fighting in the past year by parties to the 20-year-long conflict in Somalia. These include the Islamist armed group al-Shabaab, the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the African Union peacekeeping forces (AMISOM), and Kenya- and Ethiopia-backed Somali militias. The report also examines abuses by the Kenyan police and crimes committed by bandits in neighboring Kenya against Somali refugees.

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There are no good guys among the major players.

I imagine a lot of people feel that abuses by the TFG and AMISOM are “worth it” in the fight against al Shabab. But whatever territory the TFG gains, it will have to rule, and not just through force, but through politics. Abuses against civilians now will have longterm effects.

To demonstrate that point, this is not the first time Human Rights Watch has pointed to patterns of violence and abuse against civilians in Somalia. During the Ethiopian occupation of Somalia from late 2006 to early 2009, when Ethiopia was supporting the TFG, “the worst abuses [were] by Ethiopian soldiers…Ethiopians… often indiscriminately attacked civilian areas and looted hospitals.” I suspect the brutality of the Ethiopian occupation gave al Shabab a boost in the early days of its insurgency, driving recruitment and pushing civilians into the arms of al Shabab.

Today, al Shabab may be pulling back, and the TFG may be gaining ground, but the TFG’s behavior is quite possibly setting the stage for future conflict, whether in terms of a resurgence by al Shabab or the rise of another rebellion.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.