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London conference on Somalia attracts international attention

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The London conference on Somalia opens to fanfare on Thursday hoping to improve the situation in a country described as the “world’s worst failed state”. Ahead of the conference the UN Security Council has approved a new resolution bolstering the African Union’s peacekeeping force in Somalia to 17,000 troops, in its fight against the Al-Shabaab rebels.

British Prime Minister David Cameron will preside over Thursday’s meeting on the wave of the UK’s preparation and promotion of the conference, giving the Somali cause fresh impetus.

The UN Security Council resolution secured on Wednesday paves the way for a meeting free of arguments about troop numbers for the African Union force (Amisom).

The resolution does not however detail the role played by Ethiopian soldiers on the ground in Somalia. The increase to 17,731 troops until the end of October includes the re-hatting of Kenyan troops already present. There is no mention of Ethiopian forces that crossed into Somali territory last November. On Wednesday Ethiopian troops alongside Somali forces stormed Baidoa, a southern Al-Shabaab stronghold.

The African Union has acknowledged Ethiopia’s urgency in wanting to withdraw as soon as possible. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who will be at the London conference, has previously said they will leave Somalia as soon as Amisom is capable.

Mark Lyall Grant, the UK’s representative to the UN, described the new mandate after the vote as giving Amisom the means to “effectively capitalise” on gains already made. Although it remains to be seen whether the British-sponsored resolution will be enough to give Amisom the boost needed to take on Al-Shabaab in southern Somalia.

Human rights

Amid these changes to the military structure in Somalia, activists hope the protection of civilians and human rights will be a priority at the conference.

Amnesty International claims that an increase in military operations by foreign armies and the action of proxy militias has brought about a rise in the number of civilian deaths and injuries.

“The chain of command and authority for these militia is not clear at all. These militias are not made accountable for anything they do,” Amnesty researcher Benedicte Goderiaux told RFI.

“In addition, you have international support – Kenyan support, Ethiopian support – towards these militias, which has been done in a way that is not transparent. Kenya and Ethiopia, for instance, haven’t told the UN sanctions committee about what exactly they are providing,” she adds.

Human Rights Watch points to the fate of children in Somalia. In a report released on Tuesday they outline increased recruitment of child soldiers, forced marriage and rape. The 104-page document based on interviews with 164 Somali children lays blame on the Transitional Federal Government’s forces and Amisom, as well as Al-Shabaab.

Political stabilisation

Somalia’s political reformation is high on the agenda of the London event. The mandate of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) ends in August. It has already been extended and it is not clear what will supersede it. The Somali authorities in September 2011 adopted a roadmap which sets out tasks and benchmarks to be accomplished before the end of the transition.

Political infighting has previously hampered efforts in the creation of a viable Somali political landscape. Arguments over the sacking of the parliamentary speaker and a fistfight in parliament are recent examples of events obstructing the Somali authorities.

Somali expert Abdi Ismail Samatar writes that “political tribalism” has prevented the development of a political formula that enables the creation of a competent government. He advocates a restricted constituent assembly of 100 eminent Somalis selected on merit by a selection panel of three international representatives from neutral countries.

“Equally dismaying and disheartening will be to allow the current transition to continue or to reinvent bankrupt scenarios that are a grotesque parody,” Samatar says.

It seems unlikely that the delegates in London will abandon the current transitional set up. Earlier in February Somali leaders decided to create a new legislature with an upper and lower house. The lower house is to have 225 seats divided among major clans, with at least 30 per cent woman. An upper house will have 54 members nominated from different states.

Though the language used by some actors demonstrates the dissatisfaction with the process. At this year’s African Union summit Kenya’s Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula urged the Somali leadership to “stop bickering”.

Piracy

The ever present scourge of piracy off the Somali coast will be another concern of attendees at the London conference. The privately-funded Oceans Beyond Piracy project says piracy cost the shipping industry and governments more than 5 billion euros in 2011.

“The real story is that 99 per cent of these costs are not invested in a sustainable solution and must be paid every year until the piracy threat is significantly reduced” says Anna Bowden, from the Colorado-based OBP initiative.

Before the London conference, the UK and the Netherlands announced that they would provide staff and fund the construction of the new Regional Anti-Piracy Prosecutions Co-ordination Centre (RAPPICC) in the Seychelles.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Tuesday that the new co-ordination centre will enable them to go after “the king-pins” of piracy. International navies in waters off the coast of Somalia have long had a problem with what to do with suspected pirates once they are captured.

Laudable aims

The London conference has outlined an impressive agenda, including security, political process, local stability, counter-terrorism, piracy, the humanitarian situation and international cooperation. Hague said he hopes to agree to practical measures that get Somalia back “on its feet” although he admits that “Somalia’s problems cannot be solved in a day”.

Over the years there have been several international conferences aiming to put Somalia back on track. However, not much has been achieved over the two decades in which lawlessness, war, conflict, human rights abuses and humanitarian crises have reigned.

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Written by Daniel Finnan

23 February 2012 at 02:21

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