On February 6, 2023, the Traditional Leaders of Sool, Sanag, and Cayn (SSC or Khaatumo Region) and the 33 Consultative Committee (33-Committee ) of Somalia issued a declaration stating that they are not part of the Somaliland Administration and have never agreed to or participated in the secession program. (1) The declaration also asserted that the Somaliland Administration is attempting to force its secession upon them, violating international norms and laws.
The resulting humanitarian crisis in Lasanod, Sool, Somalia, has persisted for over a month and half, resulting in the deaths of 210 people and injuries to over 1,000 by the forces of the breakaway region of the Somaliland Administration. (2) Despite the severity of the situation, the response from the international community has been muted, with many offering only vague expressions of concern. Juerg Eglin, head of the ICRC delegation in Somalia, remarked, “people in Las Anod urgently need humanitarian assistance, and we are operating as rapidly as possible to get it to them.” (3)
Since February 6, 2023, Somaliland Administration forces have engaged in indiscriminate attacks on the people of Lasanod. As a result of this conflict, nearly 200,000 people were displaced, hundreds of Somalis were killed and wounded, and 60,000 fled to neighboring countries as refugees. (4) The violence perpetrated by Somaliland is a culmination of the international community and the Federal Government of Somalia’s (FGS) late and inadequate response to holding Somaliland accountable. The question then arises: what should the international community do to hold Somaliland responsible?
This article will lay out the global legal framework regarding war crimes, evidence of war crimes committed in Lasanod, and the application of international law to the ongoing conflict and Lasanod. Furthermore, the article will examine the mechanisms by which Somaliland can be held responsible to demonstrate the significance of holding violent actors like Somaliland accountable.
Background of the Conflict Between SSC and Somaliland
The Somali people and most of the International Community are aware that over the last 15 years, the SSC-Khatumo regions have encountered numerous problems caused by the presence of the Somaliland Administration. These problems resulted in an uprising known as the “Blue Uprising,” in which the people in these regions stood up against the secession of Somaliland by raising the blue Somali flag. They protested the agenda that targets prominent citizens, the economic embargo that prevents the presence of development agencies in these regions, and the violation of their inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The secession is the fundamental difference between the SSC region and Somaliland Administration. As others pointed out and the Somaliland Administration attempted to portray it, the difference is neither exclusionary political nor economic grievances.
The SSC regions in Northern Somalia, bordering Somaliland and Puntland, have a rich and contrasting history. The clans inhabiting these regions refused British colonial rule and fought against the British presence during the Darwish liberation movement, losing hundreds of thousands of their people. Today, however, the same people who fought for the liberation of Somali people are fighting for their existence against Somaliland forces.
People of SSC-Khaatumo believe that any political solution in Somalia must respect the people’s will, history, and traditional political organization. A stable Somali polity can be created by working together and utilizing these potent factors. Standing with the people of the SSC regions and supporting their fight for justice and self-determination is the right course for finding a lasting solution.
Evidence of Potential War Crimes Committed by Somaliland
Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, laid out a comprehensive definition of war crimes. For the purposes of this article, the most relevant descriptions can be found in Article 8 of the statute, which includes the following:
Willful killing, willfully causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or health, extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly, [and] intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities. (5)
According to the definitions, the acts must have been undertaken with the aim of causing pain or suffering and cannot have been motivated by a need for war. This implies that Somaliland may be liable for potential war crimes under international law if discovered that it deliberately targeted civilians or committed violent acts without a compelling military reason.
Evidence suggests that Somaliland troops’ shelling and bombing could fit into the parameters of the definition of war crimes and demonstrates that potential war crimes may have been committed in Lasanod and other locations of the region, some of which appear to be deliberate and indiscriminate—particularly the trend of assaults on civilian populations. There have been reports of heavy weapons and bombings that targeted civilians and caused significant devastation and displacement. (6) For instance, as reported by Reuters, “hospitals and medical facilities have been targeted and destroyed, and civilians have been killed and injured in the crossfire.” (7) Targeting hospitals is in and of itself a display of intentionality. Additionally, in a statement from Djoen Besselink, the Doctors Without Borders representative for Somalia, said:
Yesterday morning (February 28, 2023), the hospital we support in Las Anod was hit during indiscriminate fighting for a fourth time in three weeks. This time it caused partial damage to the structure and brought a stop to activities in the pediatric ward and blood bank . . . What we are witnessing today is a desperate situation where the human suffering of the violence is tremendous—displacing people from their homes and making them fear for their lives. (8)
One could infer that the forces of Somaliland are intentionally targeting the civilians of Lasanod, as well as their infrastructure, and such targeting violates laws of war. This evidence is one of the many pieces that further demonstrate the perceivable culpability of Somaliland. In addition, a report published by the Guardian detailed that “tens of thousands of refugees have fled to neighboring countries, including Ethiopia and Djibouti, to escape the fighting.” (9) Now, coupled with the fact that Somaliland targeted civilians, the displacement of many people adds weight to the damage Lasanod has faced at the hands of Somaliland forces. Questions remain regarding whether Somaliland has made attempts to avoid harming civilians.
Aside from the documented evidence in the press, Abd Ali Ismail, the Mayor of the Lasanod district, provided a recount of the devastation Somaliland perpetuated in Lasanod. According to Ismail, 210 people have been killed, 580 were wounded, 715 homes were destroyed, 16,000 businesses have closed, and the city’s water supply has been cut off. (10) Additionally, homes and businesses were looted, and Somaliland’s destruction of nearby vehicles killed individuals traveling outside of Lasanod. The evidence continues to mount as more and more of Somaliland’s potential human rights violations are discovered in Lasanod. (11)Thus, it is pertinent for the international community to investigate and respond substantially.
Options for Holding Somaliland Accountable
If an investigation shows that potential war crimes have been committed, sanctions and legal action will be the most effective measures to hold Somaliland accountable. Such steps are substantive, provide a tangible consequence to Somaliland, and could discourage future acts of violence and impunity.
Sanctions, particularly economic sanctions, can act as a helpful tool to pressure Somaliland to end its violence and comply with the rules and guidelines set by international law. Possible examples of sanctions can include a travel ban instituted on Somaliland’s government officials and asset freezes. Similar to the United States sanctions on Myanmar’s military leaders for the violent genocide they committed in Rohingya. In these sanctions, the United States placed officials related to the genocide on the “US Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals (SDN)” list. This list prohibited any US individual, business, or a financial institution from conducting business with the officials listed and banned their travel to the United States. (12) A similar approach can be used concerning the crisis in Lasanod.
Financial and economic sanctions can be imposed, including the freezing of the foreign accounts and assets of Muse Bihi, Mohamed Kahin, Essa Kayd, Suleiman Koore, Abdiqani Aateye, General Nuh Ismail Tani, Faisal Abdi Botan, General Abdirahman Hassan, Colonel Yusuf Nur, Mohamed Saqadhi, Faisal Ali Warabe, and Edna Adan Ismail. Investigate UK funding of the RRU, the role of the unit in human rights violations in Las Anod, and the unlawful killing and political intimidation in Hargeisa, Borama, Burco, and Erigabo. (13)
To even further emphasize the need for sanctions, it is alleged that Somaliland has been pocketing most of the international aid it received instead of directing it into the regions it controls. Specifically, as written in an open letter to Dr. Elmi Mohamud Noor, the Minister of Finance for the Federal Government of Somalia: “100% of international aid directly sent to Somaliland during the last five years was consumed by the Muse Bihi family, and the leftover was used in the central regions of Somaliland.” (14) It is clear that in addition to being held accountable for its violence in Lasanod, Somaliland must also be held responsible for the misappropriation of international aid. The Somaliland Special Arrangement, Somalia Compact financial mechanism, and current Somali Multi-Partner should all be reviewed and suspended.
The international legal mechanisms already in place, as utilized by the International Criminal Court (ICC), can be used to hold Somaliland accountable. Notwithstanding the fact that Somaliland is not a state party to the Rome Statute, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has jurisdiction over war crimes committed on its territory. Therefore, if there is evidence of war crimes, which this article has provided in several instances that demonstrate the potentiality of war crimes, and the national authorities are unable or unwilling to prosecute, the ICC Prosecutor may launch an inquiry into the situation in Somaliland.
Somaliland must be questioned and investigated for its violence in Lasanod. The evidence examined demonstrates potential human rights breaches, many deaths, and violence has been caused. So far, the following has been documented: indiscriminate shelling and bombardment of residential areas, mosques, hospitals, water plants, (15) power stations, and solar-powered oxygen plants, (16) the targeting of particular clans, and the disproportionate use of force.(17) The international community must act immediately to hold the Somaliland Administration responsible and question whether their acts constitute war crimes.
Somaliland forces must immediately stop the shelling and bombarding of Lasanod and its population and remove its troops from the SSC area. Given the atrocities committed and the previous extrajudicial assassinations, Somaliland cannot win over the people of SCC and sell them a secession agenda. Rebuilding confidence and trust and fostering reconciliation requires recognition and an unambiguous apology for the atrocities and destruction, allegations against the residents of SSC, and reparations and compensation for those harmed by the Lasanod shelling and earlier killings. Nothing less than justice and the chance to start over in peace and security is due to the residents of Lasanod and the larger SSC community. The international community must constantly monitor the situation and act swiftly to ensure the required actions are taken.