The elephant in the room – will drone strikes be on the agenda of the Somalia conference?

Today (7 May), a conference opens in London focused on rebuilding Somalia.  The event is jointly hosted by the UK Government and the Government of Somalia, and draws together relevant international governments and civil society organisations.  According to the UK Government’s website, the conference provides several opportunities:

  • for the Somali Government to share its plans for developing the country’s armed forces, police, justice sector, and public financial management systems;

  • for the international community to agree how it will support the implementation of those plans; and

  • for the Somali Government to outline how it intends to resolve the outstanding political issues within Somalia.

Issues to be considered include addressing sexual violence, piracy, famine and the ongoing threat from Al-Shabaab as well as how to develop Somalia’s security forces.  But will the subject of drone attacks be on the agenda?  The US has been carrying out drone strikes in Somalia since June 2011 as part of their broader “war on terror” operations in the country, though the use of drones for surveillance purposes began in 2009.  According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there have been between three and nine drones strikes, with a total reported killed of between seven and 27.  There are a number of challenges in establishing an accurate picture of such attacks due to the limited international presence in the country, the paucity of communications and the risks to journalists, and others, on the ground who might collect such data.

Though April 2013 did not see any US drone operations in Somalia – perhaps an attempt to keep it off the agenda of the Somalia conference, it would seem strange if the impact of these strikes is not considered at this event, if only in relation to their effectiveness in addressing the threat posed by Al-Shabaab.  There are undoubtedly lessons to be learnt for the US as they seek to expand the use of drones across East and North Africa and for those keen to establish a sustainable peace in Somalia.

The British Government also has a specific interest in this issue.  In January 2012, a number of media outlets reported that a former British citizen, Bilal el-Berjawi, had been killed in a US drone strike on the outskirts of the capital, Mogadishu.  His family alleged that his location was confirmed after a telephone call to his wife in London shortly before the attack.  El-Berjawi had been deprived of his British citizenship the previous year.  An in-depth report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism highlighted the correlation between the deprivation of citizenship and subsequent targeting by the US for extraordinary rendition or drone strikes.  A subsequent article by the Bureau noted that Mohamed Sakr, whose British citizenship was revoked in 2010, was also killed in a US drone strike in Somalia, a month after El-Berjawi.  These actions resonate with research in 2010 undertaken by CagePrisoners which catalogued the profiling, by the British security services, of young men from the Horn of Africa and the subsequent harassment members of this community suffered.  Their report, The Horn of Africa Inquisition: The latest profile in the War on Terror, included a profile of Mahdi Hashi, who at the time was a UK citizen of Somali origin; he was subsequently deprived of his citizenship last summer, and rendered from Somalia to the US, via Djibouti.

The Prime Minister of Somalia, Abdi Farah Shirdon, writing for Al-Jazeera yesterday, commented that: “Human rights, trampled over so mercilessly by our enemy and other miscreants, need to be respected. There must be an end to a culture of impunity, the legacy of a broken state that we have inherited.”  It will be interesting thus to see how the pursuit of the “war on terror” by the United States in Somalia, as manifested through drone strikes, is considered at this important conference today.

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