When the U.N. signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10th, 1948, it signaled a post- World War II optimism that human rights could be genuinely improved. The world that embraced Human Rights Day in 1950 might have envisioned a 2012 without terrorism, fighting, or famine. Unfortunately, that is the daily reality for people living in Somalia, who also have to contend with widespread disease, piracy, and the fact that major human rights organizations seem to have turned a blind eye to their problems.
It seems that knowledge of that country extends little past the movie Black Hawk Down and occasional pirate attacks on Westerners. This lack of information is due in part to a lack of concern among groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Rather than taking the lead in defending Somali people, these organizations are channeling the majority of their resources to areas that are easier to report on, such as the U.S. and Israel. AI’s website contains only 260 articles on Somalia dating back to 1990, whereas there are over 1,000 articles on both Israel (since 1998) and the U.S. (since 2007).
One issue that is being overlooked by human rights organizations is that of female genital mutilation, or FGM. In Somalia, over 96% of women are forced to undergo this cruel and irreversible procedure, which, according to a U.S. Department of State report, leads to “a lifetime of physical suffering….” Despite this rampant abuse (that is really akin to torture), there is a remarkable lack of reporting on the subject, as well as a remarkable disparity between the number of NGO reports on countries such as Somalia and those in the Western world. For example, MADRE, an NGO dedicated to advancing “women’s human rights by meeting urgent needs in communities and building lasting solutions to crisis”, has 513 articles on the United States, 407 on Israel, and only 12 on Somalia. In a MADRE report detailing women’s rights abuses around the world, FGM is mentioned only after a lengthy critique of American policies on women’s rights.
Oxfam International has reported nothing about FGM, despite its claim that the “right to gender equality underpins all Oxfam’s work” and that they are working toward “gender justice”. An Oxfam partner organization, the We Can Global Network, describes itself as a “worldwide social movement to… end all violence against women”, but doesn’t include Somalia among its list of countries that require change. HRW states that FGM “violates the rights of women to life, health and bodily integrity, non-discrimination, and the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment”, but does little to report on actual incidents of FGM, and has no reports on FGM in Somalia. Other institutions that claim to stand specifically for women’s rights worldwide, such as Women without Borders, the Amnesty-funded “Stop the Violence Against Women Campaign”, or the U.N.’s “Women Watch”, also fail to mention FGM in Somalia in any online reports.
Another issue concerns the persecution of journalists in Somalia. On November 21, 2012, BBC journalist Ibrahim Mohamed Adan was arrested by Somali security forces for allegedly reporting that his cousin, a soldier, had been executed. He is being held in the central prison in Mogadishu, even though no formal charges have been brought against him. Currently, no date has been set for his trial.
Adan’s predicament should be cause for scandal. Unfortunately, it is commonplace and some might consider him lucky. This year alone, 18 journalists have been killed in Somalia, and 44 since 2007. A 26-year old sports writer named Abdirahman Mohamed Ali was beheaded earlier this year and his body dumped in the street. The terrorizing of journalists with impunity in Somalia has become a “fundamental problem”, according to the National Union of Somali Journalists. There is much that could and should be said about this issue; unfortunately, human rights groups have been mostly silent.
AI claims that “[freedom] of expression has always been a core part of [their] work”, and HRW has a section devoted to freedom of the press on its website. Nonetheless, neither organization reported the murder of Ali or Adan’s capture. HRW published a report in September on Somali journalists, but their silence about the more recent infractions is notable considering their close examination of Israel’s treatment of journalists in the recent Gaza conflict.
Journalists in Somalia deserve the protection and advocacy of the human rights community, as do women who are being abused as a matter of policy. This year, purported human rights champions should not be allowed to pretend Somalia and its problems don’t exist.
Devorah Goldman is a research fellow with Jerusalem based NGO Monitor