In 2014, I spoke to several military lawyers and judges from Uganda, Burundi and Kenya to understand how Somalis abused by soldiers from the African Union forces in Somalia (AMISOM) could seek justice. I was told the best chance was to hold prosecutions in Somalia itself, not hundreds of miles away in Uganda, Kenya, or Burundi, which would make it more difficult for witnesses to appear. “Without witnesses, the cases will be easy to throw out,” one Ugandan judge advocate said.
On Tuesday, Uganda’s military justice system held a court martial in Mogadishu. and for the first time ever, the media was invited to cover the hearings.
Despite serious concerns about the fairness of trials before Uganda’s military court, holding public hearings in Mogadishu is an important step in bringing greater transparency to the process and providing a model of in-country proceedings. The military court is currently trying military offences and not abuses against civilians, but the example of access to proceedings for victims and witnesses and the court presence inside Somalia offers AMISOM and troop-contributing countries the opportunity to press ahead with setting up a jurisdiction for cases of crimes against civilians as well.
The countries that contribute troops to AMISOM have exclusive jurisdiction over their personnel for any criminal offenses they commit in Somalia and so are in charge of investigations and all criminal prosecutions. These countries are bound by memorandums of understanding signed with the AU, and international human rights and humanitarian obligations to investigate and if established, prosecute, allegations of serious violations and crimes.
We have documented abuses by Ugandan forces as part of AMISOM on a number of occasions, including sexual exploitation and abuse of Somali women and girls, andindiscriminate killings of civilians. But the Ugandan forces are not the only ones implicated in abuses; and yet, so far, the others have shown little interest in holding their troops accountable.
In our 2014 report, we called on the AU to urge all troop-contributing countries to look at sending their military courts either permanently or on a rotating basis to Somalia. The AU had considered the recommendation, and in an April 2015 investigation report said that with one exception, all contributing countries agreed in principle to holding ad hoc court martials in Somalia.
Uganda has now shown this is possible when there is political will to get it done. The AU, international supporters to AMISOM, and the Somali government should now push other troop contributors to follow suit. All victims of AMISOM abuses should be given the equal opportunities to access redress and justice.