“Legitimacy is not an assumed right” President Baraka Obama.
Since the collapse of the central government in 1991, Somalia has suffered from civil-war, widespread famine, broken infrastructure, rampant human, women, and civil rights abuses, poverty, human trafficking, rape, murder and corruption on every level of the society. Given this backdrop and all the internal and external crises facing Somali society, I was dumfounded to read a recent (March 24, 2015) Somali government press release, in which the government embroiled itself in a diplomatic dust-up between Sweden and Saudi Arabia.
The press release reads:
“The Government of the Federal Republic of Somalia condemns the remarks made by the Swedish Foreign Minister regarding issues pertaining to the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This behavior is clearly prohibited by the diplomatic norms and practices but also international law that governs the relationship between sovereign states”.
The foremost important aspect is the respect for sovereign nations to choose their mode of governance and systems without the interference by external parties. This is a treasured principle that has served the world immensely and of which Somalia expects the adherence of all members of the international community”.
What is concerning about the message in this press release is not only that the government of Somalia take sides with Saudi Arabia, a country which is well-known for its human rights abuses and women’s subjugation, but it seems to acknowledge that it morally condones such abuse. This should be alarming to all Somalis, particularly Somali women who are not only the flag-bearers of the country, but essential participants in the foundation of our nation. Somali women are credited again and again for rebuilding the nation and for holding families together within the shattered communities during and after the civil war.
The rights of Somali women:
Women are generally the primary victims of de-centralized war-torn nations: this holds true for Somali society. Without a strong centralized government to protect the rights of women and prevent human rights abuses, women repeatedly fall victim to discrimination, rape, murder, poverty and other abuses. According to the Human Rights Watch-World Report (2015), women and girls in Somalia face the real threat of sexual and basic human rights violations. The report indicates that, while the full scope of sexual violence in Somalia remains unknown due to underreporting and absence of data, it is clear that internally displaced women and girls are particularly vulnerable to rape by armed men, including Somali government soldiers and militia members. Furthermore, the report notes, while the government has endorsed an action plan to address sexual violence, implementation has been slow. (HRW Report).
In 2014, the Federal Government of Somalia acknowledged the discrimination and abuse women are subjected to and made ambitious commitments on human rights. It pledged to build accountable and effective institutions that respect human rights, specifically endorsing an extensive UN Human Rights Council resolution in September, which outlined detailed commitments to improve human rights. In addition, the UNSOM and the Somali President signed a joint UN-Somalia communiqué committing to work together to tackle this issue.Somalia Joint Communique. The very credibility of the government’s commitment to human rights, however, has suffered a set-back with the current press release which contradicts their pledge to women’s rights, as it lends support to a country (Saudi Arabia) with a track record of human rights violation against another (Sweden) with an unblemished record on human rights and in particular women’s rights. Saudi Arabia according to the above report continued in 2014 to try, convict and imprison political dissidents and human rights activists solely on account of their peaceful activities. Systematic discrimination against women and religious minorities continues and Saudi authorities have failed to enact measures to protect the rights of 9 million foreign workers. The report also shows that between December and March 2014, Saudi Arabia deported 38,164 Somalis to Mogadishu, including hundreds of women and children, without allowing any to make claims for refugee status (HRW, 2015). While every nation develops international relations strategies that safeguard its national interests, and Somalia is no exception, it is not apparent what national interest the Somali Government was protecting when it took this misguided step of siding one friendly nation against another.
The Sweden-Saudi dispute arose from a comment made by the Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström regarding Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses and the violation of women’s rights. Margot Wallström has formulated Sweden’s foreign policy as “a feminist foreign policy, which combats discrimination against women, improves conditions for women and contributes to peace and development. She believes women’s participation in decision-making must be strengthened in countries at peace, countries in conflict and countries in which reconstruction is under way”. She is outspoken on issues of human and women’s rights and her remarks concerning Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women and dissidents led to the cancellation of her speech at the Arab League summit in Egypt, which was to include a celebration of Sweden’s official acknowledgement and recognition of the Palestine State. (Sweden Gives Recognition to Palestinians)
. Apparently, as the summit was funded by Saudi Arabia and to avoid embarrassment from the Swedish foreign minister’s advocacy for women, they pulled the plug on her speech, trumping the extraordinary reason why she was invited on the first place: the recognition of Palestine state.
The way forward:
In this age of uncertainty, where the world’s internal and external affairs are intertwined, Somalia must be able to act quickly and effectively to address new and evolving international issues and conflicts. In order to make the right decisions, the government must have access to the best possible advice, and that can only be assured if the government has the right people around the table when decisions are made. The security and fate of nations cannot be left to one or two people at the top of the government pyramid; there are people with the right education and knowledge of international relations and national issues and who recognize that foreign and domestic policies are not separate issues, but two halves of one picture. Somalia faces considerable political, social and security problems that require considerable resources and effort to bring under control, and indeed one would have hoped that the government would focus on finding solutions to these problems rather than concerning itself with issues that should neither be their problem nor their priority.
It seems that the government’s involvement in the Sweden-Saudi confrontation on human rights was done selfishly and for purely self-centered reasons that do not foster women’s rights or nation-building. We need to recognize that the status of women’s rights in Somalia speaks to the broader challenge: the cultural impairment of women’s rights, which will require considerable improvement. The fact of the matter is that the action of the Somali government, to support another nation that is known for its violation of women’s rights, is a huge blow to the progress and improvement of women’s rights in Somalia. While we recognize the importance of government to take positions on international issues, it is equally important that serious considerations be given to the ramifications of its decisions. Somali women need the support of all Somalis including, of course, men. It is time we stand up, as a society to support our sisters, mothers, daughters, and wives in their struggle for equality and say enough is enough. The government needs to consider women’s issues as a core human rights concern, and not meager summary of cultural norms, customs or traditions.
Farhia Ali Abdi