Since 2003, the African Union (AU) has deployed several peace support operations to help resolve conflicts in various countries across the continent.
These include Burundi, Sudan, Somalia, the Comoros, and a hybrid operation jointly with the UN in Darfur. Of these, only those in Sudan and Darfur hold an explicit mandate for the protection of civilians in their areas of operation.
However, all the missions, have, to a greater or lesser degree, faced protection challenges throughout the course of their deployment, and utilised varying strategies to address these.
In line with the commitment to respect the sanctity of human life, as articulated in its Constitutive Act, the AU has been developing guidelines for the protection of civilians in the Peace Support Operations PSOs.
To help in this endeavour, from July 6-8, 2011 its mission in Somalia, AMISOM, will be holding an international conference in Kigali, Rwanda, which will seek to draw lessons from the experience in the Horn of Africa to enhance respect for International Humanitarian Law in the execution of all its mandated tasks.
This Conference is just the latest step in which key stakeholders, including international human rights organisations, will come together for a frank and open exchange as part of a continuing process of consultation and deliberation to generate concrete recommendations on how the peace operations can better reflect the high priority the AU attaches to international law and civilian protection.
For most of the last 20 years, Somalia has been steeped in anarchy. Nowhere has this been reflected more than in the conduct of the various armed groups that have attempted to impose their writ on the people of that country. Even today, as the nation struggles to achieve reconciliation and peace through the Djibouti Process, a small extremist minority continues to forsake accepted international norms and to wantonly subject innocent civilians to brutal and indiscriminate violence.
It is to protect these civilians, and their right to pursue peace and prosperity for themselves and their children, that the international community authorised the AU to deploy a peace support mission in Somalia. AMISOM is bound by international law and recognises the protection of civilians as an implicit duty.
In the capital, Mogadishu, AMISOM's military operations in support of the Transitional Federal Government forces have greatly expanded the space within which the Transitional Federal Institutions operate. In the process, they have pushed Al Qaeda-linked extremist insurgents away from the population centres in the southern half of the city and created a haven where 80% of its residents can now experience a relative measure of safety and normality.
AMISOM recognises that its military operations in Somalia are more than just about taking ground, but rather providing a stable environment. Even as they provide for self-defence, pre-emptive self-defence and the use of force for mission accomplishment, these procedures also require soldiers to comply with the "international legal principles of proportionality, minimum use of force, and the requirement to minimise the potential for collateral damage."
AMISOM has in particular made sustained efforts to reduce the likelihood of unintentional harm to civilians from indirect fire weapons, such as rocket, mortar and artillery fire. As a rule, AMISOM forces do not engage in counter-battery fire targeting extremists' artillery and mortar positions, when these are located within population centres and limits their overall use to firing on de-populated areas where there is little risk of collateral damage.
This is especially important since, as noted in the Human Rights Watch report, Harsh War, Harsh Peace, the extremists routinely engage in "abuses such as firing mortars indiscriminately and from densely populated areas, using civilians as human shields." It is widely acknowledged that they engage in a pattern of indiscriminate rocket and mortar attacks in Mogadishu, often from areas densely populated areas, deliberately seeking to provoke a retaliatory response which would endanger human life and serve their propaganda purposes.
Furthermore, populated areas, schools, markets and hospitals are protected by clear "no fire" zones, where the use of IDF is prohibited and, though two decades of conflict have left the civilian population in Mogadishu highly attuned to signs of impending tactical engagement - they leave their homes and return when AMISOM or TFG has secured further ground - whenever possible, AMISOM strives to give advance warning of such. During the recent operations around the Bakara Market, for example, statements urging civilians to avoid the area were broadcast repeatedly on Somali media.
These rules and procedures are constantly reviewed to conform to existing circumstances on the ground, but always with the aim of enhancing protection for civilians and its soldiers.
As a result, the risk to civilians from AMISOM military operations is relatively low. The same cannot be said of the extremists opposed to the peace process. Civilian casualties, even with the best procedures in place, can unfortunately happen in an arena like Mogadishu where a war is happening.
When incidents arise, AMISOM, via its Civilian-Military Coordination unit, endeavours to investigate the incident and to attribute responsibility. If any of its soldiers are deemed to have acted outside the relevant rules, the Mission will acknowledge and apologise for the incident in question and institute disciplinary measures, including imprisonment for the offending soldiers.
For example, in March this year, three AMISOM peacekeepers were sentenced after being convicted of acting rashly in an incident where two civilians were shot and killed in Mogadishu in November 2010. In the aftermath of the shooting, AMISOM had immediately arrested the concerned individuals and issued an apology for their actions.
At the Kigali conference, AMISOM hopes that its commitment to safeguarding civilian lives in Somalia will provide important lessons and contribute towards the development of a body of knowledge and an enhanced understanding of the humanitarian obligations of PSOs. Such an understanding would ultimately be invaluable in planning current and future AU peace support operations.
Wirter is the special representative of the chairperson of the African Union Commission for Somalia and the overall head of AMISOM