U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), the U.S. military command responsible for operations in Africa, including airstrikes conducted in Somalia, has faced calls for years to create safe and accessible ways for Somali civilians and civil society groups to report civilian deaths and injuries, as well as to publish more transparent reporting on the impact of its operations. Over the years, the U.S. military has repeatedly announced conclusions about who its operations have killed, without communicating with witnesses, family members, or survivors of the strikes. AFRICOM recently acknowledged a third incident that killed and injured civilians in Somalia, but the report makes no mention of efforts to contact the families.
On June 5, AFRICOM announced a new online portal for reporting civilian casualties caused by its military operations. “A featured improvement is the ability for the public to submit civilian casualty allegations in native languages,” the press release states. “This key feature is one of the ways that U.S. Africa Command continues to increase the communication flow between critical stakeholders and the command’s civilian casualty assessment team.”
But how helpful is this portal to those seeking immediate remedial actions? And how easy is it for them to report valuable information about these incidents?
Poorly Translated and Hard to Navigate Portal
The new AFRICOM online public reporting portal is one step forward towards improved reporting and accountability, though long overdue. But, as it currently exists, it does not adequately serve the needs of those seeking redress for the loss of their families, or even those trying to report harm.
First, it is not clear how Somali civilians who do not speak English can learn about or find the portal. A Somali-language Google search for “Gudbinta Cabashooyinka Laxiriira Shacabka ku Waxyeeloobay Duqeymaha Mareykanka” or “Reporting complaints relating to civilian casualties from US airstrikes” fails to turn up the page as a result. Somali-language media also do not appear to have covered this development.
It is difficult for a digital native, someone who regularly uses digital resources, to navigate through the portal. Thus, it is hard to imagine how someone who does not regularly use the internet, and does not speak English, could understand how to navigate the page. Currently, to reach the Somali version, it appears one needs to access the English site, then click a small “Translate” button at the top or bottom of the page. It is not clear how a non-English speaker could find the reporting form.
The Somali translation of the portal is poor and could even mislead people unless quick modification is made. For instance, the first sentence of the portal which reads in English as “Civilian Casualty Reporting,” is different from the Somali translation, which literally reads as “Civilian Civilian Reporting,” as shown in the below screenshots taken from the AFRICOM website. In another sentence, the English version reads “Civilian Casualty Report and Allegations,” which has been mistakenly translated in Somali as “Civilian Disability Casualties and Allegations.” It appears the translation was done using Google translation software, rather than a custom translation of the material, resulting in these errors. An accurate and effective translation seems an essential first step to reaching affected Somalis.
Lack of Access to Internet and Digital Devices
Most U.S. strikes happen in remote areas that are close to, or located in, territory controlled by the Somali militant group Al-Shabaab. The group, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization and has fought the Western-backed government for years, has banned the use of internet and all digital devices, including smartphones, in areas that are under its control. Anyone caught with a smartphone, or another digital device, faces the risk of severe punishment.
Even if residents could access a device, these locations have poor internet connectivity, making it impossible to report complaints of casualties. The majority of the people living in these areas are digitally illiterate, with no basic knowledge of how to use computers, access the internet, or navigate complex web pages. These realities mean that the portal provides little benefit to those most impacted by U.S. military operations, who are often families living in Al-Shabaab-controlled areas.
These access difficulties are extreme examples in a country where internet access is overall low. In 2018, The Guardian reported that less than 2 percent of Somalis have access to the internet. Another digital-tracking firm, cited by the United Nations, put the figure at around 10 percent at the start of 2020. It is clear that a digital reporting system alone won’t provide a complete solution to the problem of underreporting civilian casualties in Somalia.
What Outcomes are Possible?
For those who manage to access the portal and submit complaints with the help of other family members, important questions remain. What action can result from submitting information to AFRICOM? And what responses, if any, will those who provide information receive, and what kind of compensation is available?
Though the U.S. government has conducted more than 180 airstrikes in Somalia since 2017, it has not publicly announced or acknowledged compensation to civilian families affected despite multiple calls to do so. It has also failed to contact any of the families, or to offer reparations for harm—even for casualties it has acknowledged—as far as we know.
In order to promote trust in its reporting system in Somalia, AFRICOM should improve the translation and accessibility of its new reporting portal in the Somali language. But beyond that, it should work to provide alternative, non-digital ways by which civilians harmed by U.S. strikes can report deaths, injuries, and other forms of harm. This should include a reporting and follow-up mechanism jointly coordinated between AFRICOM, the United Nations-supported African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), and the Somali government to ensure families can physically find ways to report and seek redress. This can be done by setting up physical public-complaints offices that could be coordinated by the Ministry of Women and Human Rights Development, in collaboration with elected representatives and clan elders, including those who represent minorities. A toll-free number also could facilitate access. Local civil society should be consulted on the development of any mechanisms.
AFRICOM should also work to improve its post-operation investigations when loss of life or property is reported, including by interviewing witnesses, survivors, and family members of those killed. AFRICOM should share the findings from reports and investigations with concerned stakeholders.
Finally, where civilian causalities are found, the U.S. government should not only publicly acknowledge those deaths and injuries and offer apologies, but also provide full redress to the affected families. Only by finding additional ways for civilians to make reports, by following up with information on how their reports are handled, and by providing redress in appropriate cases will the U.S. military start to rebuild some trust among the communities harmed by its actions in Somalia.