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National Dialogue on Justice Reform: A New Beginning in Somalia

by Abdulwahid S Qalinle & Hassan H Haji
Friday, April 26, 2013


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For the past two decades, Somalia has been caught up in bitter clan divisions, civil war, and terrorism. Attempts at re-establishing rule of law fell apart as fast as they began. Ordinarily, the election of a new Somali government and parliament might be seen as just another rotation in an unending cycle of failed interim arrangements.


But this time, things are different.


Shortly after the militant group Al-Shabab lost control of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, Somalia’s first regular parliament in over twenty years was sworn in on Somali soil in August 2012. Shortly thereafter, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was elected after winning a run-off vote. Instead of fighting, his opponent stepped aside graciously. In the past year, the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union have all recognized President Mohamud and the new parliament as Somalia’s legitimate national government, paving the way for Somalia to take its place once again in the community of nations.


Elections and recognition are one thing, however; action is another. President Mohamud has made restoring justice, human rights, and the rule of law one of his top priorities. But how do Somalis heal old wounds and come together after so many years?


We start by talking to each other.


This is exactly what happened at the Somali National Dialogue on Justice Reform, which ran from April 1 – 5 in Mogadishu. This conference brought together over 200 delegates to tackle the challenge of building a functioning justice system on the ruins of the civil war. The delegates were a representative cross-section of Somali society concerned with justice issues, including members of the judiciary, lawyers and legal scholars, government officials, members of parliament, traditional elders, religious leaders, police officers, women’s organizations, human rights organizations, community leaders, members of the Diaspora, and ordinary citizens.


The conference was a significant milestone, the first of its kind in Somalia. President Mohamud officially opened the proceedings, encouraging the delegates to come up with concrete recommendations for building a justice system. The National Dialogue was an intense five days of plenary meetings and smaller working groups that took account of Somalia’s dismal legal history and current difficulties, but also set out a vision for the future based on the Provisional Constitution, Shariah, human rights, and the Somali people’s overwhelming desire for a peaceful society.


After five days of hard work and exchanging opinions, the conference delegates produced a set of long- and short-term recommendations to restore rule of law. Key recommendations included:


·       Vetting judges, prosecutors and judicial officials to ensure that they are qualified and not corrupt;

·       Guaranteeing judicial independence and establishing a Court Administration System in order to avoid political interference in the justice system;

·       Establishing a National Judicial Training Institute in order to enhance the capacity and skills of the judicial officials;

·       Setting up of a Law Reform Commission to review and update existing laws;

·       Building human rights education into the training of police, correctional officers and security forces;

·       Ensuring access to justice and that women are fully represented in all legal institutions;

·       Setting up an anti-corruption commission and Ombudsman’s Office.


The delegates called on the government to propose and on the parliament to pass an array of bills to make certain that these and other recommendations are implemented within specific timelines.


Conferences and recommendations are well and good, but why is this one special? There are several reasons.


It is the first Somali-led and funded conference on justice reform and judicial institution-building in the history of modern Somalia. The National Dialogue brought together Somalis from all walks of life, ensuring that everyone had a voice at the table. Significantly, human rights and women’s groups were well represented. The recommendations call for legislation to protect the rights of women, children, and persons with disabilities.


The conference showcased the ability of Somalis to engage with each other constructively for the common purpose of rebuilding their nation without support from the international community. Somalis from all regions of the country and from the Diaspora came together with common concerns and aspirations. In this sense, the National Dialogue was a living testimony to the ability of the Somali people to transcend clan politics and unite in their desire for progress and peace. The strong participation of the Diaspora in the conference is significant too; it signals that those who left Somalia to escape violence and despair are now seeing hope for Somalia’s future. Of the more than 220 conference delegates, about 30 came from Diaspora communities in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe.


We who organized and participated in the conference are not naïve; we know that we have not single-handedly solved all of Somalia’s problems just by issuing a set of recommendations. We know that rebuilding a society after more than two decades of violence and instability is, to put it mildly, a challenging long-term project. Somalia still faces threats, as evidenced by Al-Shabab’s recent bombing of Mogadishu’s main court house.


But if its momentum is sustained, the National Dialogue on Justice Reform could be a real turning point in Somali history, something that helps restore the confidence of Somalis in their own ability to put their country back together.  International assistance will be an important part of this effort, but it will only succeed if Somalis themselves approach the challenges they face with a can-do spirit.


There is a long, hard road to travel, but at its end lies a peaceful, secure, and just Somalia. For the first time in more than twenty years, there’s a real feeling that this time, things will be different.


P.S. Below are the web links to the Communiqué of the Conference in both English and Somali:

(English):  http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/research/somalia-Communique-National%20Dialogue-eng.pdf

(Somali):  http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/research/somalia-Communique%20-%20April%202013-National%20Dialogue-som.pdf

Abdulwahid Qalinle and Hassan Haji are Senior Policy Advisors to the Somali President on Justice and Rule of Law (E-mail: [email protected]).


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