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Protection from impunity is as important as any bullet proof vest: working towards human rights protection in Somalia

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“For many years Somali trade unions have been targeted by the Federal Government, in particular attacks on basic Freedoms of Expression, Association and Assembly in blatant contravention of national and international laws.  We are now providing on an annual basis compelling evidence of these abuses and we expect the new administration to address them urgently”

Omar Faruk Osman, General Secretary, Federation of Somali Trade Unions (FESTU)


Since 2011, after years of conflict, war-torn Somalia has been following an internationally agreed process prioritising security, the adoption of the provisional constitution, national outreach, reconciliation and good governance.  It has received heavy international aid assistance, including from the British Government and international business investment is encouraged by many.

Dock workers' in Somalian PortYet behind this success lies a very dangerous situation.  The ITUC Africa lists the country as the most dangerous to be a trade unionist in Africa and a recent joint statement from UN human rights experts found failure of a basic necessity of any state: a coherent and functioning judicial system.Against the odds, after the military Government’s departure, in March 2010 FESTU was established as the first ever independent national trade union centre. Beginning with five unions, today it has twelve affiliates representing 38,200 paying members and a further associated 65,000 non-paying members, from the informal economy. After a strong organising drive, nine Collective Bargaining Agreements (renewed biannually) exist across agriculture, maritime, construction, media, transport, nurse, teachers and the telecommunication sector. FESTU is the only mass membership, independent and democratic civic group.

Naturally, human rights abuse in all areas of life is rife. And so, by using the powerful enabling[1] human rights mechanisms of Freedom of Association (FoA) and Expression (FoE), to create a better life for all; Somali trade union members and leaders have for years been targets of systematic violence, intimidation and murder by those that wish to see the status quo remain. 

International solidarity remains a lifeline for trade unionists under attack. The TUC, with the previous support of Department for International Development funding, first worked with Mr Osman in 2010, when as founding President of the Federation of African Journalists, he spearheaded a campaign for the African Union to set better safety protection standards for African Journalists.  

TUC Aid has supported FESTU since 2014, first conducting research on the informal economy and then the production of the two annual human and trade unions rights report.  The report, which contributes towards the ITUC’s Global Rights Index, records and analyses trade union rights violations in order to raise awareness of trade union rights abuses and lobby for measures to address them.  In 2017, the support was generously bolstered by match funding from the TUUT Charitable Trust. This report complements the February 2017 TUC Aid Project Start Up report.

The 2016 Report and its Findings

FESTU then worked with the ITUC and ITUC-Africa to produce one thousand copies of the report entitled Protection from impunity is as important as any bullet proof vest.  The report found a worsening situation since 2016.Front page of the reportFour trade union leaders from across the country, were hired to record attacks on trade unions and trade unionists, violations of FoA and Freedom of Peaceful Assembly; as well as laws and policies curtailing trade union rights.  

FESTU is using the report to raise awareness and lobby domestic politicians and opinion-formers, local civil society, as well as staff of international organisations. An electronic version has been distributed to the international community.

The ITUC’s 2017 Global Rights Index continues to rank Somalia 5+ which means it has “no guarantee of rule of law due to breakdown in rule of law”.  It focuses on how the trade union leadership has been deliberately imperilled in a concerted bid to demonise, discredit and destroy the voice of free trade unions.  

Government officials tried to stop FESTU’s April 2016 Congress by calling it a “false Congress” and trade unionists were called ‘illegal’ and illegitimate’.  One official at the Ministry of Labour told the Federation on condition of anonymity,

“You kill the snake at the head and then the other union leaders and members will just run away and disappear”.

At the report’s launch Kwasi Adu-Amankwah, General Secretary of the Africa Regional Organisation of the International Trade Union Confederation stressed

Hoping to close down Freedom of Expression, more than 30 journalists were arrested with the aim that they will now self-censor, to avoid retaliation by “corrupt officials, criminal elements, Islamist extremists and members of illegal armed groups”.  Other trade union violations include increases of forced unpaid overtime without notice and management pressure on workers’ to leave trade unions, sometimes under threat of dismissal. “Union meetings were raided and stopped, union members were killed and wounded, and trade unions were de-registered in order to make them illegal.  Fake unions were set up, as the government sponsored the seizure of independent unions and union activists were threatened.”

All this occurs in a very insecure environment, more than 113 workers were killed and more than 500 wounded in 2016. Most who died were killed in planned terror attacks targeting hotels and restaurants and whilst it is not clear how many were linked to al-Shabaab extremists, Government employee assassinations and threats are linked to them. 

Omar Faruk Osman, General Secretary of FESTU (and also Secretary General of the National Union of Somali Journalists), who has been the target of an assassination attack and is branded in an attorney general’s document as a ‘threat to peace and stability of the country’ explains

Members of National Union of Somali Journalists“There is no improvement on the twin Freedoms of Association and Expression since last year.  For trade unionists it is very difficult, the minute we open our mouths and share our views, our physical and legal safety and life even, becomes threatened. The judiciary is used to harass and intimidate trade unionists undertaking normal organising activities. They try to delegitimise and stigmatise us, as if we were anti-government criminals setting out to deliberately bring the government into disrepute without grounds. So for us this report and its findings are essential, we have built our case and are now building our noise”.

Moving towards success

FESTU, with its affiliates’ uncompromising determination, together with the solidarity of the international trade union movement, with the help of the report, creating the necessary momentum to change the situation.

In May 2016, four experts from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported the situation urging the Government of Somalia to halt the “continuous acts of intimidation and reprisals against members and two leaders of two Somali trade unions and to stop interfering in the unions’ internal affairs and activities”.

In December 2016, FESTU and NUSOJ became the first national organisation to successfully use the UN’s human rights system to seek remedy and win.  With the help of the ITUC, a case against the Somali Government for violating the right to Freedom of Association was brought to the ILO.  The Report on the Committee of Freedom of Association in December 2016 total, makes 8 recommendations. The first states

“The Committee expects the Government to abide by the ruling of the Supreme Court concerning the leadership of NUSOJ and it urges the Government to refrain from any further interference in JUSOJ and FESTU internal affairs, and ensure that the elected leaders of the unions …. are free to exercise the mandate to given to them by their members in accordance with the nation’s by-laws. The Committee trusts that the Government will recognise the leadership of NUSOJ and FESTU under Mr Omar Faruk Osman without delay.” 

Nationally, in Somalia, FESTU and its affiliates do have the sympathy of many Ministers and member states of federal structures. Each have been impressed with the report and as the new Labour Minister realised the 2018 report will detail everything that happens under his watch in 2017, his shock was clear.

Nevertheless, abuses continue.  Since its release, in an attempt to curtail his attendance at the June International Labour Conference, Mr Osman was taken in for questioning by the Attorney General Office. The accusations are that he contravened Freedom of Expression and Association by commemorating World Press Freedom Day without approval of the Ministry of Information and that he issued an abusive statement, as NUSOJ, offending and defaming the Minister of Information of the Federal Government of Somalia.  Offering full solidarity, Frances O’Grady wrote this letter to the British Ambassador in Somalia.

Mr osman, FESTU General Secretary with ILO Director General, Guy Ryder at ILC 2017With the assistance of the ITUC, Mr Osman led FESTU delegation that attended the ILC anyway and amongst other things, held fruitful discussions with the ILO’s Director General Mr Guy Ryder.Following this, the Somali Government refused to sponsor Mr Osman as an official International Labour Conference (ILC) Workers Delegate and instead sponsored a refugee living in Europe.

Once again the ILC Credential Committee found that the Somali government violated the ILO constitution by not accrediting the genuine workers’ representatives of Somalia, under the leadership of Mr Osman, and demanded that the Somali Government must respect the ILO constitution and report on the accreditation for next time.

This is the kind of bad publicity that any Government wishes to avoid. Increasingly the international community is noticing and their support for FESTU’s evidence of Government impunity is growing.


[1] They are enabling because their use automatically helps other human rights to be realised

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