No answers yet for Somalia

The two big questions before the country could be deferred indefinitely due to the pandemic

May 25, 2020 12:15 am | Updated 03:32 pm IST

A view of the Peace Palace that houses the International Court of Justice  in The Hague. File

A view of the Peace Palace that houses the International Court of Justice in The Hague. File

As Somalia grapples with the staggering challenge from the COVID-19 pandemic, chances are that the June 8 public hearings at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Somalia’s maritime dispute with Kenya will be deferred yet again. The public health emergency also raises a question mark on the general elections scheduled for later this year, especially as the nation seeks to restore universal suffrage after five decades.

Maritime dispute

Somalia and neighbouring Kenya have locked horns for over a decade on the delimitation of the maritime boundary in the Indian Ocean. At issue is a roughly 1,00,000 sq km area, which, as per seismic surveys, contains huge deposits of oil and gas. Under a 2009 Memorandum of Understanding, each granted the other no objection to presenting separate submissions to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) concerning the outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles. The parties also committed to finding a settlement in accordance with international law on the basis of the CLCS’s recommendations.

But friction intensified following Kenya’s 2011 despatch of troops into Somalia, ostensibly to counter the al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Shabab. Kenya’s backing for the semi-autonomous Jubaland region has also caused consternation in Somalia. Given the diminishing prospects of a mutual compromise on the dispute, Somalia petitioned the ICJ in 2014.

Somalia won a symbolic victory of sorts in February 2017. The Hague court in the Netherlands rejected by a majority Kenya’s contention challenging the admissibility of Somalia’s application, as also the court’s jurisdiction in the case, in view of the MoU. The court held that this MoU was in no way breached just because one of the parties decided on an alternative mode of dispute resolution. Moreover, while the agreement was legally binding, there was nothing to suggest that judicial proceedings could take place only after the CLCS issued its own recommendations, said the court.

In a diplomatic row last year, Kenya recalled its ambassador and expelled Somalia’s envoy, accusing the Somalian government of illegally auctioning oil blocks in the disputed waters. In parallel, the African Union has intervened to find a settlement out of court via a mediator. As regards the judicial proceedings at The Hague, a decision is expected on the public hearings, postponed twice last year, scheduled to commence next month.

Universal suffrage

The people of Somalia will, later this year, for the first time since the 1969 general elections, exercise their right to political participation under universal suffrage. The one-person one-vote law, which received President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s assent in February, is a milestone in the country’s gradual path to democratic governance after enduring military rule for over two decades and the long transition following the civil war. Notably, there was a 100-fold increase in the number of delegates (14,025) in the 2016 electoral college which chose the 275-member House of the People and the 54 senators-strong upper chamber. There are fewer women legislators in the current parliament than the 30% seats allotted to them. But a steady increase in the number of female representatives witnessed in successive elections is an encouraging sign.

Somalia has systematically suppressed a free press that is vital to a vibrant democracy. Eight journalists have been killed and as many have fled the country during Mr. Mohamed’s term as the al-Shabab and the police behave with impunity, says Amnesty International. The Committee to Protect Journalists said in 2016 that as many as 59 media personnel were killed since the 1991 civil war.

In the backdrop of such systemic constraints and the current pandemic, the practical difficulties of implementing universal suffrage would be formidable. Authorities and activists can, however, take comfort in the fact that the alternatives would be far less desirable.

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