Lemkin Institute Statement On The Isaaq Genocide Committed Between 1987 And 1989 By The Somali Government

On the occasion of the 35th Anniversary of the beginning of the Somali Revolution, the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention wishes to remember the genocide committed towards the Isaaq clan during the Somali Civil War.

During the 1980s, the Isaac people, members of a thriving and independent clan in Somalia, fell prey to a broad array of abuses, including genocide by the Somali government, in the northern part of the country. This was caused, in part, by the clan’s support to the Somali National Movement (SNM), an anti-regime group formed by the Isaaq clan in 1981 as a response to the harsh measures inflicted on the community by the abusive military regime in place.


Suspecting every Isaaq of supporting the SNM, Somalia’s then-president Siyad Barre launched a reign of terror against them. Barre’s regime used the SNM’s flourishing influence to justify the crimes against individuals who made comments pertaining to the government’s unjust and arbitrary policies and despotic rulers, or simply because of their affiliation to the Isaaq clan. The increasingly violent counterinsurgency measures that ensued included arbitrary arrests, detainment in appalling facilities and conditions, crippling restrictions on the right to freedom of movement and expression, aerial bombardment of civilian targets, indiscriminate use of landmines, purposeful destruction of water reservoirs, rape and other forms of gender-based violence, resulting in the mass murder of Isaaq civilians.

Many witnesses and Isaaq survivors made it clear that the slaughter of defenseless Isaaq civilians was not exceptional. Rather, it was the result of a premeditated plan, demonstrating that the intent of Barre’s government was the complete erasure of the Isaaq ethnic group. A United Nations investigation concluded in 2001 that the killing of Isaaq individuals was a crime “conceived, planned and perpetrated by the Somali government” and therefore a breach of the Genocide Convention. The persecution resulted in the deaths of 50,000 to 250,000 members of the Isaac clan between 1987 and 1989.

This genocide also caused almost the complete destruction of the second and third largest cities of Somalia, where the Isaaqs made up the majority: Hargeisa (90 percent destroyed) and Burao (70 percent destroyed).

These events led 500,000 Somali individuals (primarily members of the Isaaq group) to flee their country and cross the border to Hartasheikh (Ethiopia) to seek shelter.

The Isaaq genocide was committed mainly in the region now called Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia in 1991 in part to protect Isaaq clan members from further atrocities.

The territory of Somaliland has been governed by a succession of democratically-elected
governments that continuously and tirelessly seek international recognition as the independent Republic of Somaliland. The international community has stated multiple times that the fate of the international recognition of Somaliland remains in the hands of the African Union. However, the latter is concerned that any renegotiation of Africa’s state borders, despite being colonial relics, would lead to continent-wide insecurity, potentially launching the continent down a slippery slope of conflict over land and borders.

While the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention recognizes the danger of renegotiating
established legal borders, especially on the African continent, where there are currently many sub-national groups seeking independence from central governments, in the context of ongoing threats to the life and identity of groups like the Isaaq, we also understand the calls for independence. What is needed is peace and security. We, therefore, advocate for a well-funded and focused independent effort to bring justice to the region, one that recognizes past genocide and ongoing genocidal threats, brings perpetrators to justice, and protects the right of all human groups to live in dignity.

Owing to the absence of widespread international attention granted to this “forgotten genocide”, the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention urges the international community to take measures to prosecute perpetrators of the Isaaq genocide who still enjoy impunity in Somalia and beyond. Such prosecution is one of the only ways to 1) bring justice to the survivors and descendants of victims 2) pay tribute to the victims, and 3) build the infrastructure necessary to prevent repeats of this genocide in the future.

The Lemkin Institute emphasizes that judicial accountability is at the heart of transitional justice and lasting peace. We thus encourage international organizations and States to allocate significant funds to investigate the crimes and hold criminals accountable.

About Lemkin Institute

The Lemkin Institute for Genocide PreventionThe Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention has grown from the Iraq Project for Genocide Prevention and Accountability, which was launched in 2017 to address the need for long-term capacity building in genocide prevention in Iraq. In the wake of ISIS genocides, we saw an enormous grassroots interest in ending the cycle of violence and promoting lasting peace.  We are now bringing that work to the global grassroots.


Connecting the global grassroots with the tools of genocide prevention.


A world consensus to abstain from genocide.

11 Principles of Genocide Prevention

Lemkin Institute Statement On The Isaaq Genocide Committed Between 1987 And 1989 By The Somali Government01. The Lemkin Institute believes that Genocide Prevention cannot be exclusive to elites in governments, militaries, and international non-governmental organizations

02. The Lemkin Institute believes that Genocide Prevention must be a tool for and from the grassroots.

03. The Lemkin Institute supports the popularization of elite knowledge and elite training systems in Genocide Prevention.

04. The Lemkin Institute works to create a global shared language of Genocide Prevention and Peacebuilding as necessary foundations for effective prevention in the 21st century.

05. The Lemkin Institute operates within a decolonial framework that seeks to build horizontal relationships of knowledge production and knowledge sharing across the hierarchical and dehumanizing divides of the global economy.

06. The Lemkin Institute eschews concepts of prevention that associate preventative models with specific geographic, historical or civilizational narratives – every society is vulnerable to genocide and almost every society has experienced genocide at some point in its history.

07. The Lemkin Institute works as a bridge between divided communities as well as between those communities, national governmental institutions, and the international community.

08. The Lemkin Institute engages in multicultural, multinational, and multireligious dialogue.

09. The Lemkin Institute endorses the principle of non-exclusion and thus engages in dialogue with all actors relevant to and interested in Genocide Prevention.

10. The Lemkin Institute promotes the values of independence, non-partisanship, and grassroots engagement as existentially necessary.

11. The Lemkin Institute firmly believes that genocide can be prevented through the international collaboration of ordinary people as peacemakers.

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