By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The human rights group Amnesty International warned the U.N. Security Council on Monday not to lift the 21-year-old arms embargo in place for Somalia as called for by a draft resolution, describing the idea as premature.
The 15-nation council is considering lifting the U.N. arms embargo on Somalia's government for one year so it can beef up its army to combat Islamist fighters, according to a draft resolution obtained by Reuters.
"Without adequate safeguards, arms transfers may expose Somali civilians to even greater risk and worsen the humanitarian situation," said Gemma Davies, Amnesty International's Somalia researcher.
"For several years, the arms embargo on Somalia has been continuously violated with arms supplied to armed groups on all sides of the conflict. The flow of arms to Somalia has fueled serious human rights abuses committed during the conflict," Davies said in a statement.
The Amnesty statement described the idea as "premature."
The Somalia government has asked for the arms embargo to be lifted and the United States has been pushing the council to agree, but Britain and France have been wary of removing the ban in a country already awash with weapons, diplomats say.
The draft resolution, drawn up by Britain and obtained by Reuters, appears to propose a compromise: lifting the arms embargo for one year but keeping restrictions in place on heavy weapons such as surface-to-air missiles, howitzers and cannon.
The draft says the arms embargo shall not apply to the deliveries of other "weapons or military equipment or the provision of advice, assistance or training, intended solely for the development of the security forces of the federal government of Somalia and to provide security for the Somali people."
The Security Council imposed the arms embargo in 1992 to cut the flow of arms to feuding warlords, who a year earlier had ousted dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and plunged Somalia into civil war. Last year Somalia held its first national vote since 1991 to elect a president and prime minister.
RUSSIA WANTS CONSENSUS
The council plans to vote on the draft resolution later this week before the mandate of the 17,600-strong African Union peacekeeping force, known as AMISOM, expires on Thursday.
Council diplomats said the idea of lifting the arms embargo remains contentious and the draft resolution could be amended before it is put to a vote.
"We must reach consensus," Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, president of the Security Council this month, said about the proposal to lift the arms embargo for a year.
"Is it going to be a blanket lifting of the arms embargo or something more nuanced?" he said. "This is something which is still an ongoing matter of discussions among council members."
Some council members are concerned about the security risks involved with removing the embargo. Other diplomats say it is important to make acquiring arms easier for the Somali government, which they say is affected more than the rebels by the arms embargo.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last month suggested the Security Council consider lifting the arms embargo to help rebuild Somalia's forces and consolidate military gains against al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militants.
The Security Council's Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, an independent panel that reports on compliance with U.N. sanctions, have warned that the Islamist militants in Somalia are receiving weapons from distribution networks linked to Yemen and Iran, diplomats have told Reuters.
A U.N. diplomat also said the U.N. monitors had reported that some al Shabaab militants had infiltrated units of the Somali security forces.
(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)