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UN Security Council Vote to Lift Somalia’s Three-Decades-long Arms Embargo, and Renews Sanctions on Al-Shabaab


On Friday, 1st December 2023, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has unanimously voted to adopt lift the final arms embargo restriction on Somalia. This is after the 15-member body adopted the two resolutions sponsored by the United Kingdom and voted to lift the 30-year-old arms embargo on Somalia while simultaneously imposing sanctions on the al-Qaeda-affiliated terror group, al-Shabaab.

Additionally, the UNSC adopted a separate resolution to reimpose the arms embargo on al-Shabaab successfully passed with 14 in favour and 1 abstaining, on Al-Shabaab Khawarijs. This aims to degrade their threat capacity through comprehensive arms embargoes, disrupting their financing, restricting access to explosive materials, and authorising maritime interdiction against smuggling. It renews the Panel of Experts’ mandate to monitor sanction violations. The resolution explicitly focuses pressure on al-Shabaab while showing trust in the government.

The UNSC first imposed an arms embargo on Somalia in 1992 through Resolution 733, one year after the fall of the Said Barre regime in 1991, when the country descended into civil war. The intention was to reduce conflict and improve the deteriorating humanitarian situation. The embargo was broadly restrictive, prohibiting the sale, supply, or transfer of weapons, military equipment, and military assistance to any parties in Somalia.

Over the next 15 years, the Security Council passed several resolutions to clarify and adjust provisions around the embargo. A key development came in December 2006 with Resolution 1725, which authorised the supply of weapons and equipment to the internationally recognised Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, to protect Somalia’s institutions

In February 2007, Resolution 1744 eased restrictions further by limiting the embargo exclusively to non-state actors, no longer applying to transfers to Somali government forces. Subsequent resolutions in 2008, 2009 and 2013 focused on upholding the non-state actor embargo while facilitating increased, conditional weapons transfers to the Federal Government of Somalia specifically for security sector development. 

As of late 2022, the embargo remains in force, now allowing weapon supplies to Somali government forces subject to notifications and approval through the Security Council’s Sanctions Committee on Somalia. Several military-grade weapons and explosives require pre-approval on a case-by-case basis before transfers.

This blanket arms embargo weakened Somalia’s successive transitional governments as they struggled to rebuild national security forces to counter terrorist groups like al-Shabaab. 

In recent years, the Federal Government of Somalia stepped up its appeals to lift the arms embargo. The government argued this was necessary to strengthen and equip its national army and stabilise the country to overcome the al-Shabaab insurgency.

Somalia’s U.N. Ambassador Abukar Dahir Osman stated “The lifting of the arms embargo enables us to confront security threats,” he added that “it also allows us to bolster the capacity of the Somali security forces by accessing lethal arms and equipment to adequately safeguard our citizens and our nation.”

Similarly, Omar Mohamud, International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Eastern Africa told Anadolu: “It signals international confidence in the Somali government’s progress on weapons and ammunition management at a technical level, but at the same time the war against Al-Shabaab has flagged for a number of reasons unrelated to weaponry;” he added “Additionally, a secure Somalia will become an attractive destination for foreign investment, driving economic development and infrastructure rebuilding. The government’s strengthened security measures not only enhance legitimacy but also contribute to improved governance and the rule of law.”

The lifting of the arms embargo carries significant implications for Somalia’s future security and governance. Analysts note that although it facilitates weapons transfers, long-term stability requires political solutions to fundamental drivers of conflict unrelated to arms access.

Reactions welcomed the lifting as unlocking economic potential, attracting investment, and symbolising regained sovereignty. But fulfilling these expectations depends on achieving genuine security sector reform and balanced foreign military support.  

The UNSC resolutions update the legal framework on Somalia to empower state military forces while explicitly targeting sanctions against al-Shabaab spoilers. This signals a transition in the international approach – towards capacity building of Somali institutions and shared responsibility forstabilising the country after 30 years of conflict.