Far From New, Far From Over: The Crisis in Mali

January 16, 2013

France has deployed some 550 soldiers to Mali© Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty
France has deployed some 550 soldiers to Mali© Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty

(For a helpful cheat sheet of armed groups in the north of Mali, see the end of this post.)

The notion that Mali faces crisis is not new. For the better part of a year, Amnesty International has been documenting and reporting the long catalogue of abuses and outright atrocities committed in the country, by the Malian military and Junta government, and the various armed opposition groups in the North: amputations and other gruesome corporal punishment, extra-judicial executions, rape and sexual violence, child soldiering, torture, stoning, disappearances, and arrests and killings based on ethnicity, to name just the most egregious.

Indeed, on this very blog, as early as May 2012, the situation in Mali was described as a “forgotten crisis” and by July, an “urgent crisis.” There are many human rights situations that could be called a crisis, to be fair. But with the catalyzed attention as a result of French intervention at the request of the Malian government last week, recognition of the crisis in Mali warrants an urgent appeal to stave off a disastrous worsening of the conditions and abuses faced by Malians, in the north and south, as well as those displaced to neighboring countries.

International Action

In the North, long-standing Tuareg and other secular armed opposition groups have been heavily supplanted by Islamist armed opposition in the last year. Cynically, it is the threats that these groups posed to the integrity of the Malian state and to broader regional stability rather than any human rights situation that was the impetus for the UN Security Council (UNSC) to invoke Chapter 7 of the UN Charter and mandate an African-led armed intervention in Mali in December 2012.

Cynicism aside, UNSC Resolution 2085—authorizing political support, training and military action to restore control over the north of Mali—contains meaningful reference to human rights and civilian protection. Amnesty International voiced concern, however, recognizing that the pattern of abuses committed by state security forces and armed opposition in the past year suggested a likely increase in human rights violations associated with an armed intervention.

This should be of little surprise—armed intervention and armed conflict in general are associated with increases in human rights abuses. Yet, I was optimistic. The operational timetable put deployment of the African-led intervention force well past summer, which provided not only cushion for securing funding and logistics for military planners, but offered a window to address a few critical human rights protections and compliance needs:

1.      Human Rights Monitors: An absolute necessity for any intervention is the deployment of human rights monitors to observe the conduct of operations, and Mali is no exception. The presence and unfettered access of monitors is a vital part of ensuring compliance with international law and documenting any violations, and the remoteness of much of Mali requires careful planning and support for effective monitoring.

2.      Ending Impunity: Particularly troubling is that among the Malian forces—as well as pro-government militia—are individuals who enjoy impunity for egregious human rights violations. As Amnesty has documented, at the outset of the conflict in the north, security forces responded to the uprising “by bombing Tuareg civilians, and arresting, torturing and killing Tuareg people apparently only on ethnic grounds.” Malian soldiers have been responsible for extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances, including the execution of 16 members of a movement of preachers (the Dawa), after being taken from a vehicle in Diabaly. This small Malian town has been the scene of the most recent, all-night bombing. Participation by culpable individuals in the 2085-mandated operations not only threatens any moral credibility of the civilian protection mandate, but would be a clear threat to civilians already at risk by the operations themselves.

3.      Operational Planning and Training: With the originally-scheduled multi-month run-up to the deployment of the African-led force, there was ample time to develop operational rules to minimize threats to civilians as a result of operations. Most importantly, there was at least some time to train (vetted, non-human rights abusing) Malian forces on international humanitarian law and their obligations under the law, in order to further ensure the civilian protection mandate was achievable. And there was time to ensure that children were demobilized and removed from the ranks of militia and pro-government forces, and removed from the increasingly dangerous battlefield.

4.      Humanitarian Response: Finally, though maybe too optimistic on my part, the time granted opportunity to gather resources and develop plans to address the humanitarian effects of intervention and concomitant armed conflict, made particularly challenging as a result of recurrent food crises in the north of the country, and the Sahel more broadly. Well before the planned intervention start window, hundreds of thousands were displaced, and many more in urgent need of assistance. Those already displaced or in need of relief would find themselves exceptionally vulnerable as hostilities increased.

The French Connection

Of course, the French intervention in Mali has accelerated the timetable for the deployment of the force– by a lot. The mandated 3,000+ force and operation originally planned for September or so must now be quickly assembled. Nigeria, one of the contributing states, says it will deploy troops within the next 24 hours.

The other trappings of conflict and intervention have also been accelerated. UNHCR says tens of thousands have been displaced following French-Islamist clashes. Training for Malian security force counterparts on human rights law and the Geneva conventions has not taken place. Children are still at checkpoints, and may find themselves in the midst of hostilities, far from demobilized.

And far from ending the impunity enjoyed by those responsible for reprehensible crimes among the Malian forces, the military ranks remain un-vetted, and we risk soon seeing perpetrators fighting alongside a Chapter 7-mandated force with international support, in the very places and among the very populations of their original victims.

What Must Happen

  • As a matter of utmost urgency, the international community must deploy human rights monitors to Mali, and they must have the material and human resources to do their job.
  • The international community and neighboring states must be prepared to deal with the humanitarian and relief consequences of the accelerated fighting, and ensure those displaced have access to safety, food, shelter, and other basic needs.
  • All necessary steps must be taken by international forces to protect civilians, provide civilians with sufficient warning of offensive operations, and steadfastly resist any indiscriminate bombing and shelling.
  • The international community must ensure that it is not complicit in future human rights violations and atrocities through collaborative or joint operations by international forces with Malian forces who are responsible for crimes. This includes abuses of the sort that have already been perpetrated: indiscriminate attacks on civilians, the targeting of civilians based on ethnic identity, sexual violence, the use of child soldiers, extrajudicial killings, and torture.
  • The international forces, in addition to their steadfast adherence to civilian protection and international humanitarian law must ensure that the Malian authorities investigate and prosecute—in accordance with internationally recognized standards of fair trials—any crimes committed by any armed personnel in Mali. Finally, as mandated in UNSC resolution 2085, the intervention must support fully the work of the International Criminal Court.

The crisis in Mali continues, and time is not on anyone’s side.

Who’s Who in the North:

Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA)

The MNLA was established in October 2011 from the merger of several previous Tuareg groups. In particular, it includes Tuaregs who had fled to Libya and then returned to Mali after the fall of Mouammar Gaddafi. It declares itself to be “a revolutionary movement fighting for the right to have auto-determination for Azawad.” The MNLA asserts that it is a secular movement.

Ansar Eddin/Ansar Dine

The group Ansar Eddin (which means “Defenders of the religion” in Arabic) was created in December 2011. Unlike the MNLA, the group Ansar Eddin does not challenge the territorial integrity of Mali and declares its intention to impose the Shari’a across the whole country.

Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

Deriving from the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was created following its allegiance on September 11, 2006, to Osama Bin Laden. They settled in the North of Mali, encountering no resistance from the Malian government. AQIM has fighters of various nationalities amongst its ranks, in particular Algerian, Mauritanian, Senegalese and Malian. Moreover, reports indicate the presence in the region of Boko Haram combatants (an Islamic group active in Nigeria), which has established links with AQIM.

The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO)

MUJAO was created, at the end of 2011, from a defection from the ranks of AQIM. The movement claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, at the end of October 2011, in the Tindouf region (Southwest Algeria) of three humanitarian workers (two Spaniards and one Italian) and then the kidnapping of seven Algerian diplomats on 5 April 2012 in Gao.

Arab militias

For years, the Malian government has delegated security tasks to an Arab militia in Timbuktu. In April 2012, a political official of this city told the Amnesty International delegation about the origins of this group: “The Arab militia is ATT’s creation [the Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré] to fight against armed Tuareg groups. It is equipped by the Malian government and trained by members of the Malian army.”

Songhay militias

Moreover, there are two Songhay militias (black populations living along the Niger River) called Ganda Koy (“Masters of the earth” in Songhay) and Ganda Izo (“Sons of the country”). The patriotic movement, Ganda Koy, was created by former members of the Malian army during the Tuareg rebellions of the 1990s. After the peaceful settlement of the Tuareg rebellion in the mid-1990s, most members of the Ganda Koy were integrated into the Malian army or administration or returned to civilian life, but members of these groups continue to harass Tuaregs.