Mali Conflict: Concerns Persist for Protection of Human Rights, Displaced Populations, Minority Groups

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The West African nation of Mali, previously hailed as a democratic model for other regional governments, has become engulfed in a human rights and political crisis that is now the target of international attention and military intervention. Government and foreign forces are attempting to reclaim territory from separatist rebel groups, while the International Criminal Court and UN and African human rights bodies seek the cessation and redress of widespread human rights abuses.

Background on the Conflict

After the March 2012 military-led coup d’état against the Malian government, a large collective of Islamist and nomadic extremist groups, some with reported ties to al-Qaeda, overtook Mali’s northern region and have since claimed the land as their own, naming the breakaway province Azawad.

Using weapons seized after they fought for Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya last year, Berber rebels belonging to the Tuareg community took over Mali’s northern desert during January 2012. Gaddafi had cultivated close ties with the Tuareg, reportedly using them to “harass his neighbors and, often, as mercenaries.” [Washington Post]  In Mali, the Tuaregs formed the “National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad,” teaming up with jihadists to form a loose coalition ruling over towns across the Saharan territory and its mostly black population. [AP]

Mali’s military, “poorly equipped” and overwhelmed, did little to stop the advance of rebel groups further south. [New York Times]  Initially, “[t]he militants came with gifts of dates, milk, peanuts, cookies and plastic prayer beads, extolling Islam and promising townspeople they wouldn’t hurt them.” [LA Times]  Eventually, the Tuaregs themselves were pushed out by Islamist extremists who imposed Sharia law.  Mali is an overwhelmingly Muslim country; about 90% of the population practices Islam, according to the CIA World Factbook. But Malians are not, for the most part, fundamentalists.

After the Islamist extremists established rule in northern Mali, reports surfaced of curtailed freedoms, serious human rights abuses, and other violations of international law. “Child soldiers were recruited; several amputations and public whippings were carried out; women were forced to wear full, face-covering veils; music was banned from the radio; and cigarettes were snatched from the mouths of pedestrians.” [NYT]  “People are deprived of basic freedoms, historic tombs have been destroyed, and any cultural practices deemed un-Islamic are banned. Children are denied education. The sick and elderly die because many doctors and nurses have fled, and most clinics and hospitals have been destroyed or looted.” [Washington Post] On April 3, a 22-year- old woman was allegedly raped by members of the Ansar Dine group for not wearing the veil in her home. [OHCHR]

UN human rights officials and other experts have also stressed the importance of safeguarding Mali’s cultural heritage amid the destruction of historic structures and archives, including in the ancient city of Timbuktu. UN News Centre OHCHR LA Times

As French and Chadian troops – backed by strategic support from the United States and European Union – have joined Mali’s armed forces in clearing the rebel groups from northern towns, rebel fighters have entered into neighboring Algeria, causing that country to increase its border security measures. [Washington Post; Al Jazeera]

Response of Human Rights Bodies

In the ten months since the coup d’état, the United Nations and other intergovernmental bodies have expressed concern over the human rights abuses committed by all parties to the conflict, as well as the consequences for democracy and the rule of law resulting from the coup and resulting conflict.  In early 2012, the UN High High Commissioner for Refugees began reporting on the plight of the thousands of people displaced by the conflict, reporting in April 2012 that “the violence has uprooted more than 200,000 people, including around 100,000 who have fled the country.” [UNHCR]

That same month, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, urged the international community to respond to the human rights violations and reminded the responsible rebel groups that they could be held accountable internationally.  [OHCHR]  The High Commissioner reported that rebel groups were accused of killing, robbing and raping civilians, while the military coup leaders were reportedly responsible for illegal arrests, poor conditions of detention and restrictions on freedom of expression in the capital city of Bamako.  She “urged the coup leaders to fulfil their promise to step aside and called on all forces operating in Mali to respect international humanitarian and human rights law.” [OHCHR]  Ms. Pillay also stated that the violence against civilians could constitute international crimes, for which those responsible could be held accountable by the International Criminal Court, whose jurisdiction Mali has recognized by ratifying the Rome Statute.

In September 2012, the High Commissioner for Human Rights again condemned the violations taking place in the north, stating:

According to credible reports that my office has received, the various armed groups currently occupying Northern Mali have been committing serious human rights violations and possibly war crimes. These include cruel punishments, such as amputations, the stoning to death of an unmarried couple, summary executions, recruitment of child soldiers, as well as violations of women’s rights, children’s rights, freedom of expression, the rights to food, health, education, to freedom of religion and belief, and cultural rights.

[OHCHR] In September, the High Commissioner took these concerns to the UN Human Rights Council, where Mali reportedly “reiterated its commitment to cooperate with the United Nations specialized agencies and the Human Rights Council in the search for a solution to the difficult situation.”  [OHCHR]

In October 2012, the UN Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights conducted a four-day visit to Mali, reporting back that the human rights violations by both sides to the conflict were becoming systematic and were particularly affecting women and children; he highlighted the need to address the root causes, “including wide-spread corruption, mismanagement of public funds, inequality between the elite and general population and nepotism, amongst others.” [OHCHR] The Assistant Secretary General also stated:

[The abuses by the Tuareg rebels were] appalling violations of human rights. But they were largely ad hoc in nature. Since Islamic groups, including Ansar Dine, MUJAO [Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa] and AQIM [Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], have taken control, we are witnessing human rights abuses of a different character. Civil and political rights are being severely restricted as a result of the imposition of a strict interpretation of Sharia law, and systemic cruel and inhuman punishments are being implemented, including executions, mutilations and stonings.

[OHCHR] Most recently, the UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide “warned of the risk of reprisal attacks against Tuareg and Arab civilians in various regions of northern Mali and urged the country’s military to protect all citizens regardless of their ethnic affiliation.” [UN News Centre]

In January 2013, Mali participated in the Universal Periodic Review of its human rights record.  The recommendations made by the 70 participating States included that perpetrators of human rights abuses in the north and in Bamako be identified and held accountable through a transparent and judicial process in cooperation with the ICC. OHCHR, Mali UPR Media Brief, Jan. 22, 2013.

For its part, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) has stated it is “deeply concerned” by the increased fighting and terrorist activity in Mali. ACHPR, Statement by the African Commission on the Present Human Rights Situation in Mali, Jan. 18, 2013. The ACHPR cited the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, stating:

The Commission urges the Malian Armed Forces, military intervention forces and the armed groups to take the necessary measures to ensure that human rights are protected, including the right to life and physical integrity, the right to human dignity, and the right to freedom of the people guaranteed by the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other international and regional human rights instruments.

The International Criminal Court’s decision to open an investigation into the situation in Mali, discussed below, was welcomed by the ACHPR, which stated, “The Commission underscores that such crimes cannot go unpunished and calls on all the parties to work with the ICC towards bringing the perpetrators of serious crimes to justice.” ACHPR, Statement by the African Commission on the Present Human Rights Situation in Mali, Jan. 18, 2013.

International Criminal Court Investigation

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has opened an investigation into the possible commission of serious international crimes in Mali, at the request of the Malian government. The ICC is a permanent international court established to “investigate, prosecute and try individuals accused of committing crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.” ICC, Questions and Answers: Opening of an ICC Investigation in Mali, Jan. 16, 2013, p. 1.  The 121 States Parties to the Rome Statue establishing the ICC include Mali.  Recently, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda formally opened an investigation into alleged crimes committed on the territory of Mali since January 2012 after receiving a letter from Malian government officials requesting legal assistance.  This decision is the result of the preliminary examination of the Situation in Mali that the Office had been conducting since July 2012. [ICC]

The ICC Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) will investigate and prosecute individuals who, according to the evidence, “bear the greatest criminal responsibility for the most serious crimes…committed since January 2012.”  Who these individuals are will depend on the evidence gathered as the investigation evolves. ICC, Questions and Answers: Opening of an ICC Investigation in Mali, Jan. 16, 2013, p. 2.  In determining whether there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation, “the Prosecutor shall consider the factors set out in article 53(1)(a)-(c) [of the Rome Statute], namely in relation to: jurisdiction, admissibility and the interests of justice.” ICC, Situation in Mali: Article 53(1) Report, Jan. 16, 2013, p. 4. See Article 53 criteria for Mali.

Following the investigation, Prosecutor Bensouda determined there is a reasonable basis to believe the following crimes were committed in Mali:

(i) murder;
(ii) mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
(iii) intentionally directing attacks against protected objects;
(iv) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court;
(v) pillaging, and
(vi) rape

UN Security Council Response

The international community’s attention was also focused on putting an end to the armed conflict and preventing Mali from becoming a safe haven for terrorist activity. On October 12, 2012, the United Nations Security Council, led by France, adopted Resolution 2071 declaring its “readiness” to respond to Malian demands for an international force. The resolution also requested the presentation of a report, “on the basis of which the Security Council will be able to authorize, within 45 days, the deployment of an African operation to Mali, with the aim of allowing the Malians to regain their sovereignty and the integrity of their territory and to fight against international terrorism.”

In December 2012, the UN Security Council  authorized the deployment of an African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) for an initial period of one year. The purpose of the mission was to “assist the authorities in recovering rebel-held regions in the north and restoring the unity of the country.” [UN News Centre]  Acting under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which allows the use force when a threat to peace or aggression exists, the Security Council authorized “supporting the Malian authorities in recovering the areas in the north under the control of terrorist, extremist and armed groups and in reducing the threat posed by terrorist groups.” [UN News Centre] The team arrived on January 19, 2013 and will “support the national authorities in their quest to restore constitutional order and territorial integrity.” [UN News Centre]

Recent Developments

On January 10, 2013 Mali’s interim president Dioncounda Traoré sent a letter to President François Hollande of France and the president of the UN Security Council seeking military help. The next day, French troops carried out airstrikes against Islamist fighters and shortly after engaged in a ground offensive with local troops. By this point, French intervention was viewed as necessary, as the rebels had pushed into the center of the country and threatened to advance toward the capital, Bamako.  [Washington Post]

In late January, the largely untrained Malian Army has successfully fought alongside French troops in an attempt to win back Mali. Rebel fighters have largely been pushed away from their encampments in northern Mali and back into the desert, signaling success for the Malian government. The U.S. has pledged their commitment as well. “To help battle the Islamists in their desert hideouts, a U.S. military official says the Pentagon is considering setting up a drone base in northwest Africa to increase intelligence collection.” [Washington Post]

Though militarily successful, the Malian offensive has taken an unfortunate toll on African culture. As French and Malian forces descend upon Timbuktu, countless archeological treasures are being destroyed by dissident groups fleeing the historical city. In what is called, “the greatest loss of the written word in Africa since the destruction of the library of Alexandria (burned down in 48 BC),” Islamic extremists purposefully set ablaze ancient manuscripts and cultural gems at the library of the Ahmed Baba Institute. [LA Times]