A few months ago, I blogged about the forgotten human rights crisis in Mali, where armed conflict and political instability created a severe vacuum for human rights protection. Today, the situation remains dire. While world leaders are discussing the situation at the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York this week, a quick fix seems elusive.
Civilians keep bearing the brunt of the current conflict: Amputations and other corporal punishments, sexual violence, daily harassment with the aim of imposing new moral codes, child soldiers, extra-judicial executions are ongoing violations against civilians.
To give an example, here’s an excerpt from Alhader Ag Almahmoud’s testimony (read the full testimony in our recent field report). The 30 year old Tamashek livestock farmer had his right hand amputated in Ansongo on August 8, 2012, after he was accused of stealing cattle. He was arrested by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of the several armed groups controlling the north, and then put on a “show trial” that blatantly ignored international standards:
They asked me to go through the facts and then the three Marabouts and the MUJAO chief asked questions. The questions didn’t last more than ten minutes. The other members didn’t ask me any other questions; they then talked amongst themselves and cast a vote. The majority said I was guilty and that they needed to apply the Sharia by cutting off my right hand at the wrist. I protested, I told them that it was unfair because I wasn’t responsible for this cattle theft.
(…) the MUJAO chief took my right forearm and tied it up with a rubber bicycle tyre tube as a tourniquet. He held my right hand with his left hand, in his right hand he held a knife, he said Alla Akbar before starting to cut my wrist. He did it in such a way so as to avoid the bones of my hand only hitting the joints.
(…) After, they locked me in a cell for eight days, after this time, a medical assistant came to give me treatment. Before my hand was amputated, the owner of the stolen cattle came forward to say that the animals had been found.
Foreign military intervention on the horizon
In order to deal with the armed rebellion in the north, regional organization ECOWAS is currently planning a military intervention in Mali. At this point, the only open question that remains is whether the intervention will receive the blessing of the UN Security Council—not if it will actually happen.
The short-term outlook for improvement in the human rights and humanitarian situation is bleak:
- Ongoing reports of recruitment of child soldiers are materializing as the internationally supported Malian armed forces and various armed groups of the north prepare for a likely military showdown. Our own researchers as well as other human rights and international organizations have collected evidence that armed groups in the north are increasingly recruiting children. However, at the same time and less reported, self-defense militias recruit and train children in government controlled areas in the south of the country. Our researchers visited several camps in this area. Those in charge of the camps told our team that their militias were armed and trained by Malian soldiers and former soldiers.
- The humanitarian situation remains grim. Almost half a million people are displaced, including more than 260,000 that fled to neighboring countries. The number of refugees will increase in the wake of renewed fighting—and already relief organizations are struggling to deliver aid to rebel-held areas.
No quick fix
It will be important to recognize that there’ll be no quick fix for the human rights and humanitarian crisis in Mali. A military intervention that recaptures the north will hardly turn the country in a human rights paradise. All those currently mobilizing for intervention should not forget that there are a host of human rights issues in the south of the country, especially related to the coup and counter-coup from a few months ago. And just a couple of weeks ago, Malian soldiers extra-judicially executed 16 people, members of a movement of Muslim preachers (the Dawa), who were on their way to a meeting in Bamako.
Malian and foreign troops that are preparing to recapture the north are bound by International Humanitarian Law. Some of these principles were violated earlier this year as the Malian army indiscriminately bombed civilians during the fight over the north.
Let me close on a positive note: The International Criminal Court is already in a preliminary examination of the situation in Mali – and that includes investigation of violations by all parties to the conflict, including armed groups and Malian security forces.