Amnesty International Announces Joint Project To Fight Impunity In Mali

On February 4th, Amnesty International announced a new project to fight impunity in Mali. Amnesty International will partner on the project with Lawyers without Borders Canada (ASFC), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and the Malian Association for Human Rights (AMDH). The European Union (EU) is financing the project, which has a budget of 2 million euros. The announcement comes on the heels of the February 15th G5-Sahel Summit, in which France’s President Emmanuel Macron announced there would be “no immediate” reduction of French troops in the region. Mali has faced attacks from jihadist groups since 2012. As of October 2020, the UNHCR found 311,000 people in Mali have been displaced by the conflict.

The new joint project aims to strengthen Mali’s justice system, so that civilians have better legal protection against abuse from security forces. At the launch of the new joint project, the EU ambassador to Mali, Bart Ouvry, explained the importance of the new project, saying: “The fight for stability and a return to lasting peace in Mali…cannot be won without the support of the Malian people, in full respect of their rights….This is why the fight against impunity must be at the heart of the Malian authorities’ commitments, and not only those of the partners who accompany them.” According to the organizations’ joint statement, the project will have four main pillars: “The documentation of international crimes and the most serious cases of human rights violations; Legal support for victims; Advocacy with the State and national, regional and international bodies; and Human rights education for the fight against impunity.” 

While there is a clear ethical obligation to prosecute security forces’ abuse of civilians, many experts also argue that holding perpetrators accountable for abuse is essential to achieving sustainable peace. In a recent statement calling for an end to abuse in Sahel counterterrorism operations, Corinne Dufka, the Sahel Director at the Human Rights Watch (HRW), highlighted how state security forces’ abuse of civilians undermines trust in government. The unlawful killings, Dufka explained, are “fueling recruitment into abusive armed groups and deepening the security crisis in the region.”  

Despite France’s Operation Barkhane alone costing 1.1 billion in 2020, ACLED found that the security situation in the Sahel has been deteriorating since 2016, with 2020 being Mali’s deadliest year on record. While the current approach has yielded some short-term military victories against jihadist groups, think tanks such as the Council on Foreign Relations have reported that the jihadists groups’ capacity has only grown in recent years. The International Crisis Group recently published a report calling for G5-Sahel leaders to “reorient their approach to one rooted in efforts to prioritise governance,” by improving upon issues exploited by jihadists groups, such as “delivery of basic services to citizens” in often-ignored rural regions. 

Additionally, military operations often come at a high cost for civilians in the region. Between late 2019 and 2020, organizations such as the HRW documented over 270 unlawful killings by security forces in Mali. There have been frequent protests against the government’s handling of the conflict – particularly against the military presence of France, Mali’s former colonizer. Per the HRW, there were “several enforced disappearances” between December 2019 and August 2020, when months of protests against former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s handling of the conflict culminated in a coup. 

Notably, in early January, Jeunesse Tabital Pulaaku (JTP) reported that French forces killed 19 men in an airstrike on a wedding in central Mali, a possible violation of international humanitarian law. French and Malian officials acknowledged the airstrike four days later but insisted that those killed were jihadists, citing the lack of visible women and children as proof there was no wedding. However, the area has been overrun by jihadists groups who enforce gender segregation; the lack of women and children does not disprove the testimonies reported by JTP. 

Organizations such as the UN and the HRW have called for an investigation into the January airstrike. Unfortunately, investigations into security forces are often stalled. AMDH president Moctar Mariko stated that court proceedings against such crimes “have so far resulted in only a few trials.” As the November 2020 report from the Crisis Group discusses, it is quite difficult to send investigators into areas experiencing high rates of violence. Additionally, magistrates are often overworked. 

Addressing impunity is thus easier said than done, particularly given the growing security risks facing Mali. The new joint project between the Malian Association for Human Rights, Lawyers without Borders Canada, Amnesty International, and the International Federation for Human Rights will face substantial obstacles. However, the project addresses a significant issue for civilians and a vital aspect of achieving sustainable peace in Mali.

Alexa Grunow