UN Human Rights Chief Declares ‘Desperate’ Situation In Northern Mozambique

United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet released a statement on November 13th expressing deep concern for the ‘desperate’ population living amidst escalating violence in Cabo Delgado, a predominantly Muslim province of northern Mozambique. The statement urges the Mozambican government to institute measures for civilian protection. Though the province has experienced violence since 2017, attacks on villages by militants linked to the Islamic State have recently increased, leaving dozens dead and thousands homeless in the last few weeks alone. Most recently, between November 6th and 8th, more than 50 villagers were beheaded and dismembered, according to Al Jazeera.

Since 2017, the militant Islamists have carried out gruesome attacks on villages across Cabo Delgado in order to establish a foothold for the Islamic State in southern Africa. The armed group has exploited poverty to recruit youth for their cause. In total, more than 2,000 people have been killed by the militants, over half of them civilians, and 430,000 others have been forced to seek refuge. This April, more than 50 youths were shot dead and beheaded for refusing to join the extremists, writes Al Jazeera and the BBC.

In recent months, the militant Islamists have intensified their offensive, seizing more territory as they murder and displace more people. Since October 16th, more than 14,000 people have fled by sea to the provincial capital, Pemba. At least one boat capsized, killing around 40 people. Meanwhile, thousands of others are trapped in hiding in conflict areas. The UN noted that “some areas have been deprived of any humanitarian aid for over six months.”

The last few weeks have seen particularly intense attacks on several villages in the districts of Miudumbe and Macomia in Cabo Delgado. Witnesses have reported buildings being burnt down as well as numerous murders, beheadings, and abductions of women and children, according to Al Jazeera. On November 6th, the extremists raided Nanjaba village, setting fire to homes as they shot villagers, abducted several women, and beheaded two people.

Between November 6th and 8th, more than 50 residents of Muatide village were beheaded in the most severe attack yet. The militant Islamists caught the fleeing villagers, then used the local football pitch as an execution ground to decapitate them and dismember their bodies. Survivors in the area urge that the conflict be resolved peacefully.

On November 9th, the dismembered bodies of at least five adults and fifteen boys were found strewn throughout a forest clearing. A local official explained that “police learnt of the massacre committed by the insurgents through reports of people who found corpses in the woods.” An aid worker who recognized some of the boys said that the remains of the victims were sent to their families for burial the next day, on November 10th. “Funerals were held in an environment of great pain,” said the worker. “The bodies were already decomposing and couldn’t be shown to those present.”

The Mozambican government has appealed for international help to end the violence, emphasizing that its military needs specialized training. However, Mozambican counter-insurgency forces have carried out human rights abuses against civilians, including arbitrary arrests, torture, and murders. Late on November 10th, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for an investigation into the violations committed by the militants, according to Al Jazeera and the BBC.

The November 13th statement from the UN declared that “the situation is desperate both for those trapped in conflict-affected areas … and for those displaced across the province.” Bachelet also stated that “those who remain have been left deprived of basic necessities and are at risk of being killed, sexually abused, kidnapped, or forcibly recruited by armed groups. Those that flee may die trying.” She urged that “state authorities ensure the protection of civilians … and that humanitarian agencies are guaranteed safe, unhindered access to deliver life-saving assistance and protection.” In addition, Bachelet insisted that all perpetrators “be held to account,” according to Al Jazeera.

As atrocities committed by the militant Islamists continue unabated by international action or measures from state authorities, the hope for peace and security in Cabo Delgado grows ever weaker. The extremists are unrelenting in their use of force to exploit, terrorize, destroy, and ultimately establish rule over communities in northern Mozambique for the Islamic State. The severity of the situation demands that the insurgency be met immediately with joint action from the UN, Mozambique, and the international community at large.

Though the UN’s condemnations of violence and appeals for humanitarian and investigative action are significant, the organization must carry out this action itself while motivating states and international courts to follow suit. The UN must also provide necessary assistance to Mozambican security forces while ensuring that this assistance is not abused to propagate more violence. This collective action will harness all the investigative legitimacy and humanitarian resources of the international community to uproot the militants and secure long-lasting peace.