UN Investigation: French Airstrike Killed 19 Civilians at Wedding in Mali

On March 30th, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) concluded its investigation into France’s January 3rd airstrike in Bounti, Mopti Region. The investigation concluded that the airstrike, carried out by Operation Barkhane, had killed at least 22 people in total. Of those fatalities, 19 were civilians. The three other fatalities were suspected members of Katiba Serma, a local insurgent group linked to the Macina Liberation Front (FLM). Additionally, at least eight civilians were injured by the airstrike. The MINUSMA report found that “about 100 civilians” were gathered for a wedding at the site of the strike. The investigation’s findings confirm the accounts reported by local sources such as Jeunesse Tabital Pulaaku (JTP) immediately following the attack. Mali has faced escalating conflict since 2012, when insurgent groups began gaining power in northern Mali. According to ACLED, 2020 was the conflict’s deadliest year on record.

Having concluded that the January 3rd airstrike did kill civilians, MINUSMA made several recommendations to French and Malian authorities. These recommendations include “expediting an independent, credible and transparent investigation to examine the circumstances of the strike and its impact on civilians.” Additionally, MINUSMA urged authorities to “thoroughly examine the processes for implementing strike readiness precautions as well as the criteria used to determine the military nature of the target.” 

Significantly, the conflict in central Mali is governed by international humanitarian law; meaning attacks must always be directed at military targets. Given this requirement, MINUSMA also recommended an investigation into “possible violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law and to establish the various responsibilities and to grant, where appropriate, appropriate reparation to the victims and members of their families.” 

In response to MINUSMA’s report, the French defence ministry released a statement defending the January 3rd airstrike. The statement emphasized that the airstrike “followed a robust targeting process, which meets NATO standards and strictly adheres to the rules of the law of armed conflict.” Further, the defence ministry characterized MINUSMA’s report as “unfounded,” adding that the ministry had “many reservations as to the methodology adopted by the investigation.” The defence ministry’s statement especially criticized the investigation’s reliance on “unverifiable local testimonies.” The statement argued that these testimonies are “impossible to distinguish from false testimonies of possible terrorist sympathizers,” because the testimonies were not transcribed and the witnesses’ identities were “never specified.”

While MINUSMA’s report of the investigation does not detail the witnesses’ identities, the report does note that the investigation was “conducted in accordance with the methodology of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights,” noting that the mission team “observed strict collection rules information and testimonials.”  The mission team conducted “face-to-face interviews with at least 115 people and with at least 200 people in group meetings, and conducted over a hundred telephone interviews.” In evaluating these interviews, the team also analyzed “at least 150 publications,” which included official statements, press articles, and photographs and videos related to the January 3rd airstrike. Thus, while some individual testimonies could have conceivably been unreliable, the MINUSMA investigation appears to have thoroughly evaluated numerous sources concerning the airstrike. 

Unfortunately, the January 3rd airstrike is part of a broader issue concerning the welfare and treatment of civilians in the conflict. Organizations such as the Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented over 270 unlawful killings by security forces in Mali between late 2019 and 2020. Perpetrators of such crimes are rarely held accountable; according to AMDH president Moctar Mariko court proceedings against unlawful killings have “resulted in only a few trials” so far. 

Notably, on March 26th, local officials in the Gao region of Mali accused France’s Operation Barkhane of killing at least five civilians in an airstrike, as Reuters reports. French officials denied that the airstrike killed civilians, insisting that the strike was only ordered “after a phase of surveillance and identification permitting the characterisation of the presence of an armed terrorist group.” However, this was contested by local accounts. Mohamed Assaleh Ahmad, the mayor of Talataye (a village near the site of the airstrike), told Reuters that those killed in the airstrike were young men who were out hunting. Ahmad explained: “We have seen these airstrikes in the past here. We have never said anything, but this time, it is 100% an error.” 

While the airstrike in Gao still needs to be investigated, it bears some similarities to the January 3rd airstrike in Bounti, in terms of both actors and the military’s readiness to deny local accounts of civilian killings. Moreover, both airstrikes present immediate humanitarian concerns, as well as threaten long-term peacebuilding efforts in Mali. As explained by Corinne Dufka, the Sahel Director at the HRW, unlawful killings are “fueling recruitment into abusive armed groups and deepening the security crisis in the region.” Further, unlawful killings undermine civilians’ trust in both the government and security forces.

To begin rebuilding the relationship between civilians and security forces, French and Malian forces should follow MINUSMA’s recommendations to further investigate the January 3rd airstrike, including for possible violations of humanitarian law. If violations are found, victims and their family members should receive reparations. Moreover, the prevalence of such unlawful killings must be addressed; as MINUSMA rightly calls for, strike readiness precautions need to be reevaluated and adjusted. Finally, civilians’ accounts of unlawful killings by security forces should be taken seriously, rather than immediately dismissed as “unreliable” or “possible terrorist sympathizers.” To build lasting peace, it is vital that victims of violence, whether by insurgent groups or security forces, receive justice.

Alexa Grunow