(Today’s guest post comes from Jamie Pleydell-Bouverie, an MA Candidate [graduating this week!] at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. The post addresses challenges of accountability in crisis-torn Mali. The author’s views are not identical to mine; I disagree with the idea of ruling out amnesty for participants in the conflict, for example. But I find his arguments thought-provoking and the issue is a timely one. Please share any thoughts in the comments section. – Alex)
As Mali gears up for elections in July amidst the phased French withdrawal that is currently underway, the next three months seem to be the overriding focus of policymakers, commentators and stakeholders. This is understandable. Mali is at a crucial juncture as it tries to consolidate French military success, provide security, re-establish constitutional order and deal with a plethora of humanitarian issues. But any sustainable fix to Mali’s multifarious crisis will have to address its root causes.
Of these, one of the most important – yet sometimes overlooked – is Mali’s longstanding history of impunity. In the North, painful memories of unpunished crimes from previous conflicts have shaped the collective consciousness of people who feel ostracized and neglected by the central government. Mali is a prime example of the power that memories of unpunished crimes have to resurface and rekindle conflict. Stories of massacres that were never investigated in the 1963 rebellion and crimes that were never redressed in the 1990s rebellion have been passed down to a new generation of fighters (see ICG’s 2012 report Avoiding Escalation). Cyclical conflict will likely continue in Mali if the cycle of impunity is not broken. It is crucial, therefore, that there is a meaningful effort to investigate instances of abuse that have occurred and hold perpetrators accountable.
Since the onset of Mali’s crisis in October 2011, serious abuses have been committed by Islamist groups (AQIM, MUJAO and Ansar Dine), the MNLA, and Malian forces. Abuses by Islamist groups include beatings, floggings and arbitrary detentions against those engaged in behaviour deemed to be “haram” or forbidden. Limb amputations and executions have been meted out as punishment, unique cultural and religious heritage has been systematically destroyed, and the Islamists’ use of child soldiers has been prolific. The summary execution of an estimated 70 Malian soldiers in the town of Aguelhoc – the “single most serious crime of this conflict” according to Human Rights Watch – was reportedly carried out by Islamists, possibly members of AQIM. Extensive abuses by the MNLA and Arab militias have also been documented, including pillaging, sexual abuse and the use of child soldiers.
Countless abuses by the Malian army have been recorded as well. Following Captain Sanogo’s coup on March 22 2012, effective command and control of the security services seriously deteriorated. Numerous instances of torture and forced disappearances were documented, particularly against “red beret” soldiers who were allegedly implicated in the counter-coup attempt on April 30. The execution of 16 Islamic preachers on their way to a religious conference in Bamako on September 8 is amongst the more shocking abuses carried out by the military. More recently, retaliatory violence by government troops in the north has surged.
Bringing Mali’s well-established culture of impunity to a close will be essential for the attainment of sustainable peace. It is particularly important that accountability applies to members of the security forces, including senior figures such as Captain Sanogo, who has been implicated by some NGOs in torture and enforced disappearances. There are some encouraging signs. Six soldiers were recently recalled to Bamako from Timbuktu following the disappearance of several civilians. These soldiers are due to stand before a Military Tribunal, which will be a first in Mali’s history. But if Mali is to break its cycle of impunity, this cannot remain an exception to the rule. Accountability must become the rule.
Any temptation to consider offering an amnesty for serious crimes in the name of reconciliation must be avoided. Reconciliation and justice are not antithetical concepts: Justice is a path to reconciliation. Indeed, the effective work of Mali’s National Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission – led by Mali’s former Minister of Defence, Mohamed Salia Sokona – will depend on the administration of even-handed justice. This, in turn, will require strengthening Mali’s key institutions – such as the judiciary, the police and army – which have long failed to be effective guarantors of the rule of law. Mali is in desperate need of institutions that can provide security and redress, which makes the task of dismantling Mali’s architecture of impunity more a project of construction than destruction.
The need for thinking and acting in multiple time horizons is essential. When countries are in crisis, policymaking is too often overtaken by events, meaning that longer term goals get ignored or put on hold. This must not happen in Mali. If those factors that gave rise to Mali’s crisis – including its deep-seated culture of impunity – are not addressed, then Mali will still be a sad example of cyclical conflict in years to come.