The United Nations’ Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) deployed in 2013 and has over 15,000 personnel. More about its mandate and history can be found at its official website.
MINUSMA’s Human Rights and Protection Division recently released a report (French) on the human rights situation in Mali, covering the period April-June 2020. The report is important not just for understanding the human rights picture, but also for thinking about trends in insecurity and politics.
I want to highlight some points, roughly in order of how they appear in the document:
- As one would expect, the report discusses topics that should be familiar to anyone who follows the day-to-day reporting out of Mali and the Sahel. These topics include jihadist attacks in the north and center of Mali, fighting between the two major jihadist groups Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara), and Malian security force abuses against civilians. Yet the report also briefly highlights various underreported stories. One is episodic violence in southern Mali. In paragraph 9 on page 4, the authors mention that JNIM’s attacks on police and gendarmerie posts are degrading the security situation in the southern regions of Kayes, Koulikoro, and Sikasso (see a map of Mali’s regions here).
- During the reporting period, MINUSMA counted 458 security incidents in Mali, broken down by region as follows (paragraph 11, p. 4):
- 214 in Mopti (center);
- 81 in Gao (north);
- 70 in Timbuktu (north);
- 39 in Ménaka (north);
- 25 in Bamako (south);
- 12 in Ségou (center);
- 8 in Kidal (north);
- 6 in Sikasso (south); and
- 3 in Kayes (south).
- These figures align with the broader trends of violence that I highlighted here, building off of work by José Luengo-Cabrera and others. In what is becoming something of a refrain here on the blog, I want to highlight that despite Kidal being ground zero for the northern Malian rebellion of 2012 and being the homeland of JNIM’s leader Iyad ag Ghali, Kidal is remarkably free of reported attacks (though not, as discussed below, free of reported abuses). Meanwhile, the categories of “north,” “center,” and “south” can be both useful and misleading – for example, I would guess that much of the reported violence for Timbuktu is in southern parts of Timbuktu that are near Mopti. Finally, the violence in the south is worth noting but one shouldn’t get carried away extrapolating trendlines – we’re still talking about a handful of incidents over a three-month period. The “south,” meanwhile, is smaller than the north in terms of land mass but is still vast – by road, for example, the regional capital of Kayes is about 250 kilometers from the important religious center of Nioro du Sahel, which is still within the Kayes Region.
- On p. 5, paragraph 12, one finds a breakdown of who, according to MINUSMA’s reporting, committed how many of the 632 total human rights violations compiled during the reporting period. Here is the list:
- 232 violations by self-defense groups:
- 126 by the Malian security forces;
- 123 by jihadist groups;
- 63 by armed groups that are signatories to the 2015 Algiers Accord, a peace deal covering the north;
- 50 by the Burkinabè security forces; and
- 38 by unidentified armed groups.
- Here, too, I will pick up on points analysts have been making a lot: the self-defense groups or ethnic militias or whatever one wants to call them are the leading perpetrators of abuses, followed the security forces, and only then followed by the jihadists. That’s not to minimize the violence perpetrated by the jihadists, but it is to say that civilians may actually be more frightened of other actors – and a climate of fear can, among other impacts, (1) drive further formation of self-defense groups, (2) undercut civilian cooperation with the security forces, (3) trigger more security force abuses, and (4) boost recruitment to jihadist groups. One might add that civilians would not necessarily categorize actors and events the way MINUSMA does; in particular, civilians on the receiving end of violence may not consider signatory armed groups to belong to a fundamentally different category than the self-defense groups.
- I think the actor that comes out looking the worst here, in terms of the numbers, is the Malian security forces, because the categories “self-defense groups” and “jihadists” (or “extremists,” in the language of the report) are baskets for a multitude of actors, while the Malian security forces can be viewed as more unitary. I don’t mean to erase differences between soldiers, gendarmes, and police, but the security forces still represent a corporate entity under (theoretically) centralized control in a way that “self-defense groups” do not.
- The number of abuses reportedly perpetrated by Burkinabè security forces on Malian soil is also striking. There are a few details in paragraph 40 on p. 10 – the reported abuses occurred over the period May 26-28, mostly around Boulkessi. Even if this is a burst of abuses rather than a sustained trend, it’s still very concerning – Burkinabè security force abuses on their own territory are horrific and counterproductive, but to me there is something even more destructive and destabilizing when one country’s army kills another country’s civilians. And “hatting” various Sahelien militaries as part of a singular regional force does not necessarily mean that civilians will see things that way.
- On p. 6, paragraph 16, I was struck by the number of kidnappings jihadists perpetrated – 25 – during the reporting period. Without going through all the incidents to confirm, my impression is that many of these kidnappings are of locally prominent figures, and that the motivation can be financial but can often be political. Captives quite often turn up dead, these days (see one example here). The Saharan kidnapping economy, in terms of targeting Western tourists for huge ransoms, peaked around 2011-2013, but localized, targeted kidnapping remains prolific in northern and central Mali.
- On pp. 6-7, the discussion of the signatory armed groups’ abuses gets very complicated, politically speaking. There are 63 abuses attributed to the two main non-government signatory blocs, the Coordination of Movements of Azawad (CMA, ex-rebels) and the Platform (anti-CMA armed groups, or in some cases ex-CMA groups). The report notes (paragraph 24, p. 7) that the CMA functions as a de facto state in the Kidal Region but that it has no legal authority, under international law or under Malian law, to detain people – so any detentions the CMA undertakes are counted as illegal detentions and therefore as human rights abuses. I mention this not to exonerate the CMA but to underline that the category of human rights violations in the report is very broad, and ranges from illegal detention to rape, kidnapping, and murder. The report does not elaborate on the kinds of conditions that prisoners in Kidal face. I would not want to be on the CMA’s bad side but the report can also help outsiders to understand, I think, why the CMA may look better to some civilians that other armed groups do – would you rather live in CMA-controlled Kidal and try to toe the line there, or in eastern Mopti where control is fragmented and violence is endemic?
- On p. 9, paragraph 34, the report begins to detail what it describes as the most representative incidents of Malian security force abuses against civilians. These incidents occurred in three central Malian towns (Yangassadiou, Mopti Region, June 3; Binedama, Mopti Region, June 5; and Massabougou, Segou Region, June 6). All three incidents involved summary, extrajudicial executions or indiscriminate firing at civilians.
- The report also discusses abuses during protests, but the reporting period stopped before the infamous weekend of violence July 10-12 that followed the third mass rally by the June 5 Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces (French acronym M5-RFP), which is calling for President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta to step down.
What to say in conclusion? These are grim figures and trends. I will re-emphasize that I think it’s important for the policymakers and analysts who are not directly threatened on a day-to-day level by this violence to try to imagine themselves into the lives of those who are threatened and affected. My impression is that in the worst hotspots for violence – eastern Mopti Region, for example – the ordinary civilian might feel under threat from all sides, and would be more likely than not to view any armed outsider as, at best, someone to be placated; and at worst, as a mortal foe. In the south, meanwhile, I wonder how large the sporadic acts of violence loom in ordinary people’s minds – is there a sense that there is another shoe about to drop, or are these incidents isolated interruptions? Such acts of imagination can become presumptuous, of course, and ultimately I don’t really know what it’s like to live in Koro or Gao or Niafunké or Sikasso right now – but I think that some imagination is necessary to grasp the conflict dynamics as three-dimensional realities. In any case, the report is a relatively fast read at less than 14 pages, and I recommend reading it in its entirety if you have further interest.