(Nairobi) – All warring parties in northern Mali  are obligated to abide by the laws of war in the event of a Malian military offensive against opposition armed groups in the Kidal region, Human Rights Watch said today. Past abuses have heightened concerns about the need for all armed forces to minimize harm to civilians and ensure the humane treatment of all prisoners, in accordance with the 1949 Geneva Conventions and customary international humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch said.
The Malian government should ensure an adequate presence of gendarmes who are mandated to question detainees during military operations and respond to disciplinary lapses by soldiers. The government should also adequately staff a 24-hour telephone hotline with relevant Malian authorities and personnel from the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) to facilitate reporting of abuses.
“The commanders of the Malian armed forces and rebel groups need to respect the laws of war to minimize civilian harm and ensure the humane treatment of detainees,” said Corinne Dufka , senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Malian people have already suffered from atrocities by all sides. Further abuses risk increasing ethnic tensions among an already vulnerable population.”
The media have reported that the Malian government is planning a military offensive against the areas of Kidal region that remain under the control of two armed groups – the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA). Kidal is the only remaining part of Mali that is not fully under government control after the French-led military operation, which began in January 2013.
Human Rights Watch has previously documented serious abuses by the parties to Mali’s armed conflict, which began in January 2012. Rebel groups within the Kidal region were responsible for the massacre of scores of Malian soldiers in January 2012. The MNLA has committed sexual violence and pillage. And Islamist armed groups have committed summary executions, recruited child soldiers, and carried out amputations and other inhumane treatment associated with their own interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for those implicated to be held accountable.
Since the French-led offensive, numerous Malian soldiers have been implicated in summary executions, torture, and enforced disappearances of suspected Islamist rebels and alleged collaborators. The Malian authorities have investigated several of these incidents and promised to hold those responsible to account. However, numerous other cases have yet to be investigated and no soldiers implicated in abuses have been put on trial.
The current armed conflict between the Malian government and its allies and opposition armed groups is regulated by Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, to which Mali is a party, and customary international humanitarian law. This law provides protections to civilians and other noncombatants from the hazards of armed conflict. It addresses the conduct of hostilities – the means and methods of warfare – by all sides.
Civilians may never be the deliberate target of attack, and warring parties are required to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects. Attacks that fail to discriminate between combatants and civilians, or would cause disproportionate harm to civilians, are prohibited. Civilians and captured combatants are protected against murder, torture, and other ill-treatment.
“Civilians have been through enough in the past16 months; all sides simply must do all they can to minimize any further suffering,” Dufka said.