(Dakar) – Niger's armed forces and the rebel Nigerien Movement for Justice should end abuses against civilians in the conflict in the northern Agadez region of Niger, Human Rights Watch said today. The rebels took up arms in February 2007 over the perceived economic marginalization of Tuaregs. The conflict threatens the livelihoods of tens of thousands in Niger's vast northern desert areas.
Human Rights Watch has documented violations of the laws of war by soldiers of the Niger armed forces, including extrajudicial killing, rape, and the destruction of livestock. Laws of war violations by the ethnic Tuareg Nigerien Movement for Justice (MNJ) include the indiscriminate use of anti-vehicular landmines and the taking of personal property from non-Tuareg civilians. In November and December, Human Rights Watch conducted interviews with victims and eyewitnesses in the Nigerien capital, Niamey, and the Senegalese capital, Dakar.
Human Rights Watch called on both sides to cease deliberate and indiscriminate attacks against civilians, to take concrete steps to minimize civilian casualties, and to hold perpetrators of violations accountable.
"The Niger armed forces and the rebels have a duty to respect the lives and property of civilians in Agadez," said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Both government officials and rebel leaders should send a clear message to their troops that attacks on civilians won't be tolerated."
The rebels claim they are fighting for a larger share of the region's abundant mineral wealth - mostly uranium - for Tuaregs and other ethnic groups. The government dismisses the MNJ as "bandits and drug traffickers" and insists they should address grievances through nonviolent means. The MNJ movement follows a previous Tuareg rebellion, which began in 1990 and ended in 1995 with a peace agreement designed to increase Tuareg access to the region's resource wealth, develop the north and incorporate thousands of former Tuareg fighters into the government and security forces. MNJ leaders maintain that the government has failed to fully implement the 1995 accords.
Niger, which suffers from regular droughts and food shortages, is one of the world's poorest countries. The conflict has severely undermined the lives of tens of thousands of people already living precariously close to the edge. Tuareg civilians from the Agadez region have been particularly hard hit. They described to Human Rights Watch living in a situation of fear and economic hardship brought mainly by the combatants' persistent use of landmines and the irregular supply of food, medicines, fuel and other essentials. They described being forced to sell their goats, camels, and jewelry to be able to afford soaring commodity prices or to pay to bring sick family members to the capital for treatment. Landmine use has forced several international aid agencies to temporarily suspend or restrict operations, including vital monitoring of humanitarian indicators such as food security and malnutrition, which is reported to be on the rise.
"The people of Agadez are living in the margins in one of Africa's poorest countries, and what little they have is now threatened by the actions of both soldiers and rebels," said Takirambudde.
All parties to the armed conflict in Niger are obliged to respect Common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, the Second Additional Protocol of 1977 to the Geneva Conventions (Protocol II), and customary international humanitarian law. This law requires the humane treatment of all persons taking no active part in hostilities, prohibits deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and prohibits the destruction of property indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. Serious violations of the laws of war carried out intentionally or recklessly are war crimes.
Abuses Involving the Niger Armed Forces
Extrajudicial Killings and Deliberate or Indiscriminate Attacks on Civilians
Human Rights Watch documented several extrajudicial killings and incidents of indiscriminate and possibly deliberate attacks on civilians by members of the Niger army. Most of these incidents occurred in the immediate aftermath of landmine explosions against military vehicles and personnel. Eyewitnesses described how soldiers, enraged by the casualties they had suffered, summarily executed individuals, apparently at random, present near the scene of the explosion.
One such incident, in late November, involved the summary execution by soldiers of an elderly man and his nephew near the village of Tzintebarac, some 30 kilometers east of Agadez. A Tuareg trader related what he saw:
"When the news came, I traveled by motorcycle to see what had happened. When I got there, I saw a military vehicle, which was mangled from the blast, and the bodies of the two villagers there. I didn't see the bodies of any soldiers, but by the look of the vehicle, I'd bet there had been casualties. I spoke to a herdsboy who had been near the old man and his nephew. He told me he and the others were bringing their camels in from grazing when they heard a huge explosion. They rushed to where the sound came from to see what happened, but when they got there he saw the military grab the old man and his nephew. The herdsboy ran and informed the villagers of what had happened."
Several other eyewitnesses described landmine explosions being followed by soldiers firing deliberately or indiscriminately at or near groups of civilians - when no rebel forces were visibly present - causing a number of civilian casualties. A young woman who fled the town of Iferouane in mid-November described one such incident:
"It has been an exhausting few months. We are from Iferouane but left on November 11 because we were afraid and tired because we could not get enough food for our family, afraid of the mines, afraid of the military occupying our village and shooting at us. One day I was getting water in one of the wells in town when, just down the road, a military vehicle ran over a landmine. After this, the soldiers went crazy and started shooting everywhere in the air - here, there and all over the village. They went into people's houses looking for the ones who planted it and beat people they came across. People ran everywhere and several of the villagers were injured as they ran. This was just one of the many difficult and frightening things that happened to us."
Human Rights Watch also learned of several other incidents of alleged unlawful killing of Tuaregs and other northerners by Niger soldiers, but was unable to obtain eyewitness accounts. The incidents in question include: the alleged summary execution of three elderly men on June 2 in Tezirzayt; the alleged killing of seven individuals on the Iferouane-Gougaram road on August 26; and the alleged killing of some 10 civilians north of Iferouane on September 27.
Human Rights Watch urges the government to promptly investigate these incidents and prosecute any individuals found responsible in compliance with international fair-trial standards. In addition, an army report that soldiers accidentally shot seven civilians, including two prominent businessmen, during a military operation east of Agadez on December 9 should be independently investigated, especially in light of accounts by family members that the men were summarily executed.
Killing of Livestock
Three eyewitnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch described the killing by Niger army units of large numbers of livestock owned by Tuareg nomads, including camels, goats, sheep and cows. These animals play a central role in feeding and sustaining Tuareg families, who suffer extreme hardship from the loss of their herds. Several local and foreign sources told Human Rights Watch they believed the destruction of animals was a form of collective punishment by the armed forces against the Tuaregs for their perceived support for the rebel movement.
One individual who traveled north of Iferouane in late November described seeing groups of dead animals in at least four places, including a herd of 20 camels and 30 goats some 15 kilometers from Iferouane, which appeared to have been sprayed with bullets. An elderly Tuareg man described seeing groups of dead livestock further south, near Agadez:
"The soldiers have been killing our livestock - camels, goats, sheep, and cows. I've seen so many of them dead. For example, in mid-November I saw five dead camels with my own eyes - it was on the road out of Agadez to the west - between Azel and Elmeki. By the look of their bodies, it seemed they had been dead for two or three days. They were in a small oasis - the Tuaregs from Gougaram always take their camels there. Closeby I also saw a mother and baby cow. I saw bullets in their heads and bellies. A few days later, while grazing with my camels I found five sheep and seven goats - all dead. I know it was the military. This thing never happened until the war came. The Tuaregs love their animals; not only that, we live by them - we would never kill a camel or a cow or goat. Never. They give us milk and cheese. We use them like a car and use them for commerce. The soldiers just killed them in order to make us suffer."
The laws of war prohibit the destruction of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, crops, and livestock. Collective punishments - punishing individuals for the alleged crimes of another - are also prohibited.
Human Rights Watch documented two cases of rape by soldiers from the Niger army. One case involved the gang-rape of a young woman near Gougaram in November. A villager described what he saw:
"The day I arrived in Gougaram I was told that the night before soldiers had raped a girl of about 16 or 17 named S. Her father is a friend of mine. When I went into their house, I saw the girl lying on the bed. I would never ask her what happened, but I asked the girl's mother to tell me. She described how the night before three soldiers had come into their house saying they were searching for arms. When they didn't find any, she said they took her daughter into a hut at the back of the house. The mother was so sad as she described having to listen to the screams of her daughter with those men. She said it went on for about 40 minutes and only after the soldiers left could she go to her daughter. Her husband - the girl's father - was not around that day. Since there was no doctor in Gougaram, I told them to bring their daughter to my village where there was a local woman who knows how to treat female problems. We left by camel because there was no other transportation. As we went, I saw the girl was bleeding a lot from below - like she had given birth. Everyone I spoke to said it was the military that was there those days. Even when I was there I saw soldiers passing by."
Rape is a war crime under the laws of war.
Human Rights Watch is concerned about the detention without charge or trial of some 35 men in connection with their alleged support for the MNJ. The majority of arrests has occurred since a mise en garde, or state of alert, was issued by presidential decree on August 24. The decree gives the security forces in the northern Agadez region extended powers of arrest and detention. The decree was extended for an additional three months on November 24.
Nigerien law defines a mise en garde as "those measures appropriate to ensure the government's freedom to act, reduce the vulnerability of populations or important infrastructure and guarantee the security of armed forces mobilizations and operations." However, journalists, lawyers, members of the Nigerien security services and diplomats interviewed by Human Rights Watch noted a general lack of clarity regarding the specific additional powers the "state of alert" granted. Human Rights Watch therefore urges the government to specify the powers granted to the security forces and to repeal those powers that violate international human rights standards.
While the government may arrest and prosecute those it suspects of involvement in armed rebellion and other criminal acts, it must nevertheless respect due process rights guaranteed by the Nigerien constitution and international instruments to which Niger is a state party. Even during a properly declared state of emergency, these rights include the presumption of innocence, to be brought promptly before a judge and informed of the basis for detention, and to have access to counsel and family members. Human Rights Watch is concerned that the 35 or so individuals held in detention centers in Agadez, Niamey, Kollo, Koutokale and Say for weeks and even months, have been denied some of these basic rights. Human Rights Watch therefore urges the government of Niger to publish the names of those held in detention and the charges against them, and ensure their right to due process is fully respected.
Abuses Involving the Nigerien Movement for Justice
Indiscriminate Use of Anti-Vehicular Landmines
Since the armed conflict began, there have been more than 25 incidents involving anti-vehicular landmines in the Agadez region, resulting in at least 80 casualties. The majority of these involved military personnel. However, since October there has been a steady increase in the placement of anti-vehicular landmines on the principle axes to and from the northern towns of Agadez, Iferouane and Arlit, resulting in a growing number of civilian vehicles detonating these landmines. Civilian casualties, including numerous deaths, have occurred when public buses, motorcycles, trucks and private vehicles have detonated anti-vehicular landmines, most often placed in potholes or along the soft shoulders of major roads.
Numerous military, civilian, and foreign diplomatic sources interviewed by Human Rights Watch expressed the view that the majority of landmines detonated along the major axes had been placed by MNJ rebels. In November, the MNJ warned civilians to avoid traveling, particularly on all major roads going into and out of the regional capital, Agadez, and vowed a renewed offensive against government forces in the north. Several rebels interviewed by Human Rights Watch admitted to using, and in one case placing, landmines along these major axes, but claimed they were aiming to target military vehicles, including those used to escort civilian convoys.
In October, following a spate of attacks by armed bandits, the military began requiring all civilian vehicles going to the north to be accompanied by a military escort. However, since its implementation, several civilian vehicles in these convoys have detonated landmines, causing civilian casualties. A 20-year-old Tuareg trader described one such incident, which occurred on the road between Arlit and Agadez in late November:
"I'm a petty trader and travel a lot all over. That day I left Arlit at 8 a.m. in a convoy of about 20 cars and three buses. It was escorted by three military cars in front and in back. I was in a bus which was towards the back when all of a sudden I heard a huge blast. The convoy stopped and we all got out. I walked up to the front and noticed that the bus that hit the mine was the first vehicle of the convoy - after the military cars. The road is paved but the mine had been placed in a pothole. The driver was saying that he'd managed to avoid the front tires from going into the potholes, but couldn't manage to control the back of the bus. And that was where the bus was hit. I saw six wounded - I think they were two women and four men. There was a lot of blood. From what I could see, they were wounded in their arms and legs. I later heard one died in the hospital. I cried when I saw this. Really, I'm terrified every time I travel."
Foreign military analysts interviewed by Human Rights Watch have suggested that landmine use by the rebels has recently transformed from being defensive in nature - designed to deter entry of the military into rebel bases or areas of control - to being more offensive, and intended to inflict military losses. This change in their deployment, and the subsequent increase in civilian casualties, has generated considerable fear and hardship for the civilian population.
Anti-vehicular landmines are not banned under the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty on anti-personnel mines, to which Niger is party. However, their use is still governed by the general laws of war, which prohibit the use of weapons that cannot discriminate between civilians and military targets. Placing anti-vehicular weapons on roads commonly used by both military and civilian vehicles is such an indiscriminate use. Where their use is not prohibited, particular care must be taken to minimize their indiscriminate effects.
Banditry Against Civilians from Southern Ethnic Groups
Three Tuareg civilians described incidents in which alleged MNJ rebels stopped a public transport vehicle and singled out the non-Tuareg civilians for theft. While the MNJ has denied being involved in any kind of banditry, the eyewitnesses strongly believed the perpetrators to be members of the rebel group. The three incidents documented by Human Rights Watch occurred in October and November as traders were bringing their goods from Agadez to smaller towns throughout the region. A trader from Agadez described one such incident:
"About two months ago, I and about eight other people - five Hausas and three other Tuaregs - were in a Land Rover. The MNJ stopped us, told everyone to get down. They instructed the Tuaregs to raise our arms up and the Hausa to put their arms down. Then they put the Tuaregs to one side, the Hausas to the other and they proceeded to rob the Hausa of their cell phones, money, jackets and other goods, and beat them. They didn't do anything to us Tuaregs. I know it was the MNJ because of how they dressed and also because they identified themselves as being with that group. I've also heard the rebels talking about this having happened. They explained that if we are Tuaregs, we should not be nervous. Some of us Tuaregs, including a local Tuareg chief [leader] protested and told them not to do this - that it was wrong because we are all Nigerien. But the MNJ commander said that we are not all the same and that if he, the local chief, wasn't careful, he would be treated like the Hausas were being treated."
Key international partners, including The Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS), France, the United States and the United Nations, should urge the Niger government and the MNJ rebels to guarantee free and safe access for all humanitarian actors assisting the vulnerable population in the north. Both warring parties should end attacks against civilians, investigate reports of violations, and hold accountable those responsible for these crimes.