Malian soldiers, part of the five-nation G5 Sahel military force, patrol in central Mali in November 2017.  The 5,000-member force will comprise two battalions each from Mali and Niger and one each from Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania.

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(Banjul) – The G5 Sahel military force created to counter Islamist armed groups in the Sahel region of Africa should fully respect international human rights and humanitarian law in its operations, Human Rights Watch said today. Governments supporting the five-nation force should also act to improve governance and the rule of law in the region.

The participating countries – Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad – and key political and financial backers including France, Germany, the African Union, the European Union, the US, and Saudi Arabia are meeting on December 13, 2017, in Paris to discuss financial, military, and political mobilization for the force. A donor conference will be held in Brussels on December 14. The initial phase of G5 Sahel operations, which began in early November, will be to secure Mali’s borders.

“As the G5 Sahel force faces the growing presence of Islamist armed groups in Mali and elsewhere in the Sahel, it will need to scrupulously respect rights in its operations and ensure prompt and impartial investigations of alleged abuses by its personnel,” said Corinne Dufka, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Failure to do so will only increase local support for the armed groups and deepen the growing security crisis.”

The G5 Sahel force, headquartered in the central Mali garrison town of Sévaré, will eventually comprise 5,000 soldiers from seven battalions and will coordinate operations with 4,000 French troops operating regionally and the 12,000-member United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA.) The peacekeepers will provide logistical and operational support, as authorized in Security Council resolution 2391 of December 8. The EU pledged US$56 million, the United States US$60 million, and Saudi Arabia US$100 million to support the joint force.

Serious abuses by some security forces participating in the previous multinational force make clear the need for all armed forces to minimize harm to civilians and ensure the humane treatment of prisoners, in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law.

The G5 Sahel force will largely concentrate its operations in Mali, where the human rights situation has grown increasingly precarious during 2017. Throughout the year, Islamist armed groups have increased attacks on government forces and UN peacekeepers. As the peace process that was envisioned to end the 2012-2013 political-military crisis in Mali stalled, armed groups in the north made scant progress on promised disarmament and the government made inadequate progress on restoring state authority. This deepened a rule-of-law vacuum, facilitating rampant banditry.

The situation in central Mali raises particular concerns, Human Rights Watch said. Since 2015, victims of abuses and witnesses in the region have told Human Rights Watch, Islamist fighters executed at least 50 alleged informants, including village chiefs and local officials; closed down schools; forced women to cover themselves; recruited children; and beat villagers who engaged in cultural practices the Islamists have forbidden. Since late 2016, they have also imposed their version of Sharia, establishing courts that did not adhere to fair trial standards.

However, many villagers said they welcomed the presence of the Islamist groups in central Mali, which they see as a benevolent alternative to a state they associate with predatory and abusive governance. Many villagers said they welcomed Islamist efforts to investigate and punish livestock thieves, including by executions. Some praised Sharia rulings in favor of victims of domestic violence or spousal abandonment. Others expressed anger at Malian army abuses during counterterrorism operations.

Human Rights Watch in September documented serious abuses during Mali and Burkina Faso military operations in central Mali. Since late 2016, Malian forces have committed extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary arrests against men accused of supporting Islamist armed groups, while a June 2017 cross-border operation by Burkinabe forces resulted in arbitrary detentions and left two suspects dead.

Under the laws of war, civilians may not 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 that would cause disproportionate harm to civilians, are prohibited. Abuses against civilians and captured combatants, including murder, torture, and other ill-treatment, may amount to war crimes.

The Malian military has made little effort to hold soldiers or militiamen implicated in abuses to account over the years. However, in October, Mali’s Defense Ministry promised an internal investigation into alleged abuses by their forces in central Mali. Burkina Faso authorities also promised to investigate allegations of abuses in Djibo.

As the G5 Sahel governments and the force’s financial backers finalize operational plans, they should also help Mali address the issues underlying decades of insecurity and the growing support for the Islamist armed groups, Human Rights Watch said.

“A counterterrorism strategy in the Sahel should address more than the presence of Islamist armed groups but also needs to combat the problems at the core of insecurity: weak rule-of-law institutions and abusive governance,” Dufka said.

Recommendations to G5 Sahel Joint Force Member Countries and Financial Supporters

  • Include in the operational planning process lawyers with experience applying the laws of war, war crimes, and command responsibility;
  • During operations, include military police – or those exercising the provost marshal function – mandated to monitor respect for international humanitarian law during military operations and respond to disciplinary lapses by soldiers;
  • Establish a 24-hour telephone hotline for victims and witnesses to report abuses by all sides and ensure effective and rapid communication between hotline staff, Malian authorities mandated to protect civilians, and UN peacekeepers;
  • Investigate and prosecute, in accordance with international fair trial standards, members of the security forces implicated in serious human rights violations, regardless of position or rank – including those liable under command responsibility for their failure to prevent or prosecute these crimes;
  • Seek or provide international assistance should local authorities have inadequate capacity to carry out credible, impartial, and independent investigations and prosecutions;
  • Ensure the G5 Sahel force does not use abusive militia groups in any capacity;
  • Encourage the national human rights institutions in Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Chad to fulfill their respective mandates to impartially investigate and report on human rights violations in their territories or involving their respective countries;
  • Urge the MINUSMA human rights section to engage in more public reporting on rights violations by all sides; and
  • Ensure that all children detained during G5 Sahel operations are placed in a specialized interim care center managed by UNICEF, the UN children’s rights agency, in accordance with a 2013 protocol for the release, transfer and protection of children associated with armed groups.