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UN Probe Details Atrocities in Mali and Civilian Deaths From French Airstrikes

A Malian with a homemade French flag in the town of Douentza, after it was liberated by French forces, Jan. 29, 2013. A UN commission of inquiry recently found a range of human-rights abuses committed from 2012 to 2018 by Malian government forces and militias in the continuing conflict in the country. It also implicated fatal airstrikes by French forces and abuses by UN peacekeepers. JOE PENNEY

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — A recent United Nations investigation has documented years of grave human-rights violations, including war crimes and other atrocities, in Mali that have gone unpunished as the UN peacekeeping mission there struggles to stabilize the troubled West African nation.

A highly detailed, 336-page report on the abuses, obtained in full by PassBlue in early January, before it was publicly released, accuses all sides in the continuing Mali conflict of wrongdoing, including Malian government troops and local militias as well as the French military. French forces operating in Mali have often acted independently of Malian government and UN troops, the report finds, and they are implicated in the deaths of innocent civilians in airstrikes on numerous occasions.

Prepared by a three-member UN International Commission of Inquiry for Mali, the report was confidentially submitted to the 15-nation Security Council in mid-December. But the Council has yet to act on the findings while it waits for a response from the Malian government, the party that the UN investigators have identified as abusers.

Mali is a landlocked nation made up of vast plateaus and deserts, with a section of the Niger River arcing through the south. The country is roughly the size of France, Germany and Britain combined. The Security Council created the UN Stabilization Mission in Mali — known as Minusma — in 2013, after Al Qaeda affiliates seized major towns in the north and exploited regional ethnic grievances, ultimately isolating southern Mali, which remains tenuously under government control and includes the capital, Bamako.

Attacks on both UN peacekeepers and civilians remain a feature of continuing insurgency, making Minusma the most dangerous UN operation in the world. The mission has suffered 235 deaths and 358 serious injuries among its civilian and uniformed personnel as of the end of 2020, including 134 deaths from malicious acts. In 2021, four peacekeepers were killed in January.

In the conflict, UN and Malian soldiers have operated alongside troops from France as well as militias allied with the government and other international partners. That includes the United States military, which contributes troop training and intelligence.

The UN report focuses on the period from 2012 to 2018 and implicates French forces in two separate airstrikes that killed a total of five civilians in 2013 and 2016. France entered the conflict in 2013 through its Operation Serval, which aimed to oust militants from the north as they pushed toward central Mali and Bamako. The report’s scrutiny of civilian deaths linked to French operations in Mali could stoke international outrage over recent French airstrikes in central Mali that allegedly killed at least 20 innocent civilians at a wedding in January 2021. France has denied killing civilians in the recent attack but said it had bombed a gathering of an armed terrorist group.

The UN report also examines counterterrorism operations conducted in Mali from 2017 to 2018, when a follow-up French intervention, Operation Barkhane, collaborated with a pro-Malian government militia that was found by the UN commission to have committed war crimes and recruited child soldiers.

The document attributed “a very high number of documented human rights violations and war crimes” to the Malian defense and security forces. Human-rights advocates and some American lawmakers say the accusations raise serious questions about the effectiveness and legality of foreign military training programs led by Europe and the US as well as the nature of joint operations with French and Malian troops that have been conducted since the country’s conflict began in 2012.

Atrocities: From Amputations to Gang Rape

The UN commission of inquiry was formed as a result of Mali’s 2015 Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, also known as the “Algiers agreement,” with instructions “to investigate allegations of abuses and serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law” between Jan. 1, 2012 and October 2018. The commission noted that many of the abuses by state security forces occurred after the peace agreement was signed.

The commission was chaired by Lena Sundh of Sweden, who was the UN’s deputy special envoy for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the UN high commissioner for human rights in Nepal (OHCHR). The other members were Simon Munzu, a Cameroonian barrister who was acting head of the UN’s human-rights office in Rwanda and the representative for the UN high commissioner for human rights and deputy envoy in Côte d’Ivoire; and Vinod Boolell, a Mauritian magistrate who was a judicial mentor for the UN’s high commissioner for human rights in Cambodia and worked as an international judge in Kosovo.

The commissioners led a team of 14 UN staffers, including a forensic doctor with no ties to Minusma, and conducted around 500 interviews with witnesses, victims and alleged perpetrators over three working visits to Mali. Additional visits were constrained by the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to the report being submitted eight months late, in June 2020, to UN Secretary-General António Guterres. The commission’s terms of reference restrict the three-person team from discussing its findings openly, but the report was released to the public on Feb. 2, 2021.

Stéphane Dujarric, Guterres’s spokesperson, acknowledged receiving questions from PassBlue by email on Feb. 4, asking about the UN’s official position on the commission, including its cost and recommendations. He did not respond by the time this article was published.

The report concludes that the main parties to the conflict committed abuses and serious violations of international human-rights law and international humanitarian law, some of which constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. The names of victims and perpetrators are kept in private annexes.

The report describes a range of atrocities, including amputations, forced marriages, torture, rape and recruitment of child fighters by Islamist groups; massacres committed by ethnic militias in central Mali; and widespread killing, rape, torture and mock executions committed by the Malian security forces. It delves into often-shocking details about the atrocities, including gang rapes of women and girls by Al Qaeda jihadists and others.

The inquiry also raises concern about the prolonged detention of terror suspects by the Malian intelligence services and the lack of transparency about their place or conditions of detention. It says the Minusma Human Rights Protection Division and the International Committee of the Red Cross have no access to the detainees. The report also documents abuses and killing of civilians by peacekeepers from Minusma and the five civilians that it concludes were killed in French airstrikes.

Its main recommendation is the prosecution of those responsible for the abuses, some of which would likely have to take place in a special court or tribunal equipped to handle violations of international law. But so far, the Security Council has not received a reaction from Mali’s transitional government on this point, and there is a sense that it is now up to Mali to decide how to proceed, a diplomat familiar with the situation told PassBlue.

Mali has been led by a transitional government since August 2020, when President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta resigned and dissolved the government after being detained by members of the Malian military in the country’s second coup in less than 10 years.

“The situation is even more grievous in the case of the conflict-related abuses committed by the defense and security forces, none of which have led to a criminal trial,” the report states.

Jean-Pierre Lacroix, center, head of UN peacekeeping operations, meeting the country’s transitional president, Col. Malick Diaw, right, and his team, Jan. 19, 2021. The Security Council is apparently waiting for Mali to respond to the UN commission’s report of extensive human-rights abuses in the country. HARANDANE DICKO/MINUSMA

France Cites “Misinformation”

The allegations involving the French military are particularly sensitive, because France is a permanent member of the Security Council, along with Britain, China, Russia and the US. The Jan. 3, 2021 airstrikes alleged to have killed at least 20 civilians attending a wedding in the village of Bounti have pressured the UN to act on the long catalogue of rights abuses and atrocities in Mali.

Minusma’s deputy spokesperson, Olivier Salgado, told PassBlue in an email on Jan. 20 that the UN mission was “conducting a special human rights fact-finding mission” into the Bounti bombing and would publish its findings “once the investigation is concluded.” He noted that Minusma is mandated to investigate allegations of all violations by national and international forces, including Barkhane, a 5,000-strong French counterinsurgency deployment. Its goal is to eliminate jihadists from the Sahel region spanning Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mauritania, known as the G5 Sahel group.

A Minusma press video filmed near Bounti on Jan. 25 showed Guillaume Ngefa, the director of the mission’s Human Rights Protection Division, standing under the stark Sahelian sun, surrounded by rust-colored Malian hills and acacia trees, wearing his peacekeeping helmet and a flak jacket. As his surgical mask flapped in the wind, he outlined what the fact-finding team, made up of nine people from the protection division and two “scientific police” sought to establish and reiterated the Minusma inquiry would be “independent.”

The video showed Minusma investigators working in the desert as UN peacekeepers stood guard, securing the area with machine guns and rocket launchers, while men from the community gathered around Ngefa on a charred patch of land.

Salgado also told PassBlue that Minusma’s contribution to the Commission of Inquiry’s probe was largely “logistical.” Yet its report appeared to cite masses of confidential information obtained by Ngefa’s protection division.

Human Rights Watch, a New York-based organization that has spent years documenting abuses and killings of civilians in the Malian conflict, called for an independent investigation on Jan. 21, 2021, into the French airstrikes earlier in the month. In a statement, the organization said it spoke with three residents from Bounti, including two who were injured in the attack. They said that a wedding had been taking place when bombs were dropped.

The French military has denied killing civilians in the Jan. 3 airstrikes. A spokesperson for the French Ministry of the Armed Forces told PassBlue in an email that claims of civilian casualties were “misinformation.”

“No gathering or wedding” had been observed, the spokesperson added, providing coordinates for the strikes, which it claims were one kilometer north of Bounti.

According to a Jan. 7 statement from the ministry’s website, Barkhane forces dropped three bombs using a US-made Reaper drone in the region of Douentza, one kilometer north of Bounti, after several days of reconnaissance. The statement said the drone detected a motorcycle with two individuals on it who were headed to a gathering of 40 men in an isolated, semiforested zone known to be occupied by Katiba Serma, a jihadist group said to be affiliated with Al Qaeda. Two French-made Mirage 2000 fighter jets patrolled the area at the time of the attack, and the target had been observed for 90 minutes before the strikes, the statement said. The French contended that those who had been killed were jihadists, according to news reports.

The French military spokesperson declined to respond directly when asked by PassBlue how many civilians had been killed by French airstrikes in Mali and the Sahel region overall.

“All civilian victims are declared to the International Committee of the Red Cross,” the spokesperson said. PassBlue again asked the French military spokesperson whether France kept its own figures, to which the spokesperson responded via email: “Even though such incidents rarely occur, every civilian victim is declared to the International Committee of the Red Cross but we are not in a position to give you any more information about this. In order to ensure transparency, we leave it to the recognized international authorities to declare the number of civilian victims.”

France has deployed MQ-9 unmanned and armed Reaper drones, made by the San Diego, Calif.-based General Atomics company, in Mali and the Sahel region since the end of 2019 and shares intelligence with the US military. Asked whether France was sharing such information with the US military when conducting airstrikes in Mali or the Sahel region, the French spokesperson again declined to respond directly.

“The American armed forces provide Barkhane with various kinds of support, including support in matters of surveillance and intelligence. In order to preserve the confidentiality and security of operations, we cannot comment further on the information shared and the resources involved,” the spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for the US Africa Command (Africom) responded similarly. “U.S. Africa Command provides intelligence, logistics, airlift, and training support in West Africa. Please note, due to Operational Security concerns we typically do not discuss for which missions we provide support,” Nicole D. Kirschmann, the West Africa media chief for Africom, told PassBlue in an email.

Other French Airstrikes and Dead Civilians

The UN Commission of Inquiry’s report documented two airstrikes allegedly conducted by French forces on Jan. 11, 2013, in the central Mali town of Konna, as well as an airstrike three years later in Aguelhok, in the Kidal region. The strike in Konna was reported by the French media and occurred during a battle for the town, which had been occupied by Islamist extremists. Witnesses saw two helicopters drop bombs on a house, murdering a 40-year-old woman, her three children and an unidentified man while injuring several others, according to the media report.

The commission said that witness testimony had indicated that while there were “members of armed groups” more than 150 meters from the house, there were none in the house or nearby. One witness counted 14 bomb fragments in the vicinity, before they were collected by the French armed forces. As to whether any Malian helicopters had been involved in the raid, the commission concluded there were “reasonable grounds to believe that only French Gazelle helicopters were used in the attack on the locality of Konna.”

The commission also documented a case in which an 8-year-old child was killed by a shot fired from a French helicopter during an operation in Tibaguaten, near Aguelhok, in the Kidal region on Nov. 30, 2016. The child’s body was buried by French forces, according to the commission report. Although the French contended this action was military custom, local people viewed it as a cover-up.

“The commission considers that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the French armed forces failed, at the very least, to discharge their obligation to do everything feasible to verify that the objective attacked was participating in the conflict,” it said.

The French Ministry of the Armed Forces said the shooting had occurred during an operation launched to target lookouts who “were sharing information about a French Army logistical convoy that was approaching the area to enable those laying improvised explosive devices to kill French soldiers,” according to Valérie Lecasble, a military spokesperson, during a press conference in Paris a year after the incident, in November 2017.

When contacted for further clarification, a French military spokesperson repeated a previous statement from Lecasble, who is no longer in that role. The ministry repeated that it “did not identify any individual or collective fault in the use of force during this operation.”

The UN report also alleges French cooperation in counterterrorism operations in 2017 and 2018 with a Malian group believed to have committed war crimes and recruited child soldiers, the Imghad Tuareg Self-Defense Group and Allies, which goes by the French acronym Gatia. The commission said that it found reasonable grounds to believe that Gatia had in some incidents in 2015 “committed war crimes,” forcibly displaced people and pillaged humanitarian aid. It said the UN had evidence that Gatia was using child soldiers as early as 2015 and that the practice continued in 2017.

When asked for clarification on the nature of Barkhane’s collaboration between Gatia and another armed group called the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad “Daoussahak” (MSAD), and whether French forces involved in these operations knew that Gatia had been implicated in the recruitment of child soldiers or war crimes, a French military spokesperson told PassBlue via email: “The one-off cooperation or coordination between Barkhane and the GADAs [armed auto-defense groups] is no longer on the agenda. This cooperation, which in the past yielded tangible results in the fight against armed terrorist groups, has since ceased.”

US and EU Military Training

The UN inquiry also raised questions about French cooperation in the field with Malian government forces, particularly during Operation Serval in 2013 and 2014, when Malian and French troops repelled jihadist groups governing cities and villages in northern Mali with a brutal form of Sharia law. The report documented dozens of abuses, including rape, torture and extrajudicial killing, committed by the Malian forces as they served in joint operations with French soldiers.

The UN commission also found “credible information” that Malian armed forces that were part of the European Union Training Mission, or EUTM, in Mali — which was established in 2013 — had been involved in “extortion, ill-treatment and extrajudicial killings.”

The US was also involved in training Malian security forces, with funding increased in 2018 despite widespread reports of military abuse by Malians. The two military bosses of recent coups, Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, who led the insurrection against President Amadou Toumani Touré in 2012, and Col. Assimi Goïta, who led the overthrow of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in August 2020, were both trained in the US.

The commission said men led by Captain Sanogo had been involved in such abuses as the extrajudicial killings of other soldiers, rape and cruel, humiliating and degrading treatment. One soldier in captivity was stabbed in the buttocks with a bayonette, while four others were forced to have sex with one another. Other detainees were made to drink their own urine, beaten and burned with cigarettes.

When asked about Malian soldiers commanded by US-trained leaders overthrowing their governments, Kirschmann of Africom said US military training included instruction on the rule of law and human rights. “The act of mutiny in Mali is strongly condemned and is inconsistent with U.S. military training and education,” Kirschmann told PassBlue in an email, referring to the August 2020 coup.

Dr. J. Peter Pham, who served as the special envoy to the Sahel region during the Trump administration, said in an interview in December that the US role in Mali was limited, particularly after the August coup. Asked about allegations of military abuses in Sahelian countries where the US offers military support, he said, “We don’t have any evidence that any of the units we trained were involved.”

Pham added that Washington acted in accordance with the so-called Leahy law, which prohibits the provision of US funding to military units that have committed abuses and is named after Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont.

Much has been written about the challenges in ensuring compliance with the Leahy law. While US military aid has been suspended to Mali since August because of federal law prohibiting such funding when there has been a government overthrow, earlier US decisions on financing the Malian military have not always been consistent with the US government’s public statements on human rights. In 2018, the US restored military aid to Mali despite a 2017 report by Human Rights Watch documenting widespread atrocities by Malian security forces, according to data from the Security Assistance Monitor, a program of the Center for International Policy, a Washington organization that tracks US security assistance globally.

Senator Leahy has been on the lookout for human-rights violations by military forces in the Sahel region, pushing hard for tough enforcement of the law prohibiting aid to units that have been found to abuse human rights. Leahy wants the US government to disclose in the near future the status of any investigations into suspected gross human-rights violations. He and others have said they were committed to blocking US funding to the military in Sahelian countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger in 2022, if they do not improve their human-rights records.

“We have to be sure that individuals and units the US supports are not implicated, and if there is evidence of that, then they are ineligible to receive US aid under the Leahy law,” Tim Rieser, a senior foreign policy aid in Leahy’s office, told PassBlue. “That is the responsibility of our embassies and the Department of Defense to determine, and they assure us that they apply the law, but how sure are they? And how diligent are they? Those are key questions.”

“We haven’t seen a positive response from officials in these countries, and the investigations seem to drag on and nothing happens,” Rieser added. Although 2020 legislation has called for a status report on investigations into suspected serious rights crimes, he said, “I suspect they will tell us . . . that investigations are ongoing and no one has been punished.”

A former US State Department official familiar with military aid in the Sahel region told PassBlue that another major problem with such assistance is the focus on “building tactical capabilities” rather than on institutions and processes that the militaries work with in their operations.

“To truly reform the defense sector, much more attention needs to be placed on building the defense institutions, reforming how they function and ensuring appropriate accountability mechanisms are in place. If this approach is not rectified, we will continue to see violence perpetrated by new recruits and internationally trained forces,” the former official told PassBlue.

Another challenge is that troops in the G-5 Sahel countries are being trained rapidly in a conflict zone and often unprepared for battle, the former official said.

In various towns in the central Mali region of Mopti, a patrol by Senegalese peacekeepers for the UN tried to reinforce a sense of security among villagers, above, July 4, 2019. The UN commission recommends that prosecutions be carried out for the atrocity crimes it documented in its report. GEMA CORTES/MINUSMA

Prosecuting Atrocity Crimes

Because of the gravity of the abuses it documents, the commission makes the prosecution of such atrocities its top recommendation.

Its report calls on the Malian government to set up “a special entity for the handling of international crimes” and to “repeal all laws that allow for the granting of amnesty to perpetrators of international crimes and serious human rights violations.” It calls for greater protection of women and children who have been victims of crimes. And it suggests that the Malian Department of Security and Intelligence should allow access to detainees, many of whom are imprisoned under suspicion of terrorism without charge.

To encourage prosecution, the commission recommends that its detailed findings provide the starting point for the abuses to be brought to justice. The Security Council has the power to mandate such action, and Minusma has the mandate to assist in this work.

But diplomats at the UN who discussed the report with PassBlue hesitated to talk about any next steps, given the initial confidentiality restrictions on the findings. PassBlue was also unable to contact the three commission members as well.

“It is up to the Malian parties to follow up on the conclusions of this commission. MINUSMA has the mandate to support this follow-up, if necessary,” a European diplomat who asked to remain anonymous told PassBlue in an e-mail.

Pham, until recently a State Department political appointee, has said that Washington has spoken to the Malian military about the need to follow up on prosecutions. But after the Jan. 20 inauguration of President Joe Biden, it remains unclear who will lead the State Department on Sahel policy. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s nominee for the UN ambassadorship, is an Africa expert, but in her recent hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mali did not come up. The French military said that it was focused on the actions of its own troops and “it is not for us to express ourselves on the criminal proceedings of allegations of human rights violations.”

Human-rights groups inside and outside Mali persistently call for more justice in the country, and the commission itself argued that the lack of such action — starting with Mali’s independence from France in 1960 — has been an impediment to the country attaining peace and stability.

“If Mali continues to be the scene of horrendous abuses by security forces, allied militias and armed Islamist groups today, it is in large part because of the authorities’ failure to properly investigate and prosecute yesterday’s crimes,” Jonathan Pedneault, a conflict and crisis researcher at Human Rights Watch, told PassBlue in an email.

“In that regard, the recommendations of the International Inquiry’s report are welcome. But recommendations alone won’t suffice; it’s beyond time the new authorities in Bamako prioritize accountability for crimes committed by security forces if they want to show their commitment to the rule of law.”

For Maïmouna Tapo, a gender consultant whose 38-year-old son, Amidou Djaghbellou, died under suspicious circumstances after being held in police custody in Ségou, a city in a region where jihadists have advanced and Malian soldiers have been deployed since 2015, the possibility of prosecutions offer hope that the culture of impunity among the security forces will be addressed.

I met Tapo in Bamako, after the presidential elections in 2018, which were won by the now-overthrown Keïta. Her son died a year earlier, and she recounted the day the police brought his unconscious body to her, after he was taken out of the hospital by police. He had been in the hospital because of minor injuries he incurred from a motorcycle accident while visiting his mother when she was stationed in Ségou.

Tapo feared that her son had been victimized because he was light-skinned and half-Algerian — possibly associated as a Tuareg or Arab, who are often viewed with suspicion in Mali and targeted by the Malian military, as the UN report documents. Helped by a nephew, she carried him back to the hospital, where he later died. He had a cranial fracture, internal bleeding in his brain and bruises around his ribs, according to an autopsy report and photographs of his body shared with PassBlue. An inquiry into his death has been stalled over the last two years. Tapo hopes that other alleged victims of war crimes and security forces abuse who are still alive will see their perpetrators in court one day.

“We cannot talk about reconciliation if there is no justice,” she said in a phone call from Bamako. “Perpetrators must be named and prosecuted.”

Reporting for this story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Editing was done by Irwin Arieff for PassBlue.

Clair MacDougall is an independent journalist who reports throughout Africa and is now based in the Sahel region, reporting on the security and humanitarian crisis. She holds an honors’ degree in political theory and a master’s degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. In February 2021, she won an award from the International Center for Journalists for her article on the first official death of a UN peacekeeper from Covid-19, published in PassBlue and The Daily Beast.

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