Violence in northern Mali becoming systematic, says leading UN human rights official

BAMAKO/GENEVA/NEW YORK (9 October 2012) -- At the end of his four-day visit to Mali, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonović said that human rights abuses in the north of the country are continuing, although their character, prevalence and nature have changed significantly since the start of the conflict.

At the beginning of the conflict, when the Tuareg rebels, the Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA), were advancing and assuming control in northern Mali, there were reports of summary executions of members of the military, rapes, looting, forced displacement and forced child recruitment.

“These were appalling violations of human rights,” said Šimonović. “But they were largely ad hoc in nature. Since Islamic groups, including Ansar Dine, MUJAO and AQIM, have taken control, we are witnessing human rights abuses of a different character. Civil and political rights are being severely restricted as a result of the imposition of a strict interpretation of Sharia law, and systemic cruel and inhuman punishments are being implemented, including executions, mutilations and stonings.”

Allegedly at least three executions, eight amputations and two floggings have been carried out in recent months. Forced marriages are reportedly common, and women are being sold and forced to remarry, which is akin to rape and commercial sexual exploitation. Šimonović said that one of the people he had interviewed had told him that “women were not only for sale, but also ‘on sale’ in the North, and can be bought for less than 1,000 US dollars.”

During his mission, Šimonović drew particular attention to the violation of women’s rights. “Women are the primary victims of the current crisis and have been disproportionately affected by the situation in the north. Their human rights, to employment, education and access to basic social services have been seriously curtailed,” he said.

One of the displaced women Šimonović interviewed in the northern town of Mopti, said she could no longer return to her home town of Gao, where she was a merchant before the conflict, as women under the strict application of Sharia law by the Islamic groups are not allowed to work, thereby depriving her of her ability to sustain herself. Most disturbing, however, were reports that lists are being compiled by the extreme Islamist groups controlling much of the North, of women who have had children out of wedlock, or are unmarried and pregnant.

“This could indicate that these women are at imminent risk of being subjected to cruel and inhuman punishment,” Šimonović said.

Children have also suffered as a direct consequence of the conflict. As a result of the closure of schools in the North, after many of the teachers fled, children have been deprived of their right to education. Extreme poverty, lack of employment and education is making it easy for young people to fall prey to armed extreme Islamist groups, who continue to lure youth and children to join their cause. One witness informed Šimonović of a particularly grave case of three children who were reportedly maimed while being training on how to use improvised explosive devices.

With regard to the situation in the south of the country, Šimonović noted that at least 30 participants of the April 2012 counter-coup have been held in detention since then. Allegedly many of them have not had charges brought against them. Reports of torture and inhuman prison conditions continue and the whereabouts of 20 soldiers involved in the counter-coup remain to be confirmed.

“It is essential that the authorities investigate these cases of disappearances in accordance with international human rights standards.” Šimonović received assurances from the Minister of Justice that thorough investigations will be completed promptly.

“However, current violations are to a great degree symptoms of the chronic disrespect for human rights that already existed in Mali in the past,” Šimonović said. “There is a need to address these root causes, including wide-spread corruption, mismanagement of public funds, inequality between the elite and general population and nepotism, amongst others.”

The Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights emphasised the need for investigations into the recent human rights violations in both the North and the South and said it is essential that the perpetrators are held to account, as a necessary precondition for reconciliation and social cohesion.

He also noted that any United Nations support to Malian security forces, just as any other non-UN Security Forces, must be in line with the UN’s Human Rights Due Diligence Policy, which prohibits the UN from supporting security forces who have been involved in grave human rights violations.

Finally, Šimonović said that in order to advance women’s human rights and empower them, it is essential that measures are taken to promote their participation in public life. Šimonović said he was encouraged by the Prime Minister’s recognition that women have an important role to play in building peace and reconciliation as well as economic prosperity of the country. “One concrete way would be to introduce a 30 percent quota for women in Parliament ahead of the next legislative elections,” Šimonović said, adding that the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stands ready to lend its support to the Malian authorities, including through appointing a Human Rights Adviser to the UN Country Team in Bamako.


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