By Marina Tolchinsky – Once hailed as the shining star of democracy and stability in West Africa, Mali has recently descended into chaos with a military coup, rebellion in the North, and deteriorating humanitarian situation. Civilians are suffering at the hands of Tuareg rebels and a radical Islamist group, Ansar al-Dine, both of which are vying for control of the north. Once again, the international community is faced with the challenge of compelling armed rebel groups to abide by international humanitarian and human rights law. An effective response from the international community will require a strategy tailored to each actor’s motivations and goals.
Starting in January, heavily armed Tuareg fighters returning home after the fall of Qadhafi have led a rebellion in the northern Sahel region of Mali. The Malian army was forced to abandon the North due to political gridlock after the March coup and the Tuareg rebels, known as the MNLA, solidified their grip on key cities, leading to increasing displacement and widespread human rights abuses. Since the start of the conflict, an estimated 200,000 Malians have fled to neighboring countries and another 120,000 remain internally displaced. In the aftermath of the MNLA takeover, witnesses reported that Tuareg rebels pillaged public and private properties, including hospitals, banks, food reserves, schools, and homes. In addition, there were reports of rebels abducting children and committing acts of sexual violence towards women and girls.
This story is not new to Malians, as the Tuaregs have rebelled in the past. The ethnic group, which is native to northern Mali, has long felt marginalized within Malian politics, accusing Bamako of a lack of support to the Tuareg culture and attention to infrastructure and economic development in the North. Prior uprisings were resolved with Algerian-mediated negotiations to increase Northern autonomy; however, the current uprising departs from those of the past. For the first time, the Tuaregs gained full control of the North and declared an independent state of Azawad.
But a former ally of the MNLA, the radical Islamist group Ansar al-Dine, pushed the MNLA out of key cities in the North. As a result, the MNLA has softened its stance on independence and in mid-July, MNLA officials indicated a willingness to work with the international community to regain control from the Islamists. Negotiations with the Tuaregs could prove fruitful once again in resolving their uprising and encouraging them to comply with international human rights standards. Gaining legitimacy and credibility by respecting human rights and ending violence towards civilians would be advantageous to the MNLA’s plea for greater autonomy.
While negotiations with the MNLA are a viable option, Ansar al-Dine offers Bamako little room for compromise. Unlike the MNLA, Ansar al-Dine is a relatively new organization and does not seek greater autonomy for the North, instead advocating for a unified Mali under strict Shari’a law. Since Ansar al-Dine’s takeover of the North, human rights abuses have included severe punishments for those disobeying Shari’a law; such as whippings and stonings of unmarried couples, women without proper veils, and men carrying cigarettes or alcohol. There have also been reports of Ansar al-Dine amputating the hands of alleged thieves and arresting and beating protesters. Furthermore, Ansar al-Dine’s demand that aid convoys have an armed escort has made delivery of emergency aid difficult, exacerbating the existing food shortage and humanitarian disaster. Because Ansar al-Dine’s abuses of human rights stem from the imposition of their interpretation of Shari’a law and are thus intrinsic to their end-goal of an Islamic Mali, it is unlikely negotiations will succeed at ending violence towards civilians. However, negotiations to increase humanitarian access could be successful and should be pursued, as civilians in the North continue to struggle to access basic necessities.
Various options for handling the situation have been discussed within the international community, including an ECOWAS-led intervention, sanctions on armed groups in the North, and negotiations with both groups. Sanctions have done little to stem the flow of arms to the region, and political negotiations are unlikely to succeed with Ansar al-Dine. Armed intervention, or at the very least logistical support for the Malian army, may be an option to neutralize Ansar al-Dine in Mali, but such a move could take a heavy toll on civilians and/or push the problem over Mali’s porous borders.
Despite these challenges, the international community needs to find a way to engage or it risks an escalation of violence against civilians that could further destabilize the region. The potential for tribal warfare is high. Ethnic militias with a history of violence towards civilians themselves have sprung up to defend their communities from human rights abuses and to fight the MNLA and Ansar al-Dine. Additional insecurity and grievances could serve as an incubator for actors’ with other agendas. Ansar al-Dine has close ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has brought foreign fighters from Algeria, Mauritania, Nigeria’s Boko Haram, and Pakistan. AQIM leaders have been spotted walking openly through the streets of Timbuktu.
The international community may not be able to resolve the political and armed conflict in the short or medium term, but strategies to reduce each actor’s violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws, could prevent further devolution of the conflict.
 Boisvert, Northern Mali: Resistance in the Streets and Online, Global Voices, 16 Jul 12. http://globalvoicesonline.org/2012/07/16/northern-mali-resistance-in-the-streets-and-online/
 Mali: Five Months of Crisis, Amnesty International, May 12, p. 8. http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AFR37/001/2012/en/f93ab197-dd94-45b5-8e42-a3375c7747c4/afr370012012en.pdf
 Islamists in Mali Detain Protesters, The Associated Press, The New York Times, 14 Jul 12. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/world/africa/mali-islamists-briefly-detain-protesters.html
 Rechenburg, ‘Africa’s Afghanistan’ – Islamist Sharia State Spreads, World Crunch, 17 Jul 12. http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/1669706/Africas-Afghanistan-Islamist-sharia-state-spreads
Photo credit: Oxfam