At a time when the Wagner Group, a Russian private military contractor, has come under close international scrutiny for suspected human rights abuses, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in Mali, Moscow’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has declared increased military support for the West African state. During a one-day visit to Mali on Feb. 7 (the third trip to Africa in six months), Lavrov announced Russia’s wider backing for the continent, regardless of what he termed the West’s “neo-colonial approach.” “Last year and at the start of this year, a large consignment of Russian aviation technology was sent, which enabled Mali’s army to conduct successful operations against terrorists,” said Lavrov at a joint news conference. “A second consignment of aviation technology for these ends was delivered just recently on Jan. 19,” he said. Lavrov then criticized the West while visiting Angola, South Africa, and Eswatini, claiming that Moscow’s interest in seeking relations on the continent was based on “solidarity and support.” A 2022 study conducted by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute showed Russia to be Africa’s largest arms supplier (44 percent) between 2017-21.
On Jan. 31, U.N. experts called for an “immediate independent investigation” into gross human rights abuses, “possible war crimes,” and “crimes against humanity” committed in Mali by Government forces and the Wagner Group since 2021. The experts also acknowledged having received “persistent and alarming accounts” of horrific executions, mass graves, acts of torture, rape, sexual violence, pillaging, arbitrary detentions, and enforced disappearances since 2021—perpetrated by Malian armed forces and their allies in the Mopti area and other places amid ongoing hostilities. “We are particularly worried by credible reports that over the course of several days in late March 2022, Malian armed forces accompanied by military personnel believed to belong to the Wagner Group, executed several hundred people, who had been rounded up in Moura, a village in central Mali,” the U.N. experts said in a press release.
The U.N. independent expert on the situation of human rights in Mali, Alioune Tine, was due to travel to the country on an official visit from Feb. 6 to Feb. 17, 2023. The aim of the visit, according to Tine, was to assess Mali’s situation and also support the Malian transitional authorities in their efforts to promote and protect human rights. While in Bamako, Tine was expected to meet with Malian authorities, civil society, victims’ associations, non-governmental organizations, diplomats, and U.N. agencies. “During this visit, I will meet public authorities to discuss progress made in the implementation of commitments made on my previous recommendations, particularly on issues of protection of civic space, respect for the rule of law, and the fight against impunity,” Tine said.
In response, Lavrov retorted: “As for some UN experts who are doing some research on alleged war crimes by the private military company, Wagner; I am not aware of any U.N. experts who would be empowered to consider any aspect of war crimes, whoever committed them.” Lavrov also praised Mali for supporting “Russian initiatives on many issues that are on the agenda of the world organization, and which are becoming increasingly important.” “I’m referring to the inadmissibility of glorifying Nazism, the inadmissibility of the start of an arms race in outer space, and the need to abandon the placement of weapons in outer space,” he said. Malian foreign affairs minister Abdoulaye Diop then said his country “will no longer justify” its choice of partner and insisted “Russia is here on demand by Mali and responds efficiently to our strategic needs.”
Attacks against civilians by Islamist armed groups and killings of suspects by pro-government forces during counterterrorism operations surged in Mali in 2022 leading to a dramatic deterioration of human rights, according to Human Rights Watch. The rights group claims the mounting abuses occurred amid a background of an ongoing “political crisis and significant tension with Mali’s diplomatic partners,” anchored in Mali’s decision to employ the Wagner Group. The transitional government that came to power in a 2021 coup, according to the rights group, undermined efforts to investigate the mounting allegations of atrocities by state actors. Impunity for past and ongoing abuses by all armed groups persisted, increasing the number of internally displaced people to more than 422,000.
In March, Malian and allied security forces allegedly summarily executed over 300 men in custody, including suspected Islamist fighters, in Moura, central Mali. This incident was the worst single atrocity in Mali’s decade-long armed conflict between government forces and Islamist armed groups, according to Human Rights Watch. An Islamist insurgency erupted in 2013 in northern Mali and quickly spread to other parts of the Sahel, a vast and dry stretch of land between the Sahara Desert and the savannah further south. At the request of the Malian authority of the time (Dioncounda Traore), France’s military intervened through Operation Serval, later replaced by Operation Barkhane. The latter involved 5,100 French troops working with local forces from the members of the Group of Five for the Sahel: Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad.
But on Feb. 17, 2022, France and allied nations announced that they were withdrawing troops from Mali due to a breakdown in relations with the ruling junta. The withdrawal applied to both 2,400 French troops in Mali and a smaller European force of several hundred that was set up in 2020 to lessen the burden on Paris’s forces. “From a security standpoint, our concern with the withdrawal of French troops and the arrival of the Russian-based Wagner group is that the world should not [only view] Mali [as] a theatre for great power conflict,” said Dr. Chris Kwaja, one of the U.N. Working Group on Mercenaries. “The French have agreed to leave, making such a departure take the form of a French loss versus Russian gain in Mali,” he said. “There is a sense in which France has shifted its attention to Chad and Niger, in the aftermath of its withdrawal from Mali. As it stands, the situation in Mali is still not in terms [of] how the Wagner Group has been able to assert itself in the country.”
Dr. Sabelo Gumedze, an independent human rights lawyer based in South Africa, expressed his concern about the world viewing Mali as a theatre for great power conflict. He said the French agreed to leave, taking the form of a French loss versus Russian gain in Mali. Gumedze also noted that the situation in Mali is still unclear in terms of how the Wagner Group has been able to assert itself in the country. He said the insurgents have celebrated the withdrawal of the French troops out of Mali, yet it remains to be seen how the Wagner Group will fill such a gap with boots on the ground.
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