Mali: Army, Wagner Group Atrocities Against Civilians, Notes HRW


Malian armed forces and Wagner Group foreign fighters have unlawfully killed and summarily executed several dozen civilians during counterinsurgency operations in Mali’s central and northern regions since December 2023, Human Rights Watch said. Military drone strikes on a wedding celebration on February 16, 2024, and during a burial on February 17, 2024, killed at least 14 civilians, including 4 children.

Mali has long been engaged in an armed conflict with Islamist armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The recent abuses have occurred at a time when Mali’s relations with the United Nations and neighboring West African governments have sharply deteriorated. In December, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), pulled out of the country at the request of Mali’s transitional military authorities, raising concerns about the protection of civilians and the monitoring of abuses. In January, the transitional authorities announcedthat Mali would leave the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which would deprive victims of gross human rights violations of the ability to seek justice through the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice.

“Mali’s Russia-backed transitional military government is not only committing horrific abuses, but it is working to eliminate scrutiny into its human rights situation,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Sahel researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Malian authorities should urgently work with independent experts to monitor human rights violations and ensure that those responsible are held to account.”

Between January 1 and March 7, Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone 31 people with knowledge of the incidents in central and northern Mali. These included 20 witnesses to abuses, as well as community leaders, activists, international organization representatives, journalists, and academics. On March 1, Human Rights Watch sent letters to Mali’s justice and defense ministers detailing its findings and inquiring about alleged abuses. The Malian authorities did not respond.

Witnesses reported serious abuses by the Malian armed forces and the Wagner Group, the Russia-linked military security contractor, during counterinsurgency operations against Islamist armed groups in the villages of Attara, in Timbuktu region; Dakka Sebbe and Nienanpela in Segou region; Dioura and Gatie Loumo in Mopti region; Ouro Fer, Nara region. They said that in most of the operations, foreign, non-French-speaking armed men described as “white” or “Wagner” took part. In Dakka Sebbe, the operation was carried out almost entirely by Wagner fighters. In Attara, more Wagner fighters were identified than Malian soldiers.

Wagner personnel first deployed to Bamako, Mali’s capital, by December 2021 with support from the Russian armed forces. Human Rights Watch has previously documented grave abuses by Malian security forces and allied fighters believed to be from the Wagner Group. In August 2023, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have extended the work of the panel of experts tracking abuses by armed groups and Malian security forces and Wagner fighters, curbing efforts to bring accountability for conflict-related violations.

On January 26, scores of Malian soldiers searching for Islamist fighters in Ouro Fero village went door-to-door and arrested 25 people, including 4 children. Later that day, villagers found their bodies about four kilometers from Ouro Fero. “We found the bodies on a hill, charred, bound by the hands, and blindfolded,” said a 26-year-old villager who helped bury the bodies. “They had all been shot in the head.”

On February 16, a Malian drone strike on an outdoor wedding celebration in Konokassi killed at least five men and two boys and wounded three others. The following day, as villagers attempted to bury the bodies, a second drone strike hit a group of people at the Konokassi cemetery, killing five men and two boys and injuring six others. Villagers said that while the Al-Qaeda-linked Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimeen, JNIM) controls the areas around Konakassi, none of their fighters were at the wedding.

Islamist armed groups have committed serious abuses in Mali for over a decade. They have summarily executed hundreds of people accused of collaborating with government forces; raped women and girls; planted indiscriminate improvised explosive devices; forced civilians into adhering to their version of Islam; looted and burned property; and denied civilians food and aid during sieges of cities and towns.

“Whatever we choose is bad, wherever we go is to face suffering,” said a man from Nienanpela village, where on January 23 Malian soldiers and Wagner fighters executed a 75-year-old man who was unable to flee. “The jihadists are brutal and have imposed their way of Islam on us, but the military and Wagner [fighters] who are supposed to protect us, what they do is only to kill, loot, and burn.”

Mamoudou Kassogué, Mali’s justice minister, told the UN Human Rights Council on February 28 that his government had “deployed major efforts to investigate allegations of human rights violations,” including those “made against security and defense forces.” He also promised that the National Directorate for Human Rights, a Justice Ministry body, would begin its work. The directorate was created in April 2023 to develop human rights-related policies and prevent human rights abuses by carrying out recommendations from human rights organizations, including the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

Malian human rights advocates expressed skepticism that the commission could be effective, since its head will report directly to the justice minister. “The NHRC is today the only independent human rights body left in the country, but it faces challenges,” said a prominent Malian human rights defender. “When MINUSMA was still around, the NHRC, human rights defenders, as well as victims and witnesses of abuse felt reassured. Now, few dare to speak out.”

The mandate of the UN independent expert on human rights in Mali, who assists the Malian government to promote and protect human rights, expires on April 4. The UN Human Rights Council should renew the independent expert’s mandate and ensure that their office has the resources it needs, Human Rights Watch said.

All parties to the armed conflict in Mali, including members of foreign armed groups, are bound by international humanitarian law. Applicable law includes Common Article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and customary international law. The laws of war prohibit the killing or ill-treatment of people in custody, attacks that do not discriminate between civilians and combatants, and the destruction or looting of civilian property, among other violations. Individuals who commit violations of the laws of war with criminal intent, that is deliberately or recklessly, are responsible for war crimes. Commanders who knew or should have known about abuses by their subordinates but did not prevent them or punish those responsible may be liable as a matter of command responsibility.

“The Malian army and Wagner Group fighters have shown deliberate cruelty against Malian civilians that should be investigated as war crimes,” Allegrozzi said. “Malian authorities should continue working with the National Human Rights Commission and the UN independent expert to gather evidence of serious abuses, ensure credible and impartial investigations, and bring those responsible to justice.”

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