Civilians at Risk: Threats and Drivers of Mass Atrocity in Mali

While narratives around the conflict in Mali often focus on violent extremism and terrorist threats, particularly targeted attacks against the United Nations mission in the country (MINUSMA), there are increasing concerns related to the protection of civilians from different types of threats. Following the Secretary-General’s Strategic Review of MINUSMA and amidst the mandate renewal of the mission on Thursday, June 28th, the International Peace Institute (IPI) convened a closed-door roundtable entitled “Civilians at Risk: Threats and Drivers of Mass Atrocity in Mali.”

Co-hosted with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), the conversation was moderated by IPI Vice President Adam Lupel and gathered more than 40 participants, including academics and researchers, UN officials, diplomats, and representatives from the NGO community. Panelists included Namie Di Razza (IPI), Mollie Zapata and Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim (USHMM), Samuel Gahigi (UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations), Bruno Charbonneau (Centre FrancoPaix, University of Quebec in Montreal), and Alexandre Diebolt (French Permanent Mission to the UN). The discussion sought to identify the types of threats and physical violence faced by civilians, and how local, national, and international actors could address the risk of atrocities in the country.

Trends and risks

Among the factors of violence against civilians in Mali, experts identified the weakness of the central government, resource competition, predatory state practices, the rise of self-defense groups, tensions between and within communities, and the limited attention given to justice in the peace process. At the regional and macro-level, experts pointed to other key drivers including illicit trafficking, jihadist insurgency, and counter-terrorism operations.

Violent extremism was described as a growing concern. The threats posed by jihadist groups can take insidious, subtle and sophisticated forms, and are mostly indirect—through the use of mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs)—or targeted—through assassination or abduction of individuals accused of collaborating with Malian or international forces, or the harassment of communities resisting their control. On the other hand, counter-terrorism actors and their partners can also constitute a threat to civilians, due to collateral damage or, in certain cases, direct abuse of civilians perceived as colluding with terrorists. Experts highlighted issues of command and control among national security forces, which can lead to the commission of abuses by certain elements. Other threats to civilians include criminality and inter-communal tensions, which are aggravated in the context of radical extremism and counter-terrorism.

There was consensus among panelists that while all populations in Mali are potential victims of violence, the Fulani people are the most vulnerable, notably because of suspicions that they are either involved or in collusion with jihadist groups. Researchers identified two conflicts as particularly worrisome: tensions between Dogon and Fulani people in central Mali, and tensions between Tuareg and Fulani in the Ménaka region.

Participants highlighted the complexity of narratives in the country and the problematic use of labels and categories, some of which have a detrimental impact on the ground. Some suggested that framing the conflict as one of violent extremism and counter-terrorism may be doing more harm than good, as political motivations may underpin the usage of umbrella terms like “extremists” or “terrorists.” Others even noted that the use of rigid categories like “inter-communal violence” can do a disservice to analysis and conflict resolution efforts, especially when local communities attribute violence to ‘revenge’ or ‘settling of scores,’ rather than to “ethnic tensions.” Thus, experts stressed the importance of placing victims’ perspectives at the center of the analysis.

Exploring the protection of civilians (POC) toolkit in Mali

Recommendations included the need for counter-terrorism actors to refrain from collaborating with ethnically aligned self-defense militias and other armed groups with poor human rights records, and to further integrate POC in their military doctrine.

There was consensus that MINUSMA’s POC strategy must be further refined and adapted to a dramatically-evolving security context in central Mali and to the specific challenges posed by violent extremism. MINUSMA should diversify the use of tools at its disposal, including non-military protective approaches such as community engagement and dialogue, while balancing these with possible unintended consequences for civilians themselves, such as retribution killings or abductions of civilians suspected of talking with UN staff.

Panelists mentioned the possibility to further explore the UN’s added value in preventing violent extremism and to better link protection with political strategies. They also highlighted the need to improve strategic communication and public information to emphasize distinctions between MINUSMA and CT actors, in a delicate context of cooperation between all international actors.

Participants also pointed to the limitations of international interventions that would only focus on security, and highlighted the need to address grievances related to governance and justice. At the national level, efforts related to the “extension of state authority” will have to take into account the lack of trust towards the state among certain communities. Thus, some experts highlighted that while supporting the presence and extension of state authority in the country, considering the quality and utility of state services for the population will be key to address the root causes of instability.

At the local level, traditional chiefs and the prevalence of a moderate Islam among communities were identified as possible sources of resilience—unifying forces between and within communities. Researchers suggested that the Malian government should pursue reform more inclusively in the center of the country, while USAID, the European Union, and other development actors could further support peacebuilding programs that build on local resilience and leverage potential bridges among communities.

Experts were unequivocal that only a Malian-led dialogue could drive critical reforms for the country and its citizens. The UN, whose strategic priority is to support the implementation of the 2015 Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali, and other partners may provide assistance in linking local and national political processes. Participants agreed that a more inclusive national dialogue, which will require listening to, understanding, and incorporating local demands, is crucial to build sustainable peace.