Strengthening the Human Rights Compliance Framework for the G5 Sahel Joint Force

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The G5 Sahel Joint Force was launched in 2017 by Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Chad, and Mali to unite their efforts to address common security threats in the region. In a resolution authorizing the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) to provide operational and logistical support to the force, the United Nations Security Council called on these five states to establish a “robust compliance framework” to deal with and “publicly report” violations and abuses of human rights law and international humanitarian law related to the joint force.

On May 24th, IPI and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) held a policy forum taking stock of the initial implementation of what Jake Sherman, director of IPI’s Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations, described as an “innovative mechanism.”

Namie Di Razza, IPI Senior Fellow and head of IPI’s Protection of Civilians (POC) program, cited the resolution’s insistence that adherence to the human rights compliance framework was critical to building the required trust in the force among the populations affected by military operations. It was particularly important, she said, in establishing human rights and POC as a central consideration in the conduct of counter-terrorism operations.

Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve, the Permanent Representative of Belgium to the UN, underlined the point, saying, “The eventual success of the joint force will only be there if it works to protect all civilians during its operations. Therefore, the human rights compliance framework should not be seen as a burden, but rather as a tool to make the force more effective, stronger, and in the end more successful.”

He said it was essential to focus on the “root causes” of the region’s instability, one of which he identified as the local population’s feeling of being marginalized. “You cannot win against terrorism if at the same time you cannot win the hearts and minds of the local population,” he said.

Yemdaogo Eric Tiare, the Permanent Representative of Burkina Faso to the UN, saying he was speaking on behalf of all five force states, also linked effective counter-terrorism with respect for rights. “We cannot win the fight against terrorism and violent extremism without the collaboration of our own citizens,” he said.

Richard Gowan, UN Director of the International Crisis Group, said that the future of peace operations will inevitably be “messy”, but he added, “It is crucial that while we may have a more fragmented world of conflict management, we should still maintain some common standards in how we respond to conflict, and those standards have to rest on a clear common vision of human rights and POC.” The G5 force compliance framework was important in its own right, he asserted, but also as “an important model for this sort of conflict management that the UN will be doing a lot of in the future.”

Mr. Gowan said that given the growing complexity of UN peace operations, he imagined that OHCHR would be doing this kind of normative assessing frequently, an action he compared to the practice in the United Kingdom of providing products with a so-called Kitemark seal of safety assurance. “The Kitemark tells you that a product has gone through a standard safety testing…and I think to some extent that is what OHCHR is providing here, providing a Kitemark reassurance that a coalition operation will live up to the highest principles that it can.”

Baptiste Martin, Senior Human Rights Officer and Coordinator of the OHCHR/G5 Sahel project, said the G5 force compliance framework was a new model for OHCHR. His team includes staff in all five countries, he said, with the goal of tailoring implementation to “the specificities of the force, of the context, of the G5 Sahel organs, and to its context. Then trying to adapt the tools, the mechanisms, all the activities to the specificities of that force in a support role for us.” He said the mission was “more robust than the traditional UN peacekeeping one.” He described a broadly consultative process, involving, among others, the African Union, the UN, NATO, and the International Committee of the Red Cross in partnership with the Austrian, French, and Italian governments.

Georgette Gagnon, OHCHR’s Director of Field Operations and Technical Cooperation Division, drew on her time working for OHCHR in Afghanistan where an early version of a compliance framework was eventually put into effect with positive results. “Over many years, civilians would tell us, ‘We’re caught in the middle between the insurgents and the Afghan and international forces.’ Civilian harm undermined the mission’s credibility and interests, its political and military objectives.” She highlighted that this early framework had a direct impact on national actors: In 2017 the Afghan government adopted a national policy on civilian casualty mitigation and prevention, and a civilian casualty mitigation structure has been implemented in the Afghan forces as well.

The compliance reforms that were adopted, she said, greatly reduced casualties and led to needed changes in training and tracking. “A benefit of the compliance framework approach is that in addition to protection dividends, it can provide operational dividends to the force,” she said. “Retaining and sustaining the support of civilian operations is essential to successful military operations in many if not all contemporary contexts.”

Col. Dia Saidou, Military Attaché of the Permanent Mission of Mauritania to the UN, highlighted parts of the compliance framework that he saw as essential for reinforcing local support. He singled out the need for a trained police component, and for a proper judicial follow-up as a complement of military action. He also insisted on clear and dependable communications so that “the population perceives the force in a positive way.”

Sheraz Gazri, Legal Counsellor and Head of Human Rights at the Permanent Mission of France to the UN, said France was dedicated to the success of the G5 Sahel joint force. She highlighted the different challenges it faced, including the need for adequate and sustained resources, for continued international support.

Andrew Gilmour, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights and Head of OHCHR in New York, acknowledged that donors feel more comfortable if human rights violations are not committed, but he warned the compliance framework “must not be seen as a donor-driven exercise, and we are very keen to make sure that it isn’t.” He highlighted the shift in OHCHR’s approach to incentivize forces to comply with human rights standards: “We do this not by finger-pointing, but by actually working with the forces. It is a way to speak their language in a way they find constructive.”

The discussion was moderated by Ms. Di Razza.