The Long Road to Justice in Mali
“The violent actors of today were the victims of yesterday.” Drinking tea along the bank of the Niger River in Bamako, a local activist recently expressed this common concern. If the formal justice system fails, individuals may decide to implement their own “private” justice. In Mali, a country where many feel that the justice system works poorly, if at all, the human rights violations committed in the northern conflict present an enormous challenge. During interviews in the capital, human rights experts and officials have frequently underscored the need to end endemic impunity and ensure that victims are considered in the ongoing peace negotiations.
The outbreak of violence that began in 2012 was driven in large part by the spread of Islamist extremist groups into northern Mali. Thousands of residents fled south or to neighboring countries, and those who remained were subjected to a crude and brutal form of Sharia (Islamic law). The militants punished those who did not follow their edicts with arbitrary detentions, whippings, and amputations. Women were particularly affected, facing beatings for improper dress. Rape, as well as the abduction of women and girls, was widely reported. The armed groups also used child soldiers. With a UN peacekeeping force now operating in northern Mali, a tense stability has returned, though attacks still occur.
The Government’s Uncoordinated Response
While the government acknowledges that crimes committed during the conflict need to be addressed through both standard justice and transitional justice mechanisms, exactly how and when this will happen is not yet clear. At present, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Reconciliation are pursuing four seemingly uncoordinated initiatives. Victims, and even local human rights organizations that follow the situation closely, remain uncertain on the process and when they will start to see action.
After the Malian government’s loss of control of the north, the official justice system disappeared there, and it has yet to return. Currently, the Supreme Court has empowered the court in Bamako’s Commune III to adjudicate cases from the north. However, cases often need witness testimony, and much of the north is still too unstable to conduct official investigations. Moreover, the location of the court in southern Mali, far from the north, makes this temporary solution flawed at best.
A second element of the government’s response is compensation for victims. A law to authorize such payments was passed in 2012, but the Ministry of Justice has yet to issue an official decree outlining the specifics of the process. Some experts are concerned that compensation may only go to those who suffered physical injuries, leaving those whose property was stolen or destroyed with no assistance.
Third, the Ministry of Justice is working to deploy mobile information clinics in the north, which will document the testimonies of victims and possibly provide some degree of psychological or trauma support. How the resulting records will be used is unclear to local human rights organizations, with one group assuming that the mobile centers will only be listening to victims’ stories for therapeutic purposes. However, a representative of Ministry of Justice gave the impression that the cases would be referred directly to courts in the north for prosecution, but did not specify how this process would work. Whether the details of the plan for the mobile clinics are known internally or not, the Ministry of Justice would do well to fully inform and engage local civil society groups in the effort.
Lastly, following the Ouagadougou agreement signed between the government and some rebel groups in June 2013, the Ministry of Reconciliation has been tasked with organizing a Commission of Dialogue, Justice, Truth, and Reconciliation. This commission will prepare a report on crimes committed from Mali’s independence in 1960 to the present, and will submit recommendations to the president. The panel will conduct its own investigations and documentation, separate from the work of the Ministry of Justice. While many human rights organizations noted that “justice” was recently added to the commission’s mandate, precisely what form this would take is not clear.
All this is happening as Mali’s justice system is undergoing a reform process. Many experts agree that reform is sorely needed. Citizens’ ability to seek justice is largely hindered by a lack of knowledge of how the system works, the great physical distance of many courts from their communities, and lawyers’ fees that are prohibitive for the average Malian. In fact, many experts say that most people “fear” the formal justice system because of a lack of familiarity with its role and procedures.
The Path Forward
An international official in Bamako commented last month that impunity in Mali has been a problem for decades, particularly in the north. “Past violations were never addressed,” he said. Peace talks between Mali’s government and northern rebel groups resumed on September 1 in Algiers, but victims of the conflict are unlikely to obtain justice or compensation anytime soon, and some worry that justice may be denied entirely in the final political settlement. This would be a mistake. The government of Mali and its international partners have an opportunity to turn the page on past failures and help rebuild public confidence by demonstrating a renewed commitment to the rights of the country’s citizens.
A political accord among leaders is necessary to bring an end to the current conflict and see a return of state institutions to the north, but it is not sufficient, particularly if the aim is to prevent future cycles of violence. Long-term stability requires restoring the dignity of victims through justice and reconciliation. International actors involved in the negotiations, such as the European Union and African Union, should ensure that the victims are not forgotten in the final agreement.
The government speaks openly about the need for justice, but many observers doubt whether it has the political will and capacity to follow through on this sentiment. In the near term, the government should improve coordination of its judicial response to the crimes committed during the recent crisis. It should ensure that the Ministry of Reconciliation and the Ministry of Justice are working together on both standard and transitional justice processes, and that any separate initiatives are designed to support the work of the government as a whole. The government should also take steps to include local civil society in its efforts and share information with the public. Finally, a number of local organizations have been documenting the cases of victims throughout Mali, particularly in the north; the Ministry of Justice should collaborate with these groups so that the work they have already conducted contributes to the official adjudication of the cases.
Local human rights workers, who have braved much to document abuses, report that many victims call from time to time, inquiring about the status of their cases and the likelihood of any compensation or support. Sadly, the process of addressing these needs has barely begun.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.