WASHINGTON — As the world awaits a possible military intervention in Syria, few are paying attention to the last one, in Mali.
This African country has turned a significant corner, swearing in a newly elected president. The question now is whether the government can overcome the longstanding security problems that got it into trouble in the first place, and chart a path to rights-respecting democratic rule.
Mali’s descent from West African success story to top agenda item at the UN Security Council last year was as unexpected as it was spectacular. An ethnic Tuareg rebellion in January 2012 was soon hijacked by armed Islamist groups linked to Al Qaeda who quickly consolidated their control over the northern two-thirds of the country.
A March 2012 military coup paralyzed government response and exponentially deepened the crisis. When the armed Islamists started moving south in January 2013, the French intervened, and together with Malian and West African troops, scattered them and largely restored order.
The 18-month crisis led to a rapid deterioration in the human rights situation, with all Malian parties committing serious abuses. Since then, security has improved, and thousands of Malians are returning home every week. The European Union is involved in training the ill-prepared army, and a UN peacekeeping mission is helping Mali ensure security and put itself back together.
Following an election deemed free and fair, former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was sworn in on Sept. 4 as the country’s new president, and Mali would seem to be on a course for stability once more.
But no one should be fooled by this apparently quick reversal of fortune. Mali is far from being out of the woods.
There are still pockets of armed Islamists in the north and there’s been a spate of worrying attacks in neighboring Niger. Drug traffickers may re-emerge and again try to buy off corrupt government officials. Meanwhile, many armed Tuaregs complain that the grievances that kicked it all off have yet to be addressed.
What’s more, the chaos, though relatively short, left a legacy of abuse that must be addressed for the country to move on. Thousands of people were victims of horrific abuses meted out by the warring factions — summary execution, use of child soldiers and amputations by the armed Islamists; sexual abuse and rampant pillage by the Tuareg rebels; and torture, killings, and enforced disappearances by government soldiers. They demand and deserve justice.
Unfortunately, rather than face an investigation, one high-profile suspect, coup leader Amadou Sanogo, was not handed an indictment but a promotion, from captain to lieutenant-general. Mali has long suffered from a culture of impunity for all classes of abuses, and this promotion not only sends the wrong signal to would-be perpetrators, but also represents a decisive step backward in the struggle to improve much-needed discipline in the army.
Deep-seated corruption is another threat to the country’s renewal. Endemic corruption has not only undermined access to basic rights such as health care and education, but was a major reason for the country’s catastrophic collapse last year, as military officials pilfered funds and equipment intended to bolster security up north. Many in the capital, Bamako, are calling the struggle to end corruption “the next war.”
To tackle all these issues — restoring security, delivering justice for abuses, ending crippling corruption — the new president has his work cut out for him. He enjoys a rare political moment when he can set a new course for sustained stability and respect for human rights, but it won’t last long, so he needs to act quickly and decisively.
Keita and his government first and foremost need to resist a return to business as usual. They have to confront head-on the dynamics that led to Mali’s spectacular collapse, shoring up a neglected judiciary and publicly adopting — and implementing — a policy to curtail abuses by the security forces and graft by civil servants.
In short, the new president should waste no time in bringing to an end the culture of impunity currently enjoyed by those implicated in abuses from systematic corruption to war crimes.
For their part, Mali’s international partners — France, the EU, the US and the UN — should resist turning a blind eye and speak out if governance reform and respect for rights start to slip. Together, Malians and their development partners need to work to avoid turning back the clock or returning to the status quo.
Despite the swearing in of a new president and the impression of hopeful renewal, if corruption and weak rule of law are not tackled head on, the rights of Malians will continue to be trampled and the country risks another descent into chaos.
Corinne Dufka is senior researcher for West Africa at Human Rights Watch. She has conducted eight research missions to Mali, during which she interviewed hundreds of witnesses and victims of abuse.