ourEconomy: Investigation

EU-trained soldiers responsible for deaths of civilians in Mali

EU mission to train Malian soldiers not working, says Investigate Europe, after series of deaths and human rights abuses in west African country

Juliet Ferguson
10 May 2022, 1.51pm

German soldiers leave Camp Castor in Gao, April 2022

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Kay Nietfeld/dpa/Alamy Live News

Several hundred people were shot dead in the town of Moura, central Mali, in late March, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Witnesses say they were killed by Malian soldiers and – say several sources – Russian mercenaries.

This is not the first time such atrocities have occurred. Investigate Europe has cross-checked public databases and found at least three cases of Malian army battalions previously trained by the EU that were later involved in abuses against civilians. (It is not known if the Malian soldiers in Moura were trained by the EU.)

Malian soldiers have been receiving training and support from the European Union Training Mission (EUTM) for almost a decade, since 2013. Since the military coup in 2012, Mali has been experiencing instability, particularly in the north of the country where Tuareg secessionists, allied with Islamists, have been fighting against the government, leading to the displacement of Malians from the region.

To date, the EU has spent around €200m on the EUTM (not including personnel costs). But the programme has been criticised for being very much supply-driven, rather than responding to the needs of the Malian army, resulting in a lack of ownership on the Malian side.

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The United Nations also has a presence in Mali in the form of the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), established in 2013. A former MINUSMA official explained the problem. “What are the interests of the Europeans? Immigration, drug trafficking and also, of course, the terrorist risks that could be exported to Europe […] Whereas for the Malians, the main strategic interests are to prevent the country from splitting in two, with the north no longer belonging to Mali.”

European countries hope that helping to resolve conflicts and to stabilise the region will reduce migration from this part of Africa to Europe. But the situation has only got worse, despite the international presence in the country. According to January 2022 figures from the EU agency for asylum, the number of first-time applications from asylum seekers from Mali peaked in 2014, fell during the pandemic and is now growing again.

‘What are the interests of the Europeans? Immigration, drug trafficking and, of course, the terrorist risks that could be exported to Europe’

French troops had also been in the country independently, not as part of the EUTM. In February, the Malian government asked for the immediate withdrawal of these troops. With the French Barkhane combat force and the European (but not EU-administered) Takuba force pulling out, the EUTM – which was heavily reliant on these troops for support – is more vulnerable. The training mission is now on hold.

There was also the risk that Mali’s EU-trained troops would end up under Russian command. Irregular Russian forces are filling the vacuum left by the departing European troops, and extending Russian influence in the region. Popularly known as the Wagner Group, these military contractors have been accused by the United Nations of committing abuses in other countries, especially in the Central African Republic.

Human Rights Watch describes the massacre in Moura as the “worst single atrocity reported” in the ten years of war in Mali. Abuses by the Malian army are not its only concern. Armed Islamists have already killed scores of security forces personnel in 2022, and HRW is investigating the alleged killing of several hundred civilians earlier in March, allegedly by forces of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.

“Terrorism plagues practically the entire territory of Mali,” said Colonel Souleymane Dembélé, the head of the communication unit of the country’s armed forces.

Boni camp: mock executions

The Mopti region, where Moura is located, is known as the “three borders” because it straddles three countries: Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. Since 2012, it has been the epicentre of violence and displacement in the country, fuelled by terrorist attacks, military retaliations and ethnic conflicts. The Malian army’s attempts to quell the troubles in this region have had limited success.

It was in this region, on 7 and 8 May 2017, that Malian soldiers raided villages near the border with Burkina Faso. They took ten men prisoner and transported them to a military camp called Boni. Once there, “soldiers conducted mock executions, including putting the detainees in a hole, blindfolding them and beating them violently on the head.” The prisoners were eventually released without charge.

This is just one example from the UN’s International Commission of Inquiry for Mali, set up in 2018 to investigate allegations of abuses. The commission identified the perpetrators as members of a battalion known as the first joint tactical group – the GTIA-Waraba.

Investigate Europe cross-checked the details of the Boni camp abuses with data from the Security Force Monitor, run by the Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute. They track Malian security forces and the training they receive from foreign partners. Investigate Europe was able to establish that the GTIA-Waraba was one of the first battalions trained in 2013 and 2014 by EUTM Mali.

Malian soldiers do receive instruction in humanitarian law as part of the EUTM programme, but there’s no follow-up. “If you don’t actively monitor what the troops are doing after training and you don’t go out on patrol with them, it’s probably not going to be very effective,” said a researcher (who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons).

The UN Commission of Inquiry tried to obtain the names of former and current commanders of the eight EU-trained GTIAs, to determine the impact of EUTM training and the progress of Malian forces in respecting human rights. But the EUTM was unable to provide this information.

Bamako: civilians killed

Another elite unit within the Malian army – Special Anti-Terrorist Forces (FORSAT) – has also been accused of a lack of respect for human rights. Established in 2016 in response to a series of particularly deadly terrorist attacks in central Mali and the capital Bamako, its purpose is to intervene in emergencies to prevent terrorist acts.

In July 2020, clashes broke out between anti-government demonstrators and security forces near the Imam Mahmoud Dicko mosque in the south of Bamako. Demonstrators threw stones at the security personnel, who responded with tear gas, grenades and flares, then fired live ammunition into the crowd, killing 14 people. Two of those killed were hit by bullets fired by members of FORSAT.

The Security Force Monitor database reveals that the EUTM had provided training to FORSAT members between March and April 2020, including courses in combat shooting and military operations in urban areas.

The third incident happened in Gourma, in northern Mali. ​​The UN Commission claims to have “credible information concerning abuses (extortion, ill-treatment, extrajudicial executions) committed during operations conducted in Gourma in 2019 by members of the eighth GTIA whose training ended in 2016.”

Who takes responsibility?

Investigate Europe asked the EUTM, the EU Commission, the EU Council and the governments of France, Germany and Portugal (who were in command of the training missions) what co-responsibility they take for abuses committed by soldiers that have been trained by Europeans on an EU programme.

Only the EU Commission and Germany responded. They do not assume responsibility. “The deployment and employment of the trained assets are decided by the Malian authorities without coordination with EUTM Mali,” emailed an EU official.

Soumaila Diawara, a Malian refugee now living in Italy, told Investigate Europe that far from bringing stability, Europe’s involvement in African politics brings only further destabilisation and poverty. “European countries allocate billions of euros to Africa, but do not ask where they go. Europe must stop arming dictatorships.”

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