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Executions by Malian government troops highlight human-rights challenges for Canadian peacekeepers

As Canada prepares to send hundreds of troops to Mali on a peacekeeping mission, a fresh discovery of mass graves and alleged military atrocities has highlighted the human-rights challenges that the Canadians could face.

The defence minister of the West African country admitted this week that Malian soldiers were implicated in “gross violations” after the bodies of 25 civilians were found in mass graves in central Mali.

Canada plans to deploy up to 250 troops and six helicopters to northern Mali in August for a one-year mission as part of the United Nations peacekeeping force, known as MINUSMA, which co-operates with the Malian military on the ground. The Malian forces have been battling Islamists and other rebel groups.

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Some experts say Canadian troops should look for opportunities to train and advise Mali’s soldiers on human rights – a subject where previous training by the European Union seems to have been ineffective.

Kisal, an organization that helps pastoral communities in Mali, said the 25 dead civilians in the mass graves were mostly herders from the Fulani ethnic group who had been detained by the Malian military last week.

Members of the Malian Armed Forces secure a road in 2017.

Benoit Tessier/REUTERS

Mali’s defence minister, Tiena Coulibaly, confirmed the existence of the mass graves and ordered an investigation. He said “some armed-forces personnel” were implicated in “gross violations” that caused the deaths.

Mali’s authorities are “firmly resolved to fight impunity and get soldiers to strictly observe international rights and humanitarian conventions,” Mr. Coulibaly said.

The evidence of mass graves was just the latest in a long series of documented cases of extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests by Mali’s military.

Corinne Dufka, a West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch who travels frequently to Mali, said she has documented more than 60 alleged summary executions by Mali’s security forces since 2017, with the remains of the victims found in at least seven mass graves. This does not include the latest case of the 25 bodies reported this week.

“Since early 2017, scores of witnesses have described severe mistreatment, arbitrary arrest, disappearances and summary executions,” she said. “I am aware of no single soldier held to account for any of these. … As long as soldiers continue to enjoy impunity, the abuses will continue.”

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Human Rights Watch had earlier warned in April that it had received many reports of torture and mass arrest by the Malian army. The army seemed to be “running amok” in central Mali, it said.

In a report in late March, covering a three-month period, the UN said Mali’s defence and security forces were involved in a quarter of the 133 cases of human-rights abuses that UN peacekeepers had documented.

It said, for example, that Malian armed forces had arbitrarily arrested 10 civilians in a counterterrorism operation on Feb. 21 and had summarily executed seven of them, while the others are still missing.

In another report in June, the UN cited allegations of 56 summary executions by Mali’s armed forces.

Because of the continuing problem of human-rights abuses, the Canadian troops in Mali should prioritize the protection of civilians and should try to advise and mentor Malian soldiers to ensure better respect for human rights, Ms. Dufka said.

“We have found that the presence of MINUSMA and French forces in conflict zones in Mali serve as a strong deterrent to abuses by armed groups,” she told The Globe and Mail.

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The UN peacekeeping mission co-operates with Mali’s military in a number of areas, including intelligence-sharing and some ground patrols, although the Canadian troops would primarily be supporting the UN in helicopter operations.

The UN mission has “conducted regular patrols” with Mali’s defence and security personnel and provided medical evacuations for the military, according to the UN report in late March.

The Canadian government has disclosed few details of how Canada’s peacekeepers will operate in Mali. Opposition MPs in Ottawa have complained about a lack of information on the planned mission.

It seems likely, however, that the Canadian troops will be based at an airfield in the town of Gao in northern Mali, and they will primarily be there to support the Canadian helicopters.

Bruno Charbonneau, a peacekeeping expert and associate professor of political science at Laurentian University, said he is doubtful that the Canadian peacekeepers will have much contact with Malian forces.

He noted, however, that the Canadian forces could potentially be asked to support the activities of the French military or a new West African military force known as G5 Sahel, both of which are fighting Islamist jihadists in Mali. The G5 group includes Malian troops.

The UN peacekeeping force is not officially authorized to conduct counterterrorism operations, he said. “But in practice it is difficult if not impossible to differentiate between peacekeeping and counterterrorist operations,” he said.

Walter Dorn, a peacekeeping expert at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto, said the Canadian military should support the UN peacekeeping force in providing human-rights training and mentoring for Malian soldiers.

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