Russia Entrenches Its Military Foothold in Mali Despite Damning Human Rights Allegations Against the Wagner Group

Russia Entrenches Its Military Foothold in Mali Despite Damning Human Rights Allegations Against the Wagner Group
A woman on a cart passes a sugar cane field burning before the sugar cane harvest on Jan. 23, 2013, near Niono, 230 miles north of the capital Bamako. (Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images)
Nalova Akua
At a time when Russian private military contractor—the Wagner Group—has come under careful international scrutiny for gross human rights abuses, possible war crimes, and crimes against humanity in Mali, Moscow’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov has promised even more military support for the West African state. 
During a one-day working visit to Mali on Feb. 7 (the third trip to Africa in just six months), Lavrov was swift in declaring Russia’s wider backing for the continent regardless of what he termed the West’s “neo-colonial approach.”
“Last year and at the start of this year, a large consignment of Russian aviation technology was sent, thanks to which Mali’s army was recently able to conduct successful operations against terrorists,” said Lavrov at a joint news conference.
“A second consignment of aviation technology for these ends was delivered just recently on Jan. 19,” he said.

Lavrov Condemns the West

“The fight against terrorism is of course an issue for the other countries in the region. We are going to provide our assistance to them to overcome these difficulties. This concerns Guinea, Burkina Faso, Chad, and the Sahel region generally, and even the coastal states on the Gulf of Guinea.”
In January, Lavrov condemned the West while accusing the United States and its allies of “colonial methods” as he visited Angola, South Africa, and Eswatini—insisting that Moscow’s interest in seeking relations on the continent was based on “solidarity and support.”
A 2022 study conducted by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute depicts Russia as Africa’s largest arms supplier (44 percent) between 2017-21.
But on Jan. 31, U.N. experts called for an “immediate independent investigation” into gross human rights abuses, “possible war crimes,” and “crimes against humanity” committed in Mali by Government forces and the Wagner Group since 2021.  
The experts also acknowledged having received “persistent and alarming accounts” of horrific executions, mass graves, acts of torture, rape, sexual violence, pillaging, arbitrary detentions, and enforced disappearances since 2021—perpetrated by Malian armed forces and their allies in the Mopti area and other places amid ongoing hostilities.
“We are particularly worried by credible reports that over the course of several days in late March 2022, Malian armed forces accompanied by military personnel believed to belong to the Wagner Group, executed several hundred people, who had been rounded up in Moura, a village in central Mali,” the U.N. experts said in a press release

Focus on Wagner’s Activities

Speaking to The Epoch Times from Nigeria, Dr. Chris Kwaja, one of the experts and member of the U.N. Working Group on Mercenaries, confirmed the team had already reached out to the Malian government for action to be taken and expressed the hope it will respond “positively.” 
“For many Malians, life is characterized by permanent uncertainty. They are not sure of what the next hour presents, due to the threats posed by violent extremist groups across the country,” Dr. Kwaja told The Epoch Times via email. 
“The concerns we raised ... on the human rights of its citizens, and how we can all work towards the protection of such rights, in the midst of the security challenges the country confronts, which resulted in its engagement with the Wagner Group.”
He said the working group focused more on the activities of the Wagner Group that have resulted in cases of human rights violation. 
“One key area of interest for us has to do with the nature of Wagner Group’s engagement with the government of Mali, in terms of the range of activities and the extent to which the government of Mali is able to deal with cases or instances where the Wagner goes beyond its briefs.
“The reality is that we are not aware of any existing legislation in Mali regarding how corporate military and security actors like the Wagner Group are to be regulated.” 
The U.N. independent expert on the situation of human rights in Mali, Alioune Tine, was due to travel to the country on an official visit from Feb. 6 to Feb. 17, 2023.
The aim of the visit, according to Tine, was to assess Mali’s situation and also support the Malian transitional authorities in their efforts to promote and protect human rights.

Human Rights Expert Visits Mali

While in Bamako, Tine was expected to meet with Malian authorities, civil society, victims’ associations, non-governmental organizations, diplomats, and U.N. agencies.
“During this visit, I will meet public authorities to discuss progress made in the implementation of commitments made on my previous recommendations, particularly on issues of protection of civic space, respect for the rule of law, and the fight against impunity,” Tine said.
But speaking during his visit to Mali, Lavrov retorted: “As for some UN experts who are doing some research on alleged war crimes by the private military company, Wagner; I am not aware of any U.N. experts who would be empowered to consider any aspect of war crimes, whoever committed them.”
Lavrov also heaped praises on Mali for supporting “Russian initiatives on many issues that are on the agenda of the world organization, and which are becoming increasingly important.”
“I’m referring to the inadmissibility of glorifying Nazism, the inadmissibility of the start of an arms race in outer space, and the need to abandon the placement of weapons in outer space,” he said.
In response, Malian foreign affairs minister Abdoulaye Diop said his country “will no longer justify” its choice of partner and insisted “Russia is here on demand by Mali and responds efficiently to our strategic needs.”
Attacks against civilians by Islamist armed groups and killings of suspects by pro-government forces during counterterrorism operations surged in Mali in 2022 leading to a dramatic deterioration of human rights, Human Rights Watch said in a report published last month.
The rights group claims the mounting abuses occurred amid a background of an ongoing “political crisis and significant tension with Mali’s diplomatic partners,” anchored in Mali’s decision to employ the Wagner Group.

Islamist Insurgency

The transitional government that came to power in a 2021 coup according to the rights group, undermined efforts to investigate the mounting allegations of atrocities by state actors. 
Impunity for past and ongoing abuses by all armed groups persisted, increasing the number of internally displaced people to more than 422,000.
“In March, Malian and allied security forces allegedly summarily executed over 300 men in custody, including suspected Islamist fighters, in Moura, central Mali.
“The incident was the worst single atrocity in Mali’s decade-long armed conflict between government forces and Islamist armed groups,” partly states the Human Rights Watch’s report.
An Islamist insurgency erupted in 2013 in northern Mali and quickly spread to other parts of the Sahel, a vast and dry stretch of land between the Sahara Desert and the savannah further south. At the request of the Malian authority of the time (Dioncounda Traore) France’s military intervened through Operation Serval, later replaced by Operation Barkhane
The latter involved 5,100 French troops working with local forces from the members of the Group of Five for the Sahel: Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. 
But on Feb. 17, 2022, France and allied nations announced that they were withdrawing troops from Mali due to a breakdown in relations with the ruling junta.

France Withdraws Soldiers

The withdrawal applied to both 2,400 French troops in Mali and a smaller European force of several hundred that was set up in 2020 to lessen the burden on Paris’s forces.
“From a security standpoint, our concern with the withdrawal of French troops and the arrival of the Russian-based Wagner group is that the world should not [only view] Mali [as] a theatre for great power conflict,” said Dr. Kwaja of the U.N. Working Group on Mercenaries.
“The French have agreed to leave, making such a departure take the form of a French loss versus Russian gain in Mali,” he told The Epoch Times.
“There is a sense in which France has shifted its attention to Chad and Niger, in the aftermath of its withdrawal from Mali. As it stands, the situation in Mali is still not in terms [of] how the Wagner Group has been able to assert itself in the country.
“While the insurgents have celebrated the withdrawal of the French troops out of Mali, we are yet to see how the Wagner Group will fill such a gap with boots on the ground.”
Dr. Sabelo Gumedze, an independent human rights lawyer based in South Africa, told The Epoch Times in an email that an ordinary Malian no longer has “trust” in the government describing it as a “very unfortunate” situation. 
“Their government cannot provide for any meaningful protection and the involvement of the Wagner Group makes the situation worse,” he wrote.

African Union Must ‘Play Leading Role’

“The main challenge is the question of accountability in so far as the involvement of the Wagner Group is concerned. As a non-state actor, to whom is it accountable? It’s precisely for this reason that the use of mercenaries is prohibited under international law.”
Prominent Malian activist, Aminata Dicko was recently forced into hiding after pro-junta activists accused her of being unpatriotic for outlining alleged atrocities by the army and Wagner mercenaries while addressing the U.N. Security Council. 
On Feb. 5, Mali’s junta expelled the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission’s human rights division, Guillaume Ngefa-Atondoko Andali for his allegedly biased choice of civil society witnesses for U.N. Security Council briefings on Mali, the most recent of which was held on January.
Dr. Sabelo has described Russia’s presence in Mali as “unfortunate”, especially given that it does not involve the African Union, which he insists is an intergovernmental organization responsible for “addressing peace and security in the continent.” 
“The African Union must be in charge and play a leading role in addressing the Mali situation. The same goes for the involvement of Russia in Mali. African peace and security challenges can only be addressed by Africans with the African Union taking a leading role,” he told The Epoch Times.
“Mali has failed to protect the rights of its citizens and the United Nations and African Union have a responsibility to take action in addressing this issue. The untold human suffering cannot be allowed to continue.”