Radical Islamists who seized northern Mali earlier this year are maintaining their control through fear and drug money, imposing an extremist version of Muslim Sharia law and restrictions that target women in particular, a top United Nations human rights official said today.
Among a litany of human rights abuses committed by the Islamists, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonovic cited "very drastic punishments," the recruitment of child soldiers, and enforced marriages that are a smokescreen for enforced prostitution, terming the situation as "very bad."
"They are buying loyalty. They have tremendous resources to buy loyalty because they are now having kickbacks from narco-traffickers in the region," he told a news conference at UN Headquarters in New York following a visit to the West African country, where a third of the 1.5 million population of the north, an area the size of France, has been driven from their homes. Mali is a transit corridor for cocaine and other drugs from South America to Europe.
"There is also substantial ransom money that is being controlled by them," Mr. Šimonovic said, adding: "The overwhelming majority of people in the north are not supportive of the rebels and dislike what is happening."
He noted that there had been three public executions, eight cases of amputations, a number of public floggings and other inhuman and degrading punishments. "The number is small but the threat is there, it's real and people live with it and they are afraid of those lists," he added, referring to lists that the Islamist groups are reported to be compiling of women who have had children out of wedlock, or who were unmarried and pregnant.
"The number of enforced marriages is increasing, the price to buy a wife is less than $1,000," he noted. "After getting out of their families, the women, once forcefully married, quite often are by their so-called husbands married to other men after a very short while, which is in fact then a smokescreen for enforced prostitution and rapes that are taking place."
Mr. Šimonovic stressed that children are particularly vulnerable to attempts to enlist them as child soldiers, often to plant improvised explosive devices, with their families being given $600 for enlistment, and then $400 a month in a country where over half the population lives on $1.25 a day. Many teachers have also fled, fearing the imposition of Sharia, so the children are missing out on education, too.
"Everybody is banned from listening to music, from smoking, women have to be covered, but the women are also targeted in the sense of restricting their ability to work," he said. "Children can't play soccer."
Some 100,000 Malian refugees have already fled to Mauritania, 100,000 to Burkina Faso, 30,000 in Algeria and about 40,000 in Niger. Another 230,000 are estimated to be internally displaced.
Among the main Islamist groups who have seized control of the north Mr. Šimonovic noted that Ansar Dine was composed mainly of Malians while the leadership of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) is foreign, mostly from Arab countries and is closely related to Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
In August, the Security Council urged the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) - working closely with the Malian Transitional authorities in Bamako, the capital, the African Union Commission and regional countries - to prepare detailed proposals for a stabilization force to restore Mali's territorial integrity.