At the beginning of May 2012, there were some 130 000 internally displaced persons in Mali and approximately 190 000 refugees in neighbouring Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger. Currently, the humanitarian situation grows worse by the day, with Malians fleeing internally and across the country's borders.
A report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued on 22 January stated that almost 7 500 refugees had fled into neighbouring countries since French and Malian forces launched a counter-offensive against Islamic militants, and the exodus is continuing.
Like the conflict in Darfur, the on-going conflict in Mali can arguably be characterised as a 'protection crisis', and it is critical to have an objective debate that will ultimately shape the nature of responses to address this crisis and serious human rights violations. If this is not done, mutually reinforcing responses from both military and humanitarian actors will not be established. This is significant, because how a humanitarian response is provided is just as important as what response is provided.
In the current context in Mali, balancing the military and political/humanitarian dimensions remains the most crucial path to durable peace. The military actors will focus on stabilisation that contributes to broader political or security aims, while humanitarian actors will consider protection as a major objective, which could be hampered by the coercive nature of the military strategy, thereby increasing the likelihood of the humanitarian protection strategy not having its intended impact. Any analysis of the conflict should take these variables into account, for the responses and choices made now will have a long-term effect on the Malian state's capacity to deal with internal political issues. This is as a result of the built-in tensions within the responses that could become more acute in the long run. In the near future, however, this problem is likely to be manageable if several issues are factored into the policy domain of ECOWAS and the Malian government.
Firstly, to many the focus has been on the military stabilisation intervention, which has been necessitated by the deterioration of stability and the aggressive actions of radical elements in the Malian political landscape. According to a recent UN report, the current crisis in northern Mali has led to serious human rights violations that include extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, amputations and forced disappearances at the hands of both rebels and government forces. The report emphasises that women and girls in particular have suffered degrading treatment by hard-line Islamist groups based on 'an extreme interpretation of Sharia law'. According to reports by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), girls as young as 12 or 13 have been forcibly married to radical Islamists and sexually abused. A war crimes probe is under way at the International Criminal Court into acts committed in Mali since January 2012. Other reports have indicated that children abducted into the ranks of militants are directly involved in the conflict. Criminal responsibility and accountability are therefore critical, although they are likely to be pursued only after the political dust has settled.
Secondly, at this stage humanitarian access to the northern areas of Mali is severely restricted by the security situation. While those who have fled did so as a matter of survival, less is known about those who have stayed behind, and who may have joined or been forced into the conflict. The current responses by the international community have largely been through mandated agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), UNHCR and UNICEF. Given the severity of the displacement and the dire situation faced by displaced Malians, the most likely approach is to direct life-saving assistance to the most affected areas. However, in inaccessible areas the most likely scenario will be that of civilians fleeing to other areas that they think are more stable. As in most humanitarian situations in Africa, in pragmatic terms most actors in Mali are engaging in 'protection by presence', which in the coming weeks may become a highly charged and politicised arena where military objectives may interfere with the more benign objectives of humanitarian actors.
Humanitarian actors must take into account the fact that the focus is currently on military solutions, which in turn means that the plight of Malian refugees and displaced persons may not take centre stage. When it comes to protecting civilians in such circumstances, given the increasing scope of humanitarian responses within and outside Mali, it is critical that military actors meet their responsibilities towards civilians, including Malians sympathetic to the Islamists' cause.
Thirdly, the problem with which humanitarian actors are grappling in Mali (as elsewhere), in addition to limited funds, is that of operating in a service gap where relief assistance is not being adequately supported by state-led service delivery. As has been noted in a study undertaken in 2006 by the Humanitarian Policy Group on crisis responses to statebuilding in conflict-affected contexts, 'a balance between physical security and broader needs is critical given ordinary citizens' perceptions of security which often extend beyond extension from violence to livelihoods assurance and basic economic opportunities'. The key question is whether such long-term and more intangible issues are currently being considered by the protagonists responding to the humanitarian situation (including the military actors), as this will arguably represent the first step towards ensuring a more protection-oriented strategy that embraces both politics and human rights.
Are we going to see ECOWAS, the Malian authorities and international actors take such considerations into account? It is necessary to place this discussion on the table to ensure the protection of all Malians, including the various Islamists groups, as stipulated in the law of armed conflict. At this point, the on-going military offensive - which may both create and sustain humanitarian crises - and the humanitarian response do not seem to conflict with each other. If ECOWAS and Malian government policymakers can steer the debate to ensure a more objective discussion to guide policy and programming responses, the stabilisation of Mali, though largely seen from a military perspective, could have a more lasting protection effect.
In the current Malian crisis, while the humanitarian response is crucial, the broader picture of early consideration of exit strategies and how the gap created by the withdrawal of such assistance can be filled should be a priority for policymakers in Bamako, ECOWAS and international actors. The next few weeks are likely to be critical, not only for the political outcomes of the current interventions but also whether Malians will acknowledge that the current attempts to resolve the impasse are in their interests as well, and not only those of the political elite. The Malian state has to take responsibility for the protection of its citizens, because humanitarian actors cannot independently achieve this. Most importantly, a long-term developmental approach remains the most central element for the promotion of peace in Mali.
Sandra Adong Odert is Senior Researcher, Conflict Management and Peace Building Division, at the ISS.