press releaseBy Eduardo Cue
Koulikoro — The UNHCR instructor surveyed his class of 150 Malian soldiers in the cavernous hall.
"If the enemy enters a mosque, is it honourable for you to follow him inside and fight?" he asked. "No," the soldiers shouted back in unison, shaking their heads and waving their fingers.
"If an enemy turns himself in and hands over his weapons, do you have the right to attack him?" the instructor asked. "No," the soldiers again responded.
The training session on a recent oven-hot Saturday morning at the Koulikoro military base in southern Mali was one of six scheduled seminars on human rights and international humanitarian law sponsored by the European Union, UNHCR, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and other agencies.
The lectures are designed to make rank-and-file soldiers aware of the difference between combatants and civilians; the protection due humanitarian workers, children, refugees, internally displaced people and civil officials; and the prohibition against taking hostages, using torture or engaging in random looting and shooting.
On this Saturday, UNHCR trained a total of 600 Malian soldiers over four successive one-hour sessions, with each class made up of 150 men.
The human rights classes are part of the combat training being carried out by the European Union at Koulikoro, which is located 60 kilometres east of the Mali capital, Bamako. The programme will involve 3,000 men, all of whom will be deployed in the north.
The special human rights classes were called for under a UN Security Council resolution in December that authorized the deployment of the 3,000-strong African peacekeeping force to Mali following a French-led military intervention that reversed a rebel push in the country.
The resolution stressed the importance of training military forces in international humanitarian and human rights law.
"I found the sessions very encouraging because the soldiers were receptive to the principles of international humanitarian law and understood the importance of not only protecting civilians, but also of acting legally for all Malians," said Pierre Jacques, the UNHCR protection officer who trained the soldiers.
The Malian army has been accused by the UN and other international organizations of human rights abuses against suspected rebel supporters, including ethnic Peuhl, Tuaregs and Arabs, since the launch last January of the counter-offensive. Malian officials have denied that the military was carrying out systematic reprisals and promised to arrest and prosecute any perpetrators.
Malians continue to flee to neighbouring countries amid sporadic fighting in northern areas. Many say they fled because they feared reprisals. Today, there are more than 175,000 registered Malian refugees in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria.
Given this context, UNHCR officials said they were particularly encouraged by the participation of Tuareg soldiers in the seminars.
By creating a military composed of varying ethnic groups, the hope is to prevent retribution. "As Malian soldiers, you do not have the right to carry out reprisals," Pierre Jacques emphasized.
The participants, who listened intently to the simultaneous Bambara and Tamasheq language translations, said they could easily apply the concepts presented to real-life situations. "There are innocent people in combat, and the seminar is meant to prevent killing innocent people," said one soldier.
The soldiers were asked to respond to situations and people they are likely to confront, and sometimes the answers were not so evident. What, for example, should be done in the case of an armed child who appears prepared to attack you?
"As an honourable Malian soldier, you should do everything to neutralize that infant soldier," Jacques said. "But if it is impossible to neutralize him, you should protect your life by all available means."
In addition to international humanitarian law, the seminars address topics such as the protection of women and children in armed conflicts; coordination between the military, humanitarian agencies and NGOs; and the rights of refugees and internally displaced people in combat situations.
"I know that sometimes there are certain rules in international humanitarian law that may seem absurd, but the respect of those rules is the difference between you, the soldiers of the Malian army, and people who act in illegal and disloyal ways," Jacques concluded to applause.