A version of this post appeared on Freedom at Issue. The views expressed are the author's own.
As we drank tea on the banks of the Niger River in Bamako, a local activist said he worried that those acting violently today – were often the victims of violence yesterday.
It is a common concern in Mali.
The fear, after a war that began in 2012 with Islamist extremists spreading into northern Mali, is that victims have not been given adequate help, and that the justice system has worked poorly. The conditions for retribution and “private” justice are present.
When Islamists began to take large swaths of territory in the north, thousands of residents fled south or to neighboring countries. Those who remained were subjected to a crude and brutal form of sharia or Islamic law. The militants punished those who did not follow their edicts with arbitrary detentions, whippings, and amputations.
Women were particularly affected, facing beatings for improper dress. Rape, as well as the abduction of women and girls, was widely reported. The armed groups also used child soldiers. With a UN peacekeeping force now operating in northern Mali, a tense stability has returned, though attacks still occur.
The government’s uncoordinated response
While the government acknowledges that crimes committed during the conflict need to be addressed through both standard justice and transitional justice mechanisms, exactly how and when this will happen is not yet clear.
At present, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Reconciliation are pursuing four seemingly uncoordinated initiatives. Victims, and even local human rights organizations that follow the situation closely, remain uncertain on the process and when they will start to see action.
When the Malian government lost control of the north, the official justice system disappeared there. It has yet to return. Currently, the nation’s Supreme Court has empowered the court in Bamako’s Commune III to adjudicate cases from the north.
However, cases often need witness testimony, and much of the north is still too unstable to conduct official investigations. Moreover, the location of the court in southern Mali, far from the north, makes this temporary solution flawed at best.
Secondly, the government has yet to compensate victims. A law to authorize such payments was passed in 2012, but the Justice Ministry has yet to issue an official decree outlining specifics. Some experts are concerned that compensation may only go to those who suffered physical injuries, leaving those whose property was stolen or destroyed with no assistance.
Thirdly, the Justice Ministry is deploying mobile information clinics in the north to gather victim testimony and provide some degree of victim support. How the resulting records will be used is unclear to local human rights organizations. One group assumes that the mobile centers will only be listening to victims’ stories for therapeutic purposes. However, the Justice Ministry gives the impression that the cases would be referred directly to courts in the north for prosecution, but did not specify how this process would work. The ministry would do well to fully inform and engage local civil society groups in the effort.
Finally, following the Ouagadougou agreement signed between the government and some rebel groups in June 2013, the Ministry of Reconciliation is tasked with organizing a Commission of Dialogue, Justice, Truth, and Reconciliation. This commission will prepare a report on crimes committed from Mali’s independence in 1960 to the present, and will submit recommendations to the president. The panel will conduct its own investigations and documentation, separate from the work of the Justice Ministry. While many human rights organizations noted that “justice” was recently added to the commission’s mandate, precisely what form this would take is not clear.
All this is happening, or not happening, as Mali’s justice system is undergoing a reform process. Many experts agree that reform is sorely needed.
Citizens’ ability to seek justice is largely hindered by a lack of knowledge of how the system works, by the great physical distance of many courts from their communities, and by lawyers’ fees that are prohibitive for the average Malian.
In fact, many experts say that most people “fear” the formal justice system because of a lack of familiarity with its role and procedures.
The path forward
Peace talks between Mali’s government and northern rebel groups resumed on Sept. 1 in Algiers. But victims of the conflict are unlikely to obtain redress anytime soon, and some worry that full justice may be circumvented in a final political settlement.
A political accord among parties is necessary to bring an end to the current conflict, but it is not sufficient, particularly if the aim is to prevent future cycles of violence. Long-term stability requires restoring the dignity of victims through justice and reconciliation.
While the government speaks openly about the need for justice, many observers doubt whether it has the political will to follow through.
In the near term, the government should ensure that efforts by the ministries of justice and reconciliation are complimentary and coordinated. The government should also take better steps to engage civil society and share information with the public.
Local human rights workers report that many victims call from time to time, inquiring about the status of their cases and the likelihood of any compensation or support. But addressing these needs has barely begun.