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Mali's reconciliation attempt

With a UN peacekeeping force soon to be deployed to Mali, what are the prospects for the recently created Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission?

Timothée Labelle
29 April 2013

More than a year ago, in March of 2012, mutinying Malian soldiers staged a coup d’état to topple President Amadou Toumani Touré, paving the way for months of high political instability, a civil war and an international intervention. The coup was a response to poor management of territorial claims expressed at the beginning of 2012 by Touareg groups, voiced by the Mouvement de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA). MNLA’s claims were rapidly echoed by Ansar Dine, a Touareg group motored by radical Islamist ideology. The imposition of Sharia law in many cities and villages in the north, the destruction of UNESCO-protected mausoleums and daily combats between rebel groups and the Malian army started to raise international concerns. Rebel expansion to the South of the country spurred military intervention from France. Since mid-January, not without difficulties, French and Malian armies regained territories in the north.

On March 5th, Mali’s Council of Ministers announced the creation of a Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission, drawing on the model of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) to shed light on human rights violations occurring in the last year in Mali. But just what are TRCs and, perhaps more importantly, what is their potential to facilitate a rapid transition and guarantee a peaceful future for Mali?

Reconciliation as means of justice

TRCs are a little known but widely used device of transitional justice. They were used for the first time in the 1980s to reconcile social groups after the fall of dictatorial regimes in Latin America. Their popularity rose significantly after their widely publicized use in the post-Apartheid transition in South Africa by the government of Nelson Mandela. Since then, TRCs have been extensively put to profit around the globe. In Canada, Commissioners have been trying since 2010 to document the abusive treatments of Aboriginal people in residential schools since 1870s. In the United States, a TRC was put in place in the aftermath of the killing of activists for racial and economic justice in Greensboro, NJ on 3 November 1979.

TRCs are based on a restorative conception of justice. They usually take the form of citizen assemblies monitored by Commissioners in which victims and perpetrators of human rights abuses publicly acknowledge crimes committed during a conflict. The divulgation of the truth, in a non-constraining, voluntary environment of mutual understanding, lays the ground for reconciliation between opposed factions. At the end of their mandate, Commissioners release a report publicly recognizing human rights violations and usually attempting to build bridges between communities.

TRC evidently raise significant issues in relation to justice. The granting of amnesties to human rights violation perpetrators is arguably their most controversial feature. If too easily granted, amnesties can endanger the reconciliation process, leaving victims with a sense of injustice. But if amnesties are excluded, the trial delays and over-crowding of the prison system can equally jeopardize peaceful transition. The attribution of material reparations to victims poses a similar dilemma. In a sense, TRCs provide for moral reparation for victims in the public recognition of the crimes. But not accessing reparations after the acknowledgment that serious crimes have taken place can also leave them with a sense of injustice.

What should be on the Commissioners’ agenda

Given the dilemmas raised by TRCs, the parameters of the Malian crisis and the fact that combats were still taking place at the creation of the Commission, the Malian government and Commissioners should be concerned with seven issues:

1. Hostilities in the last six months have resulted in a high number of refugees, especially in the countries neighbouring northern Mali. When Malian refugees come back to their country, whether this is during or after the work of the TRC, their exclusion from the reconciliation process could represent a significant danger to the political and social stability. Efficient conduct of the TRC, aiming at true long-term reconciliation, requires Commissioners to extend their work outside of the national borders of Mali to take into account the testimonies of refugees.

2. Civil conflicts usually hit vulnerable groups the hardest. On February 22nd, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) claimed that violence had disrupted the education of more than 700,000 children in Mali, and that a great number of schools would have to be rebuilt. That same week, UNICEF released a report highlighting the risks of a rise of gender-based violence, sexual exploitation, trafficking and recruitment into armed groups due to large scale displacement of children. In a country where millions suffer from food insecurity as the result of severe drought in the Sahel region, the UNICEF report stressed the urgent need to ensure the protection of women and children.

3. The granting of amnesties has to be managed delicately. Mali’s Commissioners could grant impunity for minor offenses, building on the benefits of dialogue and public recognition of human right violations as means of justice. But no matter what the Commissioners decide, there should be clear lines between which offenses would be dealt with within the TRC and which would entail traditional judicial procedures and imprisonment. On the grant of amnesties, lack of clarity may be more dangerous than the outcome of any decision. The same goes for the attribution of reparations. The government must be crystal clear on its intents concerning reparations, depending on the availability of resources.   

4. Combat operations are still taking place in north-eastern Mali and surge sporadically. Captured jihadists should enter Mali’s incarceration system as soon as possible while the Commission is being formed. Though imprisoned, they should not be excluded from the reconciliation process. The point here again is to make sure the Commission’s work is as inclusive as possible, to better the chances of smooth transition and fully harness the potential of reconciliation-based justice.  

5. The danger of the partisan politicization of transitional justice is of great importance to the credibility of the TRC. It is currently a criticism levied against the TRC in Côte d’Ivoire, pointed to by some as a means for President Alassane Ouattara to demonize opposition groups after the 2010-2011 post-electoral crisis. The Malian government must ensure the absolute independence of Commissioners and should interfere as little as possible with their work. Other safeguards from politicization could come from the UN, perhaps with the Peacebuilding Commission overlooking and monitoring the TRC.

6. The work of the Commissioners should address the roots of the Malian crisis. Pointing to human rights violations occurring in the past year provides no explanation as to why this violence occurred in the first place and has a limited preventive potential. The territorial claims of the Touareg people, statelessness in northern Mali and global poverty, if unaddressed, could be causes of recurrent future conflicts. Commissioners of the TRC in Sierra Leone, following the 1991-96 civil war, published a report targeting the deep-rooted sources of the civil war, namely poverty and bad governance. It was widely recognized as a step forward in the transitional process.

7. The recent UN Security Council creation of a peacekeeping security force to be sent to Mali could pose a challenge of coordination. Renewed involvement of the international community, also coming from the European Commission could be put to use to secure the activities of the Malian commission and prevent retaliation provoked by testimonies.

8. The TRC must be included in and integrated with a broader long-term plan for transition in Mali. Reconciliation is virtually ineffective as a means for peaceful transition if the national political context remains unstable and violence keeps spreading. The findings of the TRC could provide the opportunity to explore new legal pathways to reinforce government rule especially in the northern regions of the country.

TRCs’ potential for peaceful transitional periods is immense and the success of such enterprise has contributed to stabilisation in a number of countries facing situations similar to Mali. It is now up to the government and the Commissioners to address a wide range of transition issues in the work of the TRC, in the hope of opening a long-lasting period of political stability.

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