Does America’s Mali Strategy Pass Muster?

By Refugees International
A soldier in the Malian army aims his rifle at a checkpoint near Gao. Reuters Photo/Francois Rihouay

By Katia Gibergues-Newton, Refugees International Intern

At the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Mali on February 14th, calls for international unity and commitment were plentiful. Both witnesses at the hearing – Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Amanda Dory – voiced  strong support for the French military intervention against jihadist groups in northern Mali, and for the restoration of a democratically-elected government following last year’s coup d’état.

“We are in for a struggle but it is a necessary struggle,” Carson stated in his remarks. And in that at least, most members of the committee – Democrats and Republicans – were in agreement.

However, this firm rhetorical stance belies a somewhat vague and half-hearted U.S. strategy on the ground. The witnesses’ statements contained few concrete proposals for increased U.S. engagement in Mali, and their comments reinforced the general sense of a tepid U.S. response – one in which America keeps a close eye on the situation, but leaves most of the action to its international partners.

This might not be a problem, except for the fact that the ongoing intervention has serious shortcomings. First, there is the matter of the Malian forces engaging in human rights abuses, which organizations like Human Rights Watch have recently documented. The U.S. faces specific legal constraints that prohibit it from providing direct financial support to the Malians, including the so-called “Leahy law” which prohibits the U.S. from providing weapons or training to “any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible evidence that such unit has committed gross violations of human rights.” Section 7008 of the Foreign Assistance Act also prohibits the U.S. from providing support to a government that has been deposed by military coup.

Both witnesses at last week’s hearing said that the U.S. wanted Malian troops to be trained in human rights law and ethics, yet they acknowledged that the U.S. is prohibited from directly funding the Malian government until elections are held. The elections are not scheduled to take place until July, and until then there appears to be no domestic framework – and no government agency – through which the U.S. can train Malian forces in human rights. That is too long to wait. If direct US assistance is prohibited, then the U.S. must work with its international partners on a more robust, immediate response.

A further problem is the confusion about who will protect Malian civilians after French forces begin their withdrawal. French officials have proposed that a UN peacekeeping operation be sent to Mali by April, and this proposal has apparently garnered support from the U.S.

Certainly, the current force structure – involving units from 13 African countries and 22 non-African countries – presents challenges when it comes to human rights. Without common standards and command structures, there is no certainty that every unit will meet its responsibilities under international law. The witnesses at the recent hearing highlighted the fact that consolidating the forces into a UN peacekeeping operation with human rights monitors would be beneficial in this respect. However, the UN cannot have sole responsibility on this front: the Malian government and its bilateral partners must be equally engaged.

A final glaring problem is the continued need for humanitarian assistance in Mali. The hundreds of thousands Malian civilians who have fled their homes are receiving little attention from U.S. policy-makers. The $373 million UN humanitarian appeal for displaced Malians remains substantially underfunded. The European Commission recently pledged $27 million towards humanitarian needs, while the U.S. has provided just under $1.5 million.

Certain members of Congress did raise questions about the humanitarian dimension of this crisis. For example, Representative Brian Higgins (D-NY) asked whether and how the more than 400,000 refugees and internally displaced persons will be able to participate in Mali’s upcoming elections. But the glaring lack of humanitarian funding was barely mentioned by committee members or the witnesses.

The U.S. sorely needs to live up to its obligations in Mali – both with respect to human rights and humanitarian assistance. Leaders at the State Department and the Pentagon need to put forth clear strategies on these fronts, and Congress should hold them accountable.