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Press Conference on Mali by Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

10 October 2012

As the situation in Mali’s rebel-controlled north worsened, with reports of systematic executions, amputations and rape, most political leaders and civil society actors agreed that liberating the country must come before holding elections, Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, told reporters at Headquarters today.

“The situation is very bad, and the pattern of human rights violations is changing,” he said, explaining that he was just back from a four-day assessment mission to Mali, where he had met with ministers, civil society groups, displaced persons and leading intellectuals. The visit included a trip to Mopti, a town of 100,000 that bordered rebel territory. A Human Rights Officer had been deployed in the country for the past two months, and Mr. Šimonović announced that he had now decided to create a permanent post for an adviser there, at the request of the United Nations country office and the Malian Government.

What best illustrated the gravity of the situation was that Al-Qaida-affiliated rebels now controlled two thirds of Mali — an area the size of France — and had forced over 1.5 million people to flee their homes. Displaced persons had been registered in growing numbers he said, noting that some 40,000 were now estimated to be in Mopti. Neighbouring countries were seeing a similar spike in registrations, with 100,000 in Mauritania, 100,000 in Burkina Faso, 40,000 in Niger and 30,000 in Algeria.

He said while the Malian armed forces had wanted to prevent the fall of Mopti – a town in the Inner Niger Delta region — the areas porous borders and increased rebel activity had, according to reports, led to worsening conditions. Past reports of sporadic summary executions of captured soldiers and cases of rape had become “more systematic”, he said. What began as a Malian-led rebellion had been taken over by Arab-led radical Islamists that were imposing their extremist views of sharia.

“The population is suffering,” he said, having spoken with displaced people, who had reported bans on soccer, smoking and playing music alongside strict rules that women must be covered. One displaced person told him that a woman had to flee because she was a merchant and was no longer allowed to work. Those breaking the new restrictive rules faced drastic punishments, he said, noting that there had reportedly been three cases of public execution, eight cases of amputations and numerous floggings.

“It is frightening to hear that lists are being compiled of women who are either pregnant of have children and are not married,” he said. “We don’t know what will happen to them.” Further grim testimonies included reports of forced marriage, forced prostitution, rape and evidence that it now cost less than $1,000 to buy a wife. The rebels were also “buying” loyalty, abolishing taxes and using illicit funds from narco-trafficking and ransom payments to actively recruit children to learn how to make explosives and to fight as soldiers, he was told.

Families were receiving almost $600 to enlist a child, followed by $400 a month, he said, noting that over half the population lived on less than $1.25 a day. Given the current situation, he said it was critical to examine the root causes of instability, among them corruption, the violation of human rights and poverty.

Mr. Šimonović said that some interlocutors told him that the current situation was not an occupation of the North, but “abandonment” of the region because the military did not want to fight rebels due to reports of corruption in the army, he said.

In the south of Mali, society was quite divided, he continued. As the military recovered after the recent back to back coups, he said that while the reported grave human rights abuses linked to those incidents had ended, 20 persons were still missing and 30 people in prison. There were also credible allegations of arbitrary detention and torture. Those incidents must be investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice, given that the Government had requested United Nations support.

The Government should take control over the rebel-held area, he suggested. But to do that, the Malian armed forces needed training. Moreover, the country’s security sector would need to be reformed if the United Nations was to provide support, he said, answering a reporter’s question. Measures must also be taken to protect civilians and to ensure there was no power vacuum, he added.

Answering another question, he said civil society in Mali was also relatively weak. However, he had seen a strengthening of women’s rights initiatives, including through Islamic Council’s support for eradicating female genital mutilation, and the fact that women made up one third of police recruits. He suggested the United Nations should push for meeting the 30 per cent minimum for women parliamentarians when elections were held, he said.

Despite their shortcomings, some civil society groups had nevertheless managed to penetrate the unsealed “border” with the rebel-held territory and were making efforts to negotiate and “decouple” them from their Al-Qaida affiliates, he explained. Further, about 3,000 students in the north had protested that they couldn’t take their final exams, and had come to Mopti to do so before returning home, he said. “It is a strange situation,” he said. “The rebel-controlled area is not sealed, which is atypical in a civil war,” he added finally.

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For information media • not an official record

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