Atrocity Alert is a weekly publication by the *Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect highlighting situations where populations are at risk of, or are enduring, mass atrocity crimes.
CHILD-TRAFFICKING SURGES IN MALI DUE TO CONFLICT AND COVID-19
Amidst rising inter-communal violence and the ongoing activities of Islamist armed groups, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has warned of a sharp increase in grave human rights violations committed against children in Mali. These include human trafficking, forced recruitment by armed groups, rape, and being forced into sexual or domestic servitude. Earlier this year the UN Secretary-General also reported that the UN had verified 1,764 grave violations against children, including maiming and killing, committed in Mali since July 2017.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the threats facing children. UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs, noted that, “as a result of conflict and socio-economic deterioration worsened by the pandemic, we are seeing some of the most egregious human rights violations in the Sahel.” In Mopti, the region in central Mali that is also at the epicenter of the surge in violence, over 1,000 cases of abduction, sexual assault and rape of women and girls have been recorded so far this year.
There has also been a marked increase in child-trafficking. Growing numbers of children in Mali have been forcibly recruited and sent to work in illegal gold mines, particularly in Gao and Kidal, where armed groups control much of the territory. The Global Protection Cluster has reported that an estimated 6,000 children, mostly boys, are now working at eight mining sites. Many of these child laborers endure extreme physical, sexual and psychological abuse in addition to severe economic exploitation.
The risk of human trafficking and recruitment to armed groups, as well as sexual and gender-based violence, is particularly acute when children are out of school. Attacks on the educational sector in Mali tripled between July 2017 and March 2020, resulting in the closure of over 1,260 schools and impacting at least 378,300 children prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. Despite the pandemic, Mali reopened most schools during September. However, many children remain unable to return due to pervasive insecurity, poverty and the recurring threat of violence. UNHCR has warned that child marriages could “spiral” due to school closures and COVID-19, as approximately 53 percent of girls in Mali already marry before the age of 18.
Mali’s transitional authorities, with support from regional and international partners, must prioritize the protection of children. It is crucial that the authorities rigorously pursue legal accountability for those who perpetrate abuses against children, provide reparations and support to victims, and increase meaningful protection for those most at risk. Mali should also ensure the full implementation of its 2013 Protocol on the Release and Handover of Children Associated with Armed Forces and Groups.
VENEZUELA HOLDS ELECTIONS DESPITE ONGOING CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY
Last Sunday, 6 December, Venezuela held parliamentary elections. President Nicolás Maduro’s ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) and allied parties regained control of the National Assembly, the last major democratically-elected institution held by the opposition. The elections, which lacked the minimal conditions to ensure a free and fair vote, were criticized internationally and boycotted by much of the opposition, including Juan Guaidó, who has been President of the National Assembly and recognized as “caretaker” President by many governments since January 2019. The PSUV and its allies won an estimated 67 percent of the vote for the National Assembly, although official turnout was estimated at only 31 percent.
State-led repression – including extrajudicial executions, torture and ill-treatment, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention – has been a defining feature of Maduro’s government since he took office in 2013. Due to the ongoing multidimensional crisis, the majority of Venezuelans are also facing acute hunger and extreme poverty, with at least 7 million people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, while more than 5.5 million have left the country. Civil society organizations, human rights defenders and humanitarian workers continue to be systematically targeted, threatened and persecuted.
On 2 December the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States released a report accusing state and affiliated non-state agents of perpetrating 18,093 alleged killings and 15,501 cases of potential arbitrary detention since 2014. Utilizing data derived from investigations by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, civil society and independent media, the report reaffirmed that, “crimes against humanity in Venezuela have increased in scale, scope and severity.” Earlier this year the UN’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela (FFM) also warned that state policies aimed at crushing political dissent and confronting criminality may amount to crimes against humanity. The FFM named President Maduro, as well as the Ministers of Interior and Defense, as being responsible for giving orders, exercising oversight and coordinating activities that led to the commission of these crimes.
The ongoing crisis in Venezuela requires a comprehensive international diplomatic response that prioritizes socio-economic needs as well as the rights of victims of serious human rights violations, including pressure to bring the government and the opposition back to negotiations. UN member states should continue to impose targeted sanctions on senior government officials responsible for systematic violations and abuses of human rights, but lift any measures that may limit the population’s access to basic goods and services. In the absence of domestic accountability, states should also consider taking legal action, including under universal jurisdiction, targeting those responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture and other crimes against humanity.
SOUTH SUDAN’S PEACE PROCESS STALLS, LEAVING CIVILIANS AT RISK OF ATROCITIES
On 25 November the UN Security Council (UNSC)-mandated Panel of Experts on South Sudan issued a report alleging that over the past six months, ongoing divisions among the signatories to the 2018 Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS) has resulted in deadly violence, particularly in Jonglei State and the Greater Pibor Administrative Area. The report provides evidence of serious human rights violations, including attacks directed at civilians and civilian infrastructure, as well as attacks on humanitarian workers. Amnesty International also recently published evidence of extrajudicial killings, forced displacement, torture and the destruction of civilian property committed by both government and opposition forces in Central Equatoria earlier this year.
Delays in implementing the R-ARCSS and ongoing political rivalries have exacerbated tensions within South Sudan’s ethnically diverse population, jeopardizing the new Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) and undermining the potential for lasting peace. The Panel’s report notes that senior political and military leaders have continued to manipulate long-standing enmities between rival ethnic communities, including the Murle, Gawaar Nuer, Lou Nuer and Dinka Bor. The Panel also noted the illicit diversion of weapons from government stockpiles to ethnic militias.
The establishment of the TGoNU during February offered an opportunity for President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar to overcome their longstanding rivalry and share power. Instead, the report noted that President Kiir has excluded the opposition from decision-making and Vice President Machar is under de facto house arrest. Political disagreements between Kiir and Machar resulted in a five-year civil war that resulted in an estimated 400,000 deaths between 2013-2018.
Juliette Paauwe, Senior Research Analyst at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said that, “in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, the TGoNU must urgently set out a human rights agenda that includes reforming the security sector and ending a climate of impunity that protects those responsible for attacking civilian populations.” Given the current political situation, when the UNSC reviews the situation in South Sudan on 15 December it should maintain the current arms embargo and extend targeted sanctions against those who continue to threaten peace and security in South Sudan.