22nd Mar 2018


EU must push African Union on rights abuses

  • The EU has put €50m behind a 5,000 strong force in Africa's Sahel region. One of its five partners, Mauritania, only outlawed slavery in the 1980s (Photo: French ministry of defense)

In a speech to students at the University of London earlier this month, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres offered an implicit rebuke of most global counterterrorism strategies, when he argued that "societies based on respect for human rights and with economic opportunities for all represent the most tangible and meaningful alternative to the recruitment strategies of terrorist groups."

At events like this week's African Union-EU summit in Ivory Coast, European leaders are uniquely positioned to put Guterres' words into practice and push their African counterparts towards more progressive governance.

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Some of the most pressing fronts in the fight against terrorism bisect the African continent.

On paper, it would seem the EU is indeed responding by putting human rights and development at the forefront. The summit agenda revolves around themes such as "economic opportunities for youth" and "human rights, migration, and mobility."

Actions speak louder than words, however, and Europe's approach to Africa's most restive regions puts the lie to its rhetoric.

With Islamic State losing territory in Iraq and Syria, Europe is increasingly shifting its counter-terrorism focus to West Africa's Sahel and its hotbeds of religious extremism and terrorism.

The European Union enthusiastically backs the G5 Sahel Initiative, a regional force with 5,000 soldiers from the five countries that make up the Sahel - Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania.

The European Commission has already allocated €50 million for the endeavour.

France, which remains heavily invested in regional security operations and is unsurprisingly the G5 force's chief global advocate, has begun equipping local forces with vehicles and weapons.

Emmanuel Macron insisted from Burkina Faso on Tuesday that he wants the Sahel coalition to come together more quickly.

The G5's mandate may centre on counter-terrorism, but European leaders - Macron chief among them - should not expect much success if the force proceeds as currently designed. Guterres pointed out in his speech that "93 percent of all terrorist attacks between 1989 and 2014 occurred in countries with high levels of extra-judicial deaths, torture and imprisonment without trial."

The G5 partner countries include textbook examples of such states.

Mauritania is one important example, with deep-rooted ethnic divisions, lingering traditions of slavery, and a president allegedly angling for an unconstitutional third term.

Despite having the smallest population in the region, the Carnegie Endowment points out that Mauritania produces the largest number of radical Islamists.

In many ways, Mauritania typifies the human rights abuses and social inequalities Guterres warns against: over 43,000 Mauritanians still live in slavery, with members of the black indigenous Haratin population owned by Arabic-speaking 'white' Moors.

Summary executions, child soldiers, and slavery

Mauritania became the last country to ban slavery in 1981, and only criminalised it in 2007.

True abolition has been made difficult by President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who rose to power in a military coup and has not hidden his antipathy towards black Mauritanians.

Aziz has sought to consolidate his narrow power base against the backdrop of growing protests against human rights abuses and social inequality.

Mauritanian authorities use charges such as blasphemy to detain activists and political opponents who criticise his rule; special attention is given to those seeking to expose slavery.

In August, Aziz successfully introduced a referendum to abolish the Senate and make it easier to change the constitution—paving the way to expand term limits and allow him to run for a third presidential term. Opposition groups largely boycotted the elections, believing the results would be rigged anyway.

The toxic combination of a repressive political context and a failed education system makes it easy to understand why the country's extremist groups enjoy continued success in recruiting adherents.

If an open democratic space and respect for human rights are necessary to combat violent extremism, states like Mauritania cannot be expected to produce significant results until their leaders reform their authoritarian governing models—or step down.

Paris and Brussels are not solely to blame for endorsing a military-focused solution to counterterrorism and reinforcing their partners' worst impulses.

For all the poignancy of his speech, Guterres himself strongly backs the Sahel initiative. The UN secretary general pushed the Security Council last month to "be ambitious" in equipping and financing the G5 national forces.

Without concrete steps to address human rights concerns and the alienation of local communities in the Sahel, France, the EU and the UN will all be complicit in abuses committed by local partners.

The militaristic approach to counterterrorism is already exacerbating human rights abuses: this September, Human Rights Watch accused Malian and Burkinabe soldiers of extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and the torture of men accused of supporting radical Islamist groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

They singled out Malian forces, who allegedly have also carried out summary executions of civilians and recruited child soldiers into their ranks.

Security fatigue

There is also the danger of security fatigue.

The Sahel already has multiple coalitions operating on the ground, and national armies are stretched thin.

Throwing yet more troops at weakly-governed cross-border regions risks greater harassment of local communities - as seen with Malian and Burkinabe soldiers. That, in turn, will exacerbate the grievances radical Islamist groups exploit to recruit.

European policy in the Sahel - and France's especially - needs to bear greater responsibility for monitoring and countering abuses by the G5 national armies.

Even more importantly, Macron and his EU counterparts should simultaneously advocate a multi-sectoral approach that places human rights, equitable development and economic opportunity at the forefront. The G5 Sahel initiative can and should be far more than simply a security partnership.

As Guterres put it in his London speech: "When we protect human rights, we are tackling the root causes of terrorism. For the power of human rights to bond is stronger than the power of terrorism to divide."

Dina Yazdani is a reporter for Fair Observer in Portland, USA

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