Each year, the U.S. Department of State hands out awards for excellence in human rights advocacy. Among these awards is the is the Diplomacy for Human Rights award, recognizing a U.S. diplomat who demonstrated extraordinary commitment to defending human rights and advancing democratic principles in his or her host country.
On Monday, June 2, the 2013 award went to Mary Beth Leonard, America’s chief diplomat to Mali. During her tenure, Mali has experienced extraordinary upheaval and instability that continues despite efforts of the international community. But thanks to the efforts of Malians and members of the international community like Leonard, the country appears to be headed in the right direction.
Mali’s recent civil strife began March 21, 2012 when a group of soldiers mutinied, alleging gross mismanagement of the country’s northern rebellion, an ongoing battle between the government and Tuareg separatists. The soldiers attacked a number of locations across the capital, Bamako, including a number of vital government locations. The mutiny would end in the complete overthrow of now-ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure and his government.
Among the end results of the coup was the opportunistic capture of Northern Mali by Tuareg rebels, a failure in the area whose mismanagement had ostensibly led to the coup in the first place. Reuters aptly described the situation as “a spectacular own-goal.”
The coup, and subsequent partition of the north, would lead to universal condemnation from the international community. Among the most forceful condemnations came from the U.N., the African Union, the European Union and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a group of inter-governmental organizations that combine to represent nearly every country on Earth.
The mutineer government in Bamako would last only a short period, caving under pressure from sanctions and international isolation. In August 2012 a transitional government of national unity was formed including allies of the rebels and of the ousted president.
After the transitional government was formed the situation in the North did not improve as much as hoped. On the heels of the Tuareg rebels, a group of Islamic radicals loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda took down Tuareg flags and took control of several major northern cities.
Thus, the next step was foreign intervention. On Jan. 11, 2013 a French military force bolstered and supported by the Malian military and the Economic Cooperation of West African States (ECOWAS) began an operation to recapture the northern part of the country. They would succeed in this goal in just three weeks, successfully recapturing all the major cities in Northern Mali, dispersing the Islamist rebels and ending the Tuareg separatist rebellion.
This victory was incomplete, however. While the Islamist rebels were driven out of huge major cities, Tuareg separatists moved back into the Northern city of Kidal quickly after the French intervention, forming a shadow administration and a de facto capital of the North.
Since the ouster of the Islamists and subsequent return of Kidal to the hands of the Tuareg rebels, Burkina Faso has played a significant role in promoting dialogue.
Mali’s neighbor to the South helped broker a June 2013 ceasefire in Ouagadougou that would serve as a “a preliminary agreement, intended to enable presidential elections to be held across the country,” and then begin “an inclusive dialogue to find a definitive solution to the crisis,” according to Mali watcher Bruce Whitehouse on his Bridges from Bamako blog.
This deal was signed by the Malian government and representatives of the Tuaregs but has so far been difficult to implement. Kidal is still controlled by Tuareg rebels. A recent flare up in fighting on May 21 left more than 50 members of the Mali military dead, according to Reuters.
The African Union has since taken over peace negotiations, brokering a rapid ceasefire after the recent fighting in Kidal, according to Magharebia, a news site sponsored by the U.S. Africa Command. Reuters reported that the agreement, signed by the Malian government and the three largest Tuareg rebel groups on May 23 included permanent cease fire, exchange of prisoners, restarting peace talks and accepting an international investigation into the May 21 fighting.
Mali’s coup and subsequent upheaval in 2012 left a fractured country. The country was embroiled in political crises and civil war. Much of the country was under a harsh version of Islamic law at the hands of Islamist rebels that resulted in grave human rights violations and harsh punishments such as amputations and stoning.
In 2013 and 2014 Mali has yet to see peace, but the rapid ceasefire and acknowledgement on both sides that fighting needs to stop is an important first step. Thanks to the work of many Malians and members of the international community such as the African Union, Burkina Faso’s government and Ambassador Leonard, the country has rid itself of Islamist control of Northern cities.
While governance is nowhere near perfect and the north-south conflict is yet to be fully resolved, the country has made moves towards dialogue and reconciliation, two of the most important elements in future stability and good governance.
Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.
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