Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda of the International Criminal Court (ICC) yesterday formally opened an investigation into alleged war crimes committed in Mali.
The investigation will focus on the northern part of the country where fighting broke out in January 2012 between Government forces and Tuareg rebels of the National Movement of the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). An army mutiny enabled the Taureg to seize the northern half of the country and declare a secessionist state.
The conflict was exacerbated by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Islamist movements – the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Ansar Dine – joining forces with MNLA, raising concern that northern Mali would become a haven for international terrorism.
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The Prosecutor said that there is ‘a reasonable basis’ to believe that the following crimes were committed: murder; mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; intentionally directing attacks against protected objects (UNESCO-listed centuries-old religious monuments in Timbuktu); the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court; pillaging; and rape.
On 13 July 2012 the government of Mali sent a referral letter to the court letter alleging that gross human rights violations and war crimes had been committed in the north of the country.
Mali will become the eighth situations under investigation by the Court, all of them in Africa. The others are the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR), Côte d’Ivoire, the Darfur region of western Sudan, Libya, Uganda and Kenya.
Mali’s situation comes at a time when the ICC is under fire for not opening investigations in other parts of the world. Some critics even go so far as to contend that the ICC is targeting Africa.
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As the new prosecutor begins her tenure at the ICC, analysts have echoed the widely-held concern that one of her office’s main challenges is to ensure that the court rebuilds its legitimacy, especially in Africa saying that to do so the ICC must open formal investigations into situations outside the continent.
The governments of Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic (CAR), as well as the Côte d’Ivoire have requested the ICC’s intervention.
Even self-referrals, argue critics of the ICC, elicit more skepticism than compliments for the court.
In all four cases above, allegations are that these requests were intended to cripple government adversaries rather than end impunity for grave crimes, or that the cases represent ‘victor’s justice’ rather than real justice for all sides to the conflict.
Critics have also observed that Mali is the first ICC investigation to be so closely timed with the entrance of foreign military units. The prosecutor’s announcement comes just days after French troops intervened in the conflict.
Related: Timbuktu: Fighting in Mali threatens ancient cultural heritage
There is an on-going debate over whether justice ought to be sequenced after peace is secured, or whether there is no peace possible without justice.
Africans have also complained that Western preoccupation with ‘fighting the culture of impunity’ sabotages peace and reconciliation efforts and prolongs conflicts on the continent.