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Lessons in Liberal Intervention

December 29, 2012

By Frank Ascaso

Last week the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution allowing military intervention in Mali. The United States, a sponsor of the measure and long supporter of intervention issued a statement justifying action saying that “success in Mali is in our strategic interest, and in the interest of our allies and partners.” Whatever the United States means by success, it is clear that western intervention, even that spearheaded by neighboring African nations, will mean a humanitarian and political crisis in the region.

In the days prior to the passage of the Security Council resolution, Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling on the international community to refrain from taking military action for the likely human rights and humanitarian crisis it will cause. While HRW reports “numerous serious abuses” by Mali’s northern rebels, the focus of their report is on Malian government actions. It found that reprisals were being planned against the Tuareg, an ethnic group in the north that created an autonomous zone in a January uprising, and that government allied militias have lists of individuals identified for attack should government or multilateral forces enter the north.

Militias allied to the government and specifically to March coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo are already responsible for heinous crimes that the HRW report details. They note that military detainees, mostly Tuareg and Arab ethnics, “were beaten with batons, sticks, and gun butts; kicked in the back, head, ribs, and genitals; stabbed in their extremities; burned with cigarettes and lighters; and forced at gunpoint to engage in anal sex with one another.” In months of investigation HRW found that security forces:

have been implicated in numerous serious abuses including torture, enforced disappearance, and the intimidation of opposition voices. Outside the capital, the Malian army has arbitrarily detained and executed [individuals] for their alleged connections to rebel groups in the north.

These concerns were reiterated by Amnesty International in a press statement following the passage of the UN resolution. And as far back as November the International Committee of the Red Cross issued similar dire warnings, highlighting that as much as half of the area population, 500,000 people, are reliant on foreign aid that a military intervention would disrupt. Such disruptions could have dramatic consequences, including food shortages. Many in the Timbuktu region fear collective punishment should the government, or multinational forces, reinvade.

The goals of the US and the French, the other major sponsor the resolution, are unclear, but they are undoubtedly not motivated by forcing peace negotiations on Tuareg separatists groups in the North, as is commonly stipulated. Such groups, notably Ansar Dine, the “Taliban in the Sahel,” have agreed to a negotiated peace settlement for months. Since November they’ve had envoys in Algeria and Burkina Faso working on establishing a negotiated settlement, and in the days prior to and just after the UN resolution have reiterated their willingness to negotiate.

That the west is pursuing military intervention in spite of the warnings from the top human rights groups suggests that western intervention is not motivated by humanitarian concerns. This is particularly clear since a diplomatic alternative exists. Why risk disrupting the foreign aid for 500,000 people, when there is potential for a negotiated settlement? This risk will certainly not be taken for the benefit of the people of Mali.

What, then, is motivating western intervention? Africa in general has been an increasing focus of great power interest. Both China and the United States have increased their commercial and military presences there, China by purchasing numerous natural resource production facilities, the US by increasing its military footprint through AfriCom and other measures.

Why Mali, and why now? Since the collapse of the Quadafi regime in Libya many armed militants fled and established new encampments in places like Algeria and Mali. In the northern portion of Mali, long home to separatist Tuareg rebels, this new infusion of arms and trained militants sparked an uprising to create semi-autonomous region. A minority of rebels, but an armed and organized one, are Islamic militants, including groups with ties to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Ansar Dine, “defenders of the faith,” who are frequently posed as the Taliban in West Africa in western media. They have destroyed religious world heritage sites and reportedly are acting to impose Sharia law.

But as demonstrated on this site and elsewhere, rarely does the US act solely to disrupt jihadist movements. Instead a complex web of international power plays are under way. Mali’s single largest trading partner is China, which represents a whopping 31% of Mali trade, twice as much as any other nation. China had been fostering Mali as a major cotton and sugar source, helping to develop sugar refining capabilities there. Most importantly, Mali is a significant gold exporter, a material crucial for the manufacture of electronics and aerospace materials. Over the last decade China has secured commercial relations with some of the region’s biggest powers, including Mali and Libya. The United States and the West have sought to counter these gains through their strongest suit, military power.

Furthermore, Mali’s proximity to major oil exporter Nigeria could also play a significant role in the decision to intervene. Nigeria is the largest US trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa, and supplies a fifth of US oil. Nigeria also faces its own rebels, some Islamist, some ethnically based, others opposed to neo-colonial relationship between Nigeria and the west, who seek greater nationalist and environmental controls for the use of Nigeria’s oil. Having a regional ally, with close proximity to Nigeria, a nation of strategic importance to the US, can’t be far from state planners’ minds.

The situation in Mali is dire, but western intervention of the kind allowed in the UN resolution will only make matters worse. Instead, the warnings of the world’s humanitarian community should be taken seriously. Human Rights Watch’s call to investigate the crimes of the military, honor the rebels’ pleas to engage in a negotiated settlement, and to allow careful monitoring of the situation could spell a way out of an impending humanitarian crisis, one largely precipitated by western intervention.

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