EU-trained troops committed abuses in Mali

The recent army atrocities are not the first. By cross-checking public databases, Investigate Europe identified at least three cases of battalions previously trained by the EU that were later involved in abuses against civilians. 

Map: Abuses by Malian troops trained by the EU

While they were transported to the military camp, the ten men were “violently beaten”. Once there, “soldiers conducted mock executions, including putting the detainees in a hole, blindfolding them and beating them violently on the head and spraying them with a liquid presented as gasoline, shouting that they would be burned to death for being members of extremist armed groups.” 

This chilling account, by the UN International Commission of Inquiry for Mali, is one of scores in their 329-page report, which came in 2020. The abuse in the Boni military camp of ten men of Fulani origin – the majority ethnic group in the Mopti region – happened on May 7 and 8, 2017. The perpetrators were identified by the Commission as part of the third regiment of a particular battalion of the Malian army known as the first Joint Tactical Group – the GTIA-Waraba, possibly trained by Europeans.  

On these dates, the soldiers raided villages near the border with Burkina Faso. The Mopti region is in the area known as the “three borders” because it straddles three countries; Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. It has been the epicenter of violence and displacement fueled by terrorist attacks, military retaliations and ethnic conflicts since 2012. The Malian army has tried to quell it since, with questionable luck. 

After two days of humiliation, the ten prisoners were taken to a gendarmerie camp in the capital Bamako, where they remained for more than a month before being released “without ever being brought before a judge.” 

Their account occupies only a short paragraph in the Commission’s report, the result of a two and a half years investigation into allegations of abuses and serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed on Malian territory between 2012 and 2017. 

Investigate Europe cross-checked facts of Boni camp abuses with data from the Security Force Monitor, a project of the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute. They use open source information to track Malian security forces and the training they received from foreign partners. We were able to establish that the GTIA-Waraba was among the very first battalions trained by the EU in 2013 and 2014 as part of its training mission, EUTM Mali. The mission was then under French-German command. 

Moura, 2022: Mass executions

The town of Moura is also in the Mopti region. It was here, in late March this year, that Malian armed forces and foreign soldiers executed several hundred people who had been rounded up in the town, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). 

Sunday is market day in Moura, so March 27 was busy. The troops descended on the town by helicopters, according to HRW. There was gunfire between them and some 30 islamist fighters. The soldiers detained hundreds of unarmed men – traders from many villages, as well as some islamist fighters who had attempted to blend in with the population. 

Moura (Mourrah) is a village in the Mopti Region of southern-central Mali

“Over the four days, the soldiers ordered the detained men in groups of 4,6, and up to 10, to stand up and walk for between several dozen and several hundred meters. There, the Malian and foreign soldiers summarily executed them”, reports HRW, and quotes one villager:

“The sound of gunfire rang out in our village from Monday to Thursday”.

The NGO has spoken with 19 witnesses and survivors. They all told HRW that the perpetrators were members of the Malian army and “white soldiers”. Residents said the foreign soldiers did not speak French, and believed they were Russian. 

The Malian defence ministry has reported that the army killed 203 “terrorists” between March 23 and 31. Most of the victims were Fulani, a group that islamists try to recruit by exploiting their grievances with the government, said witnesses. Some thought the soldiers chose whom to execute based on their look. 

“Some they killed were really jihadists, but many others were killed simply because they had been forced by the same jihadists to cut their pants and grow their beards”. 

Ten years on: Insurgency all over country

The insurgency is spreading. “Terrorism plagues practically the entire territory of Mali,” said colonel Souleymane Dembélé, the head of the communication unit of the armed forces, in February.  

Human Rights Watch does not only focus on abuses by the Malian army. Armed islamists have also killed scores of security force personnel in 2022, and HRW says it is investigating the alleged killing of several hundred civilians earlier in March by alleged forces of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. 

Human Rights Watch calls the massacre in Moura the “worst single atrocity reported” in the ten years of war in Mali. Germany, France, the US and the EU are calling for an independent investigation into what happened.

Some have done this work on previous abuses. The UN Commission document from 2020 also include accounts of alleged war crimes by extremist armed groups and other actors. They are all in a complex web of inter-community violence that ravages the country, with no justice for victims. However, the Commission noted “that a very large number of documented human rights violations and war crimes are attributable to the defence and security forces.” 

Fact box: EU Training Mission in Mali

EU personnel from 25 European countries have trained the Malian army for almost a decade, in combat as well as in human rights. How do these atrocities implicate the EU Training Mission?

EU going after terrorism threat

The GTIA – Joint Tactical Groups – are special battalions of the Malian army. They have been modeled from a French doctrine in 2013. There are eight of them, with more than 600 soldiers in each. Bringing together infantry companies, armored squadrons, artillerymen, commandos and air controllers, the GTIAs were to become the elite of the Malian army and be sent to the front lines to face the jihadists in the north of the country. 

The EU, like France, is concerned about terrorist threats posed by jihadist groups that have found refuge in this area. It is to contain this threat that they have sent trainers to support and train Malian forces. 

More to military than to aid

The EU suspended combat training within EUTM in March. Before that, the EU had allocated a budget of 46 million euros for 2021 alone. That was 10 million more than the humanitarian aid budget provided by the EU to Mali that year. It is a colossal sum, considering that it represents only 5 to 10% of the real costs of the mission, the rest being borne by the member states. 

Much of the money is spent on protecting EU personnel, rather than on training. In the early years of the mission, the ratio was 200 trainers out of a total of about 560 personnel. Investigate Europe has made repeated requests for information from several EU bodies, but we have not been able to get figures on the mission’s current staffing distribution.  

A former EU official remembers the special atmosphere at the Nord-Sud Hotel in Bamako, the EUTM mission headquarters: “The main training camp was in Koulikoro, but there were a lot of people at the Nord-Sud Hotel in Bamako. At one point, there were almost as many people protecting EUTM as there were people doing the core work of EUTM. It was a little weird.” 

This year, the public money may mostly be needed to cover the costs of pulling out European troops. 

In late March, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, announced the suspension of combat training in EUTM. 

The freeze came a month after a decision to withdraw two European combat missions, the French counter-terrorism Operation Barkhane and the European joint force Takuba. Without these combat troops to protect the trainers in emergencies, it is not likely that EUTM can continue, said Christine Lambrecht, Germany’s defence minister, when the news came out.

The Malian government reacted to the news by telling the two combat forces to leave immediately. It claimed it had not been consulted before the news of the withdrawal. 

Abdoulaye Diop (left) and Josep Borrell Fontelles (right) meeting in January 2022 |
© European Union, 2022

“We want a different type of partnership”, Mali’s foreign minister Aboulaye Diop told Al Jazeera in late February. He criticized Europeans for addressing “symptoms” instead of “root causes” for the conflicts that continue to scar Malian societies. “We will not accept any sort of support if we think it will not help us to give security to Malians. If you come as a partner, and tomorrow, when you are leaving, we are left with nothing, that is not the partnership we are looking for.”

For the past 10 months, Mali has been in the hands of the military, who took power in a coup on May 24, 2021. The relations with European partners worsened when the military postponed elections that were promised for February this year, with five years. But it’s also the arrival of the Wagner group in Mali that raised concerns among Europeans. 

Russian mercenaries

The combat training within EUTM will not continue until the Malian government guarantees that EU-trained soldiers will not end up under the command of Wagner mercenaries, according to Borrell. Wagner are military contractors from Russia, accused of committing abuses in other countries, notably in the Central African Republic and in Syria. 

The witness accounts from the killings in Moura in late March identify the foreign soldiers as Russians. For months, Western intelligence agencies have insisted that Wagner members are in Mali. But as late as in the end of February, Mali’s minister of foreign affairs denied this. “Mali has nothing to do with Wagner”, Abdoulaye Diop told Al Jazeera. “We don’t need mercenaries to protect the Malian authorities”. 

However, Diop said the government has “state to state” cooperation with Russia. And a government spokesman acknowledged back in December that “Russian trainers” were present in Mali as part of a bilateral agreement between Mali and Russia. 

Neither the Malian government nor army have responded to questions sent by Investigate Europe about the previously reported abuses by Malian troops, as well as Malian experiences with European partners. 

European ambassadors last week discussed a possible permanent end to the EUTM and EUCAP missions in Mali and the withdrawal of European troops. The final decision is expected on 11 April, at the next meeting of foreign ministers. 

Gourma 2019: Extortion, abuse, killings

Some Malian troops trained by the EU have engaged in abuses on their own, long before any arrival of the Wagner group. In addition to the abuses inflicted by the first Malian GTIA, the eighth GTIA has also been singled out by the UN Commission of Inquiry. 

In the early years of the war, they were put through the mill of EUTM training at the Koulikoro center near Bamako. “We are producers of joint tactical groups for the Malian armed forces,” General Marc Rudkiewicz, head of the EUTM mission in 2014, boasted in an interview with B2, a site that focuses on European defence. Malian soldiers are taught “how to shoot a Kalashnikov, lying down,” “how to deploy in the field to gain a position and fight an enemy,” and “how to work at a checkpoint”. 

Malian refugees in the Mbera camp located in Mauritania | © UNICEF, 2021

The UN Commission claims to have “credible information concerning abuses (extortion, ill-treatment, extrajudicial executions) committed during operations conducted in Gourma in 2019 by members of the eighth GTIA whose training ended in 2016.” In 2015-2016, the likely period when the eighth GTIA was formed, the EUTM mission was under French-German command. 

From classrooms to chaos in the field 

The training lasts for several months. It includes acourse on international humanitarian law and respect for human rights. It should teach the trainees to distinguish the enemy from the population and to act legally in all circumstances. But if the trainees have an afternoon about international law, “it will have no effect in the field”, says a researcher on security sector reform assistance. 

Trainers tried to adjust the curriculum, says a former EUTM trainer of humanitarian law who spoke with IE on condition of anonymity. Since many Malian soldiers cannot read, trainers left the classroom for practice and situation awareness. Over the years, trainers have built human rights issues into tactical courses. In some exercises, the foreigners make soldiers come face-to-face with civilians, to see how they react. 

The effect of such training seems questionable: violence by armed forces against civilians has increased in recent years. Investigate Europe looked at the database of ACLED (Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project), which collects data on incidents of political violence. 

We could establish that more than 1,000 civilian deaths were caused by Mali’s armed forces since the beginning of 2018. That is 90% of the cases counted since the conflict began in 2013. The number of casualties is increasing at a worrying pace since the beginning of 2022.  More than half of these killings were committed in 2022. 

However, the Malian government refutes any accusation and gags media that work on the subject. As French Médiapart reported in a March 26 article, Malian authorities have suspended Radio France Internationale and France 24. This happened after RFI’s broadcast of an investigation into alleged abuses by Malian soldiers in central Mali. 

No follow-up after training

How effective are the humanitarian law trainings received by Malian soldiers? And how are trainees followed up?  European governments do not allow their trainers to accompany the Malian army in operations. “If you don’t actively monitor what the troops are doing after training and you don’t go out on patrol with them, it’s probably not going to be very effective,” says the researcher quoted above, who wishes to remain anonymous for security reasons. 

The former EUTM humanitarian law trainer is sorry to see her teaching produced so little effect in practice. 

“We could train each individual to a good standard. But then he would go back to his own unit, and then God knows who would be commanding him, and whether that commander would be particularly committed to humanitarian law”. 

According to the ex-trainer, the problem is also the selection of trainees. “We depended entirely on the Malian armed forces for the selection of soldiers and officers to be trained, and there was a complete gap between those we imagined they would send and those they actually sent.“

The UN Commission of Inquiry tried to obtain the names of former and current commanders of the eight EU-trained GTIAs, to determine the impact of EUTM training and the progress of Malian forces in respecting human rights. But EUTM was unable to provide this information.

Bamako 2020: Deadly force against protesters

The abuses are not limited to the GTIA, the first battalions trained by the EU. Another elite unit has also distinguished itself by lack of respect for human rights. Its name: FORSAT, short for Special Anti-Terrorist Forces. Created in 2016 in response to a series of particularly deadly terrorist attacks in the Malian capital and central Mali, it is intended to intervene in emergencies throughout the country, to prevent terrorist acts.

On July 11, clashes broke out between demonstrators and security forces in front of the Imam Mahmoud Dicko mosque in a neighborhood south of Bamako. Demonstrators started throwing stones at the security forces. They responded with tear gas, grenades and flares. A police vehicle forced a barricade in front of the mosque, lostcontrol and fell into a gutter. Faced with the growing number of demonstrators, the police fired live ammunition into the crowd. 14 people were killed. Of the victims, two were killed by bullets fired by FORSAT elements.

The account of this dreadful evening can be read in a special report by the human rights division of MINUSMA, the UN mission in Mali. It describes abuses during demonstrations of the opposition on July 10 to 13, 2020. The report states that FORSAT shall not intervene in law enforcement operations. The anti-terrorist force was nevertheless present at the demonstrations, and that was “illegal”, in MINUSMA’s words. The UN also holds the special force responsible for a “disproportionate use of force” which led to the death of these two protesters.  

The special forces’ anti-terrorist troops had been trained by Europeans and Americans. In particular, the Security Force Monitor database indicates that EUTM, then under Portuguese command, had provided courses to FORSAT members between March and April 2020. The curriculum included combat shooting and military operations in urban areas. 

European trainers in the Malian fog 

The Malian army’s crimes against the civilian population are “widespread or systematic”, according to the United Nations. This means it is very likely that the three cases described in this article are not isolated. A former employee of one of the European missions in Mali concludes the same: “There have been many other situations where forces that had been trained by the EU have later committed human rights violations. So what happened with FORSAT is not unique in my opinion.”

Comdt Mick Nestor, Co Offally, congratulates a Malian soldier for his efforts in the International Poc Fada | © Irish Defence Forces, CC BY 2.0

In practice, however, it is difficult to identify the armed groups operating on the ground. “Are they state forces or not, are they signatories to the Algiers Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali or not, are they separatist or jihadist groups, are they paramilitary militias, are they soldiers acting as soldiers, or as members of community self-defence groups that they join when they are not on duty?” says a former MINUSMA employee who wishes to remain anonymous.

It is challenging to make sense of the mosaic of actors, to place individual responsibilities and clearly identify which forces the perpetrators of a crime belong to. “It is even more difficult to identify the person who gave the order or held the weapon”, adds the former UN representative. Not to mention “going back further to find out if these people had received training or not.”

Whose responsibility?

Investigate Europe has asked the EUTM, the EU Commission, the EU Council, and the governments of France, Germany, and Portugal on what co-responsibility they take for abuses committed by soldiers that have been trained by Europeans in an EU program. 

Fact box: Mali and the European Peace Facility

Only the EU Commission and Germany have responded. They do not assume responsibility. “The deployment and employment of the trained assets are decided by the Malian authorities without coordination with EUTM Mali,” writes an EU official in an e-mail.

A spokesperson for the German Bundeswehr Joint Forces Operations Command points out that the Malian military selects the soldiers sent for training by the EUTM.

“After the training has taken place, the further career of the Malian soldiers will not be pursued further by the German EUTM contingent or the EUTM as a whole,” he writes. And adds: “This is the responsibility of the Malian Ministry of Defense. Therefore, we do not have any information on the cases you have described.”

Violations are not a reason to stop training Malian soldiers, claims a former EUTM trainer. “The fact that there may be violations is part of the reason for EUTM’s existence. If the Malian army was already perfect, it wouldn’t need it,” she says. 

But she concedes a heavy thought: “When there were allegations of atrocities, could we really swear hand on heart that we did not train these people?” 

Apostolis Fotiadis, Nico Schmidt and Juliet Ferguson contributed to this story