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Alleged human rights violations threaten peacekeeping

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Picture: AFP – South African soldiers, who are part of the SADC peacekeeping mission in Mozambique, patrol the Maringanha district in Pemba, in August 2021. A video on social media shows some SANDF members allegedly participating in controversial activities and raised the alarm about possible human rights violations, says the writer.

By Sehlule Sibanda and Bathromeu Mavhura

There has been an increase in African interventions to help resolve conflicts and political violence on the Continent in recent decades.

The conversion of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to the African Union (AU) saw the institution abandon its principle of non-interference, which was designed to protect state sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence of member states.

The principle of non-interference stripped the OAU’s power to intervene in cases of human rights violations and genocide. As such, at its formation, which coincided with the end of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the prevalence of intra-state wars in countries such as Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Sudan, the AU was granted the right to intervene in a member state in respect of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.

This right extends to its regional blocs such as the Economic Community of West African States, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development among others, which have played or are playing a significant role in the mitigation of conflicts in their regions.

In most cases, these regional organisations have done well in this regard, but allegations of human rights violations and unethical conduct of some of their personnel have compromised these deployments and, in some cases, exacerbated the crises.

Thus, the allegations of human rights violations by the Southern African Development Community Mission in Mozambique (Samim) following the circulation of a video on social media showing Samim personnel burning dead bodies has sparked controversy and raised the alarm about the possible human rights violations by the intervening forces.

The past decade has seen an increase in armed conflict and political violence in Cabo Delgado perpetrated by a group called Isis Mozambique.

Most of the violence has been committed against civilians, particularly women and children, resulting in the death of over 4,000 people and the displacement of over 730,000 since 2017. It also halted a $20 billion gas project that could have injected a lot of income into the country’s economy if properly managed.

Efforts by the Mozambican government to eliminate the group have been futile. As a regional response to support the Mozambican government to curb violent activities in the region, the Extraordinary SADC Summit of Heads of State and Government held in Maputo approved the deployment of Samim on July 15, 2021.

Its mandate includes supporting the government of Mozambique to combat terrorism and acts of violent extremism in Cabo Delgado and restoring security to create a secure environment, strengthening and maintaining peace and security, restoring law and order in the region and supporting the government of Mozambique, in collaboration with humanitarian agencies, to continue providing relief to the population affected by the political violence, including the internally displaced.

The SADC Mission in Mozambique consists of soldiers from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola, the DRC, Botswana, Lesotho and Tanzania. It has made some notable strides since its deployment, including dislodging “terrorists” from their bases, recapturing villages, and seizing weapons and warfare material, creating a secure environment for safer passage of humanitarian support.

However, the allegations of human rights violations following the recent circulation of a video of Samim forces burning bodies may undermine the legitimacy and integrity of the deployment or may even reverse some of the milestones that have been registered.

Although the details of the video showing Samim forces burning dead bodies are still unclear, that act alone implicates them and constitutes violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) that guide the management and human disposal of dead bodies in conflict.

International Humanitarian Law stipulates that the remains of those who die during an armed conflict be handled with dignity and properly managed.

It further requires that the deceased be searched for, collected, and evacuated to ensure that the people do not go missing.

Thus, we argue that even though cremation is part of the human disposal of bodies in conflict according to IHL, the fact that none of the relevant authorities have any recollection of the incident or whose bodies were being burnt (combatant or non-combatant), and the undignified way it was done on the video raises concerns that a war crime could have been committed there.

There could also be a possibility of human rights violations being perpetrated by the intervening force. Several civil society groups and relevant stakeholders have expressed their concern and are asking the relevant authorities to probe the matter and ensure the prosecution of those found guilty.

Tigere Chagutah, Amnesty International’s director for East and Southern Africa, for instance, commented: “The video showing soldiers burning corpses is another horrific event that gives a glimpse of what is going on away from the media in the forgotten war.”

This incident does not only have legal implications but also compromises the SADC intervention in Cabo Delgado and can reverse the gains that have been made to mitigate the crisis in that region if not properly investigated and handled.

The issues of the ill-treatment of people who have died in conflict have proven to be highly sensitive and have triggered public outrage in some parts of the world. A case in point is that of the global outrage caused by the circulation of the pictures of dead US soldiers dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993, which led to the withdrawal of the US troops in Somalia.

It also depletes the trust and cooperation of local communities, thereby hindering the possibility of information and intelligence gathering, which is crucial in any conflict environment. This has been evident in the case of the fight against Boko Haram in Nigeria, for instance, where the misconduct of the government and the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) intervening forces shifted the support towards Boko Haram with dire consequences. Although the MNJTF intervening forces have given hope in the fight against Boko Haram, its heavy-handedness, like that of the Nigerian military, has limited its success in eliminating the terrorist organisation in the region.

It is against this backdrop that there is so much outrage and controversy around the conduct of Samim personnel that has been depicted in the video trending on social media. Thus, it is highly recommended that the regional authorities and Mozambican government probe the incident and take disciplinary action against the implicated intervening forces.

Furthermore, investigations need to be done to establish if this was an isolated incident of “misconduct” by Samim forces or if there are more human rights violations and war crimes that the intervening forces have committed that have not been documented.

This may also be a basis for establishing mechanisms of accountability to discipline and reprimand intervening forces that commit human rights violations and war crimes to avoid contributing to a culture of impunity that has been prevalent in conflict zones, particularly where there is presumed terrorism.

Sehlule Sibanda is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Studies at UWC and Bathromeu Mavhura is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Studies at Stellenbosch University.