Blog - ECHO in the field

Building respect for humanitarian principles in Mali

OCHA, ECHO and partners provide IHL training for soldiers in Mali - Photo credit ECHO

OCHA, ECHO and partners provide IHL training for soldiers in Mali - Photo credit ECHO

20/8/2013 – Imagine. It’s after 6pm. You’re about to go into labour but something is wrong. You need to get to the hospital. But there’s no way of passing the first check-point and you end up delivering the baby at home, without any professional help. This happened last June in Ansongo, north of Gao, after the Malian army retook control over the town in January 2013.

“The woman gave birth at home but suffered serious complications. She was transferred to the hospital for treatment days later. The non-governmental organization that works at the hospital took issue with the soldiers’ conduct. “Since then we’ve put into place a specific standing operating procedure (SOP) to ensure that the military allow medical and humanitarian emergencies during curfew,” says El Hadji Ibrahima Diene, better known as Boly. As a United Nations’ expert in civil-military coordination (UN CMCoord) for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) based in Bamako, he’s a go-between whose main task is to make the military understand and respect humanitarian action and principles.

“It’s not easy. They do not understand why humanitarians stigmatize them, why they don’t want to be seen with them, but come running when the situation deteriorates. I tell them it’s not a question of disdain, but because there’s a need for a clear separation between military and humanitarian action to avoid any confusion that could be detrimental to people in need.”

Blatant breaches of humanitarian principles didn’t stop with the ‘checkpoint incident’. When armed soldiers entered a hospital, they didn’t realize or care that this was a violation of humanitarian space; the notion that hospitals are to be safe and neutral spaces where weapons are not permitted did not seem to occur to them.

In the volatile context of Mali’s northern region, characterized as it is by power shifts, suicide attacks and widespread suspicion, both those who provide humanitarian assistance and those who receive it continue to be extremely vulnerable. This is why, in the aftermath of the military intervention, the European Commission’s humanitarian aid department (ECHO) urged OCHA to ensure that adequate coordination mechanisms with the military be set up.

Patrick Barbier, ECHO’s Mali representative, explains: “The situation continues to be tense with certain ethnic groups accused of complicity with the armed groups that have been chased. This could spill over into reprisals, including by the Malian army. So when we heard of plans for an EU training mission to improve the capacity of the Malian army, we strongly advocated for humanitarian principles and international humanitarian law to be included in the package.”
The EU Training Mission-Mali (EUTM-M) hired Cynthia Petrigh and six other civilian trainers in order to develop and deliver an extensive training programme focusing on these issues as well as human rights, gender-based violence and the protection of women, children and refugees.

Where the need to protect the life of a pregnant woman is generally well understood during classes, this is not so when Cynthia explains the need to resist temptations of retaliation.

“Why do we have to treat the ‘rebels’ well when they massacred our comrades in front of our eyes?” is one of the questions that regularly pops up. Cynthia replies by pointing out their responsibilities as regular army soldiers and by highlighting that the mistreatment of injured or ex-combatants and prisoners of wars amounts to war crimes, now also under investigation by the International Criminal Court.

“After the more theoretic classes, we organize practicals with real-life scenarios. We observe their behaviour during role-play and rectify where needed. We build the scenarios based on experiences reported back to us by humanitarians in the field,” says Cynthia. “That’s how I and other instructors end up disguised as injured opponents or as displaced civilians.”

The collaboration with OCHA has been fruitful according to Cynthia who believes that principles of civil-military coordination are of particular relevance to the context.

“It’s important for us to hear back from humanitarian workers who work up north about how the coordination is faring and should any incidents occur,” she says. “We obviously do not expect things to be perfect, but by training these soldiers we do our best and hope there will be fewer incidents than if we hadn’t trained them.”

The EUTM-M has been underway since February 2013 and includes 200 EU trainers from 13 countries who are not involved in combat operations. The only civilian trainer deployed with EUTM-M leads on the delivery of a training package on international humanitarian law (IHL), human rights and gender-based violence (GBV). She does this in close collaboration with UN agencies such as OCHA and UNICEF. Four battalions of approximately 700 men each spend 10 weeks at a training camp where, every Saturday, soldiers participate in group sessions and practical exercises given by the trainer and guest trainers from UN agencies.

ECHO is helping to provide International Humanitarian Law training so that the role of humanitarians can be fully respected. See this for more.

By Anouk Delafortrie
Regional Information Officer in Dakar

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