Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch's emergencies director and an expert in humanitarian crises, tells The Africa Report that although the Libyan conflict did not necessarily trigger the war in Mali, the careless handling of Muamar Gaddafi's arsenal after his fall has seen the largest-ever proliferation of dangerous weapons of war. This has had a very profound impact on the dynamics of the conflict in Mali. For now, however, one of the biggest challenges for the French army is to avoid being stained by abuses committed by its ally, the Malian army, after it was humiliated by northern Tuareg rebels.
Is Gaddafi's fall directly linked to the Malian crisis?
The conflict in Libya didn't start the conflict in Mali, which has a long history predating the fall of the Gaddafi regime. There have been previous Tuareg uprisings, and AQMI has been present in Mali for a long time. But the fall of the Gaddafi regime did have a very profound impact on the dynamics of the conflict in Mali. Some of Gaddafi's top commanders were Malian and Libyan Tuareg, and they returned to Mali during the Libyan war with a lot of Libyan weaponry. Upon their return, these experienced fighters began to lead a new Tuareg uprising, and the Malian army didn't have a chance against them.
Could Gaddafi's arsenal have been secured, and is this a lesson in post-conflict management?
I arrived in Benghazi in late February 2011, just days after the revolution started, and was stunned by the amounts of weapons we found in Gaddafi's vast weapon warehouses. The average weapon storage facility had seventy bunkers filled to the roof with weapons of war, anything from RPGs to machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, anti-tank missiles, mines, tank rounds, artillery, and thousands of surface-to-air missiles capable of shooting down civilian airplanes. It was by far the biggest weapon stock in the region, and it was being systematically looted.
Guarding such facilities is not so difficult, as they have one access point and are normally surrounded by mine fields--a small checkpoint operated by trusted NTC guards could have secured the facilities and prevented the looting.
But nothing was done, the facilities were left unguarded for the entire war, and I personally witnessed them being looted even by 18-wheeler trucks. It is for sure the largest-ever proliferation of dangerous weapons of war I have ever seen--maybe by a factor of ten.
We will see the impact of the proliferation of these Libyan weapons of war for decades, as they will change the balance of power in many places. We have already seen some of the weapons appear in Gaza, and the destabilization of the Sinai is also linked to the issue of the proliferation of Libyan weapons.
Were there chemical weapons in Libya?
Gaddafi did have a very active chemical weapons and nuclear weapons program but dismantled most of this during his rapprochement with the West following the 2003 Iraq war. He didn't want to end up as Saddam Hussein. But there were still chemical weapon agents stored in Libya at the time of the war, near Sebha, and some of these chemical agents were kept secret from the inspectors. They were luckily secured after the war.
What is the humanitarian situation in Mali and what can be done to protect civilians from aerial bombings and urban warfare?
The humanitarian situation in Mali was already difficult before the Islamist takeover of the North, and is even more difficult now because of the restrictions on humanitarian access imposed by the Islamists. Much of the population of the North has fled, either to the South or to neighboring countries.
In response to the French bombing, it appears that the Islamists are abandoning many of their bases and hiding in the civilian population, forcibly taking over homes and vehicles. This greatly endangers the population that remains, and makes it very important for France to take the necessary precautions to avoid large-scale civilian casualties.
Is the French army exposed to the risk of committing serious blunders?
The French intervention force is made up mostly of unarmored or lightly armored desert vehicles used by elite special forces. This makes them highly mobile, which is needed to fight in Mali's vast deserts.
But it also makes the French force very vulnerable to attacks by RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), anti-tank mines, and anti-aircraft guns, which the Islamists possess.
But aside from the threat to their own forces, the French are also in a difficult situation fighting alongside a very weak and sometimes undisciplined Malian army, which has already begun to carry out exactions against the civilian population. Controlling the behavior of the Malian army and some of the African troops that may be sent to support the intervention will be a difficult challenge for France, but if it doesn't take action on this it will suffer the stain of abuses committed by its allies.
Malian soldiers resent Tuareg rebels after they were humiliated in their recent failure against Islamist groups in the north. The Berber populations (Tuareg and Arab) in northern Mali fear exactions and vengeance from the Malian soldiers. Are there ways to prevent them?
The situation in Northern Mali is very tense between the Tuareg and 'African' (Non-Berber, editor's note) tribes who blame the Tuareg for constant rebellion and disloyalty to the Malian state. There is a real danger of massacres and other exactions against the Tuareg community not just from the Malian army but also from various self-defense militias formed by other Malian ethnic groups, like the Ganda Koi and Ganda Izo. One of the priorities is to ensure that the war in northern Mali doesn't become an ethnic conflict.
What do you recommend for Mali's present, and future political evolution?
The problems in Mali now extend far beyond the conflict in the North, and require the re-establishment of a credible and accountable government in Bamako.
At the moment, you have a military coup leadership that formally stepped down but is still very much in charge behind the scenes, undermining the authority of the civilian authorities. Mali needs a government that can control its own borders and guarantee the security of its civilian population, or a vacuum will continue to exist in the country which will be exploited by extremists.