Senior UN human rights official Andrew Gilmour has welcomed the commitment of countries of the Sahel to protect the rights of civilians as they confront terrorism, and warned of the dangers posed by the growing number of ethnic-based private militias.
At the end of a nine-day visit to the region, the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights said he was encouraged by the willingness of Sahel countries to adhere to international human rights and humanitarian law standards in their ongoing fight against terrorism.
“We are gratified by the recognition expressed by ministers of several governments I met that it is impossible to win the fight against terrorists without winning the hearts and minds of the local populations.
“The lesson we have learned from counter-terrorist operations around the world is that if security forces commit serious human rights violations against civilians, the net result is to create more terrorists than there were before”.
Gilmour met with national authorities, leaders of the security forces, and civil society actors in Nouakchott, Dakar, Ouagadougou and Niamey, where he attended a conference of five Sahel countries on strengthening the links between security, justice and development in the region, especially in the context of their regional peace operation known as the Force Conjointe – G5 Sahel.
Those countries - Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger - have adopted a framework of measures, with the strong support of the European Union, to ensure compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law standards in their fight against terrorism.
“It is critical that these governments, their national armies and other relevant security actors accelerate efforts to effectively implement the measures required by this important compliance framework,” Gilmour said.
He recognized that implementing the measures of the framework is a highly demanding endeavour that requires strong political will on the part of the governments of the five countries, demonstrable actions by their security forces, and generous support from the international community.
Gilmour underlined the UN Human Rights Office’s strong commitment to continue to support the implementation of the compliance framework.
The Assistant Secretary-General expressed concern about the growing number and activities of private militias based on ethnicity.
“If not urgently tackled by national authorities, including by prosecuting any crimes committed by such militias, there is a distinct danger they may push the sub-region into an endless cycle of violence, attacks, reprisals and counter-reprisals,” he warned.
While in Niger, Gilmour visited a transit house for African refugees and asylum seekers recently freed from detention in Libya, who described the experiences they had gone through.
“Even for veterans of numerous humanitarian crises caused by conflict, the stories they told us – detailing their rape and systematic daily torture while in detention in Libya – rank among the most shocking we have ever heard.”
Gilmour paid tribute to the hospitality of the Niger government in allowing the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to continue with their “great project to free these people from the hell on earth they were experiencing in Libya” in order to have them resettled in other safe countries.
He underlined that there were many thousands of other migrants and refugees still incarcerated in Libya, in appalling conditions, and called for other countries to grant resettlement for those who can be liberated.