Western countries have raised concerns at a United Nations human rights meeting over the Russian private military contractor Wagner Group’s activities in Mali, including an alleged role in the killings of civilians.
The United States, Canada, Great Britain and Ukraine were among the countries at the meeting in Geneva on Tuesday that questioned what kind of support Wagner contractors are giving Mali’s armed forces.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
“We are particularly concerned by the presence and actions of the Wagner Group,” Canadian envoy Patricia Lyn McCullagh told the Human Rights Council during a review of Mali’s rights record, a process that all UN member states are subject to.
Several countries asked Mali to conduct an independent investigation into an incident in March 2022 in Moura in central Mali, where local troops and suspected Russian fighters allegedly killed hundreds of civilians.
Russia and Mali, whose leaders seized power in a 2021 coup, have maintained that Russian forces there are not mercenaries but trainers helping local troops with equipment bought from Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Mali has the right to work with private Russian firms.
Russia has denied civilians were killed in Moura. Wagner did not immediately respond to an e-mail request from the Reuters news agency for comment.
The UN said its investigators were denied access to the site.
“We recommend that Mali conduct a credible investigation into human rights violations and abuses committed during security operations conducted with Kremlin-backed Wagner forces in Moura in March 2022 as promised at the UN Security Council and hold those responsible to account,” said Michele Taylor, US ambassador to the council.
Colonel Boubacar Maiga, Mali’s director of military justice, said an investigation was already under way.
“The government of Mali is determined to bring [the investigation] to a successful conclusion in respect for human rights and in a spirit of full independence,” he said but added that access was difficult because Mali is “at war”.
Russian envoy Maria Molodtsova said: “Those killed [in Moura] were militants from terrorist groups that had oppressed the population for years.” The military operation “contributed to peace and tranquillity in Moura”, she said.
Mali is overrun with armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL/ISIS that have killed hundreds of people during a decade of violence. French forces intervened in 2013, initially forcing the rebels to retreat, but they have since rebounded and control much of the centre and north of Mali.
Last year, French forces left during a diplomatic dispute with Mali’s military government just as the Wagner Group moved in.
The Wagner Group has attracted international attention over its prominent role in fighting during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In January, the US designated Wagner a “transnational criminal organisation” responsible for widespread human rights abuses. That same month, UN experts called for an independent investigation into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Mali by government forces and the Wagner Group.
A month later, Mali expelled the head of the UN peacekeeping mission’s human rights division for his allegedly biased choice of civil society witnesses for UN Security Council briefings on Mali.