Since January of this year Mali in western Africa has been roiled by violent unrest. Last year’s downfall of Colonel Murammar Quaddafi in neighboring Libya has sent a large quantity of Libyan weapons into Mali, bolstering a longstanding rebel movement by the nomadic Tuareg in the country’s vast northern desert and delivering many defeats to Malian forces.
In March of this year the Tuareg rebels made some of their most significant gains yet, seizing much of northern Mali, including the historic city of Timbuktu. The rebels’ Islamist faction, Ansar Dine (defenders of the faith), preaches a strict form of Islam that advocates a total ban on alcohol, the flogging of adulterers and the imposition of Shariah or Islamic law, on a part of Mali that has traditionally practiced religious tolerance. This Summer Ansar Dine embarked on a campaign of destroying Islamic shrines that are seen by them as Timbuktu’s eminence as a center of broad-minded Islamic teaching for centuries.
In April, the rebels declared the independence of the new state of Azawad. This has caused fear that Islamic militants and separatists could turn the remote and poor reaches of northern Mali into a haven for the regional affiliate of Al Qaeda.
Now thousands of Malians are fleeing this turmoil to the west to Mauritania. Already a refugee camp of 92,000 is growing near the border.
On July 18th the Government of Mali led by the Minister of Justice hand delivered a letter in The Hague to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. The letter states that the Government of Mali, as a State Party to the ICC, refers “the situation in Mali since January 2012” to the Prosecutor’s Office and requests an investigation to determine whether one or more persons should be charged for crimes within the Court’s jurisdiction (genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes).
The Mali letter alleged “grave and large-scale violations of human rights and of international humanitarian law, committed notably in the north of the country.” It further stated there were “summary executions of soldiers, rape of women and young girls, massacres of civilians and the use of child soldiers and pillage” as well as destruction of hospitals, courts and schools and attacks on churches, tombs and mosques.
The Government of Mali submited that the Malian courts are unable to prosecute or try the perpetrators. The Malian delegation also provided documentation in support of the referral.
The Prosecutor’s Office has been following the situation in Mali very closely since violence erupted there this January. On April 24th, as instances of killings, abductions, rapes and conscription of children were reported by several sources, the Prosecutor reminded all actors of ICC jurisdiction over Rome Statute crimes committed on the territory of Mali or by Malian nationals. On July 1st, the Prosecutor stressed that the deliberate destruction of the shrines of Muslim saints in the city of Timbuktu may constitute a war crime under Article 8 of the Rome Statute.
The Prosecutor, upon receipt of the letter from the Government, announced that the Office
Immediately would proceed with a preliminary examination of the situation in order to assess whether the Rome Statute criteria stipulated under Article 53.1 for opening an investigation are fulfilled.