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Geneva group boosts health protections in Mali

A coalition of former rebels in Mali signed a commitment to reinforce civilian protections for health and medical facilities during armed conflict.

Geneva Call’s General Director Alain Délétroz signs an agreement with the Coordination of Azawad Movements in Mali
Geneva Call’s General Director Alain Délétroz, left, signs a Deed of Commitment with Attaye Ag Mohamed, middle, a representative of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) in Mali, as another representative, Mohamed Elmaouloud Ramadan, right, looks on (AN/Geneva Call)

GENEVA (AN) — A coalition of former Tuareg and Arab rebels in Mali signed a commitment to reinforce civilian protections for health and medical facilities during armed conflict amid a global rise in attacks on medical care in conflict zones in recent years, the humanitarian group Geneva Call announced on Monday.

The Geneva-based humanitarian organization, which works behind the scenes to strengthen protections for civilians during armed conflicts in dozens of countries, said two leaders of the Coordination of Azawad Movements, or CMA, signed a Deed of Commitment on the Protection of Medical Care in Armed Conflict at a closed ceremony on Friday convened by Geneva Call under the auspices of the Republic and Canton of Geneva.

CMA formally pledged in the document to respect international humanitarian norms insisting on the protection of “health care personnel, facilities and medical transports, and the wounded and sick,” and to adhere to “the principles of medical ethics.” Two CMA representatives, Attaye Ag Mohamed and Mohamed Elmaouloud Ramadan, joined Geneva Call’s General Director Alain Délétroz at the signing ceremony.

“Attacks on hospitals, medical transport and health workers have increased significantly in conflict zones in recent years, paralyzing emergency services and disrupting the local population – with devastating impacts on the lives of staff and patients, both civilians and wounded combatants targeted because they are among the most vulnerable” said Délétroz.

“Unfortunately, Mali is not spared from this trend," he said. "The deterioration of the security situation has also been reflected in increased difficulties for populations to access health care centers and health workers being targeted on a regular basis."

Geneva Call’s country director in Mali, Moussa Touré, called this first Deed of Commitment in Mali “a major step forward” that “really marks the start of a concrete commitment" to civilian protections during armed conflict. The humanitarian organization has worked in about 25 countries since 2000.

“Civilian populations are really caught in the middle,” Touré said. “Medical missions are generally the target of attacks. Recently, we recorded an ambulance in the Sikasso region, in the south of the country, which was attacked. There are also more and more incidents that are aimed at the medical missions.”

Teaching about international legal obligations

CMA, a Mali coalition of political-military movements, was created in 2014 to seek greater autonomy in the regions of Timbuktu, Gao, Kidal, Taoudeni, and Ménaka. A year later, it signed a peace and reconciliation accord in Algiers with the Malian government.

Its leaders had to overcome divisions on "certain social issues" before agreeing to the Deed of Commitment's "main themes of international humanitarian law," or IHL, based on Geneva Call's support and expertise, according to Attaye Ag Mohamed.

“This has included close work to revise our code of military conduct, which reflects our commitment to placing respect for IHL standards at the center of our actions,” he said. “The signing of this Deed of Commitment thus signals a new phase. It is up to all of us to put it into widespread use in the field through awareness-raising and training on this important topic. This will be at the core of the action plan that we have established together."

Geneva Call said the signing of the Deed of Commitment marks a milestone in its humanitarian dialogue with CMA in Mali since 2018. Délétroz noted it also signifies a "commitment" on the part of his organization, which must work to ensure the joint action plan is more than a piece of paper.

From a legal standpoint, the Canton of Geneva — which hosted the signing ceremony in a historic room where the Swiss city has helped to clinch previous landmark humanitarian agreements — serves as custodian of Geneva Call’s Deeds of Commitment. The Canton of Geneva's international affairs director, Beatrice Ferrari, said the Mali agreement “officially expresses a commitment to the responsibility to protect people’s health."

Along with its work enforcing humanitarian norms and medical care protections, Geneva Call focuses on thematic areas such as child protections, cultural heritage, displacement of people, famine, gender issues and landmine bans. It says it uses a wide range of targeted awareness-raising and training tools in its engagement with armed groups and de facto authorities.

In Mali's case, Touré said Geneva Call uses international humanitarian norms to remind non-governmental parties to a conflict that they are obliged to protect health care workers, facilities and patients, and to let humanitarian workers do their jobs.

Once groups learn more about their obligations, he said, “they can be led to become more involved and to mobilize better in order not only to facilitate the work of humanitarian organizations that specialize in this field, but also to promote access to civilian populations in relation to health care.”