As citizen video becomes a critical tool in monitoring international political and humanitarian crises, its absence is all the more striking. In northern Mali, limitations on digital communications means a virtual “black hole” for human rights violations.

By Christoph Koettl, Amnesty International USA

A still from a video showing people shooting in Northern Mali.
A still from a video showing people shooting in Northern Mali.

“…[He] took my right forearm and tied it up with a rubber bicycle tyre tube as a tourniquet. He held my right hand with his left hand, in his right hand he held a knife, he said Alla Akbar before starting to cut my wrist.”
Testimony by Alhader Ag Almahmoud, a livestock farmer who had his right hand amputated in Ansongo on August 8, 2012, after he was accused of stealing cattle.

“Five rebels came and took me by force (…). They took me into the bushes and raped me.”
A young girl aged 16 years, who was raped in Gao, shortly after the city was seized by armed groups at the beginning April 2012

If you have been following reports about the escalating armed conflict in northern Mali this week, it is unlikely you read these shocking testimonies. The story being told exists within the framework of counterterrorism, in which official accounts (including video) dominate the narrative. The lack of ground access for independent observers and the dearth of citizen video only exacerbate this dilemma, leaving many stories untold and human rights abuses underreported. At organizations such as Amnesty International and WITNESS, which strive to bring the human story to the forefront, we are attempting to dig deeper into the Malian situation. WITNESS’s Human Rights Channel today published a video playlist on Mali that seeks to tell these stories by weaving together both citizen video and reports by media outlets and relief organizations.

A human rights crisis difficult to capture on video

Mali is facing perhaps the worst human rights and humanitarian crisis since its independence in 1960. Abuses have been widely documented by human rights watchdogs and international organizations, including the recruitment of child soldiers, indiscriminate attacks, extrajudicial executions, sexual violence and enforced disappearances.

Hardly any of these violations have been captured on video by citizens, in stark contrast to the torrent of video coming out of Syria. Considering the context of the current conflict in Mali’s north, we shouldn’t be surprised. Internet infrastructure in Mali is highly underdeveloped, especially in the north. Arms groups’ tight control of telecom has created a highly insecure environment. This includes a variety of restrictions on communications, further limiting online citizen reporting.

The Human Rights Channel playlist provides a snapshot of the events in Mali over the last 12 months. It is by no means comprehensive, but still captures many events that have implications for the human rights situation in the country:

As the compiled videos are not comprehensive, please alert the Human Rights Channel to materials you think should be included. Given the increased risk to civilians due to the French armed intervention, it will be important as ever to monitor online information streams for new footage.

How much difference can video make?

The situation in Mali proves challenging for human rights investigators, who are unable to directly access the north. In such situations I often resort to satellite images; however, the sort of human rights violations in northern Mali (such as stoning) are difficult to document using satellites. The scarcity of citizen video makes northern Mali a human rights black hole, where Malians essentially have no legal protection and abuses go undocumented (making it critical that the future multinational intervention force includes a strong human rights protection and monitoring mandate).

I don’t think that more citizen videos from northern Mali would change the response by the international community to the crisis. However, it would still make a difference: it would allow affected individuals and communities to tell the story through their own eyes. That would not only give us important insight into the human rights issues they are facing, but, as last year’s International Criminal Court verdict of Thomas Lubanga demonstrated, could also provide possible evidence to secure justice through the ICC or other accountability mechanisms.


Watch the Mali playlist here.


Christoph Koettl is Emergency Response Manager at Amnesty International USA. He can be reached on Twitter @ckoettl.

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