LONDON (AlertNet) - A military offensive in northern Mali would have grave humanitarian consequences, a group of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) warned, calling for serious measures to mitigate harm to civilians to be put in place.
On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously authorised the deployment of an African-led military force to help defeat al Qaeda and other Islamist militants who seized vast swathes of northern Mali in March after a coup in the capital Bamako led to a power vaccum.
The French-drafted resolution also authorised the 27-nation European Union and other U.N. member states to help rebuild the Malian security forces, who are to be assisted by the international African force during an operation in northern Mali that is not expected to begin before September 2013.
"The deployment of a military operation could have significant humanitarian consequences as many families have already been badly affected by fighting and the severe food crisis," said Michael Quinn, Oxfam country director in Mali.
"We fear any intensification of violence could affect the civilian population with an increase in humanitarian needs and the continued displacement of people. Throughout its decision-making process, the Security Council must make sure that any military planning includes humanitarian consideration to minimize harm to civilians at all stages," he said in a statement issued ahead of the Security Council vote.
Citing figures from the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, the statement signed by 10 NGOs said 412,000 people have been forced to flee their homes.
These figures include some 208,000 refugees who are currently hosted in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mauritania, the Niger and Togo - many of which are in the grip of a hunger crisis that has swept through the semi-arid Sahel region.
The NGOs said an additional 204,000 Malians have been internally displaced and are living in tough conditions, reliant on humanitarian assistance and help from host communities.
"Women and children are among the most vulnerable groups when military operations are launched," said Chance Briggs, National Director of World Vision Mali.
"In some parts of Mali we already have alarming reports of sexual violence against women and girls and we ought to protect the rights especially for women, children, persons with disabilities and elderly who are the most vulnerable."
The 10 NGOs consist of CARE International, Christian Aid, Handicap International, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), International Rescue Committee, Oxfam, Norwegian Refugee Council, Refugees International, Tearfund and World Vision International.
Their recommendations to the U.N. Security Council included:
* Give high priority to negotiating a peaceful solution to the crisis, while linking any authorisation for the deployment of armed forces to a clear and feasible long-term strategy focused on strengthening social cohesion and inclusive governance in Mali
* Require that any military force authorised by the Security Council would receive training on international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law and would take all measures necessary to prevent harm to civilians and their property during hostilities
* Ensure the authorised forces would report to the Security Council in a timely and transparent way on steps they take to comply with international law and mitigate civilian harm
* Call upon donors to increase their support for humanitarian assistance to meet urgent needs, currently estimated at $214 million, and be prepared to provide further support as necessary
* Ensure the UN leads humanitarian contingency planning and requests sufficient additional funding to meet all the needs of affected civilians, including additional needs arising as a result of military operations.
The U.N. Security Council resolution authorises the deployment for an initial period of one year of an African-led intervention force, to be known as AFISMA, to take "all necessary measures, in compliance with applicable international humanitarian law and human rights law."