Dakar (AFP) - The recently launched G5 Sahel force must ensure human rights are respected as it combats jihadists and criminals in this troubled swathe of Africa, officials say, to avoid further radicalisation of the population.
The five-nation counterterrorism force has completed its first operation in a zone covering the border area between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, all of which face an Islamist insurgency that has tacit support in areas where a state presence is near absent.
Andrew Gilmour, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, said abuses under the guise of counter-terror "create more terrorists than there were before".
The viability of the force rested on its ability to gain the trust of local populations and maintain the support of the international community, he said while visiting Mali to meet force commander Didier Dacko.
The precedents set in recent years sit uneasily with these ideals, however.
Peacekeepers serving with the UN mission in Mali, present since 2013, have been accused of excessive force and the world body has admitted instances of torture and sexual abuse by staff, as well as one instance of causing the death of a detainee.
The Malian army has also faced abuse allegations, in particular in the troubled northern and central regions where ethnic minorities are more strongly represented.
"In central Mali, terrorist armed groups are often firmly entrenched within the population and in some cases have taken on state functions," noted UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a report released a month ago.
Military operations that have no benchmarks for rights "not only adversely harm civilians and result in human rights violations, but may also risk contributing to further destabilisation, including fuelling youth radicalisation," Guterres added.
- Urging legitimacy -
The vast Sahel region, stretching from Senegal to Sudan, has turned into a hotbed of lawlessness since chaos engulfed Libya in 2011, Islamists overran northern Mali in 2012 and Boko Haram rose up in northern Nigeria.
Priority number one for the G5 force is to re-establish authority in the Burkina-Mali-Niger border region, according to General Dacko, speaking at the force's headquarters in Sevare.
However, its biggest logistical headache currently is a funding gap, to be discussed at a summit on the Sahel in Brussels in mid-December.
Estimates for its first year of operations are put at 423 million euros ($490 million), although French officials say the budget can be brought down to around 240 million euros.
At present, it has funding pledges totalling 108 million euros, comprising 50 million euros from the European Union, 50 million euros from the five countries themselves and 8 million euros from France, plus $60 million promised by the United States.
With that in mind, donors should be aware that financial backing came with its own responsibilities, said the International Red Cross's Deputy Regional Director for Africa Patrick Youssef, speaking at a security forum held in Dakar, Senegal this week.
"Supporting troops with money and arms comes with an obligation to respect the Geneva Convention and make it respected," he said.
The UN is not the only foreign military presence deployed in the Sahel. France has a 4,000-strong force known as "Barkhane" deployed across the region, which is supporting the nascent G5 initiative.
"We cannot allow ourselves to have a force which renders itself illegitimate by abuses," Colonel Arnaud Cervera of Barkhane told AFP.
The French have included human rights law during conflict into programmes for Malian soldiers, he said, and emphasis was put on the need to prove military legitimacy on joint missions.