Attacks by armed extremists and abuses perpetrated by security forces leave populations in Mozambique at imminent risk of mass atrocity crimes.
Since October 2017 an armed extremist group, known locally as “Al-Shabaab,” has engaged in a violent insurgency in Cabo Delgado, a northern province of Mozambique. Al-Shabaab, which is loosely affiliated with the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, has perpetrated indiscriminate attacks against civilians, including beheadings, sexual and gender-based violence, abductions, recruitment of child soldiers and destroying civilian infrastructure. More than 1,300 civilians have been killed and 355,000 displaced since October 2017, the majority of whom have fled over the past year.
According to ACLED, over 365 violent incidents have taken place in northern Mozambique so far this year, resulting in at least 650 civilians killed. On 11 August, following several days of clashes with security forces, Al-Shabaab took control of the port city of Mocímboa da Praia. In response, the security forces sent reinforcements to seize back control of the city. The fall of the city to Al-Shabaab disrupted several offshore natural gas projects valued at $60 billion.
On 14 October insurgents attacked villages and military posts across the border in Tanzania, killing at least 20 people and allegedly prompting the Tanzanian army to launch rockets into Mozambican territory. An increase in fighting between Al-Shabaab, government forces and local militias, as well as Al-Shabaab raids on villages in Cabo Delgado, have resulted in more than 13,700 civilians arriving in Pemba by boat since mid-October. Al-Shabaab reportedly beheaded or dismembered 50 civilians between 6-8 November while it temporarily occupied several towns in Cabo Delgado.
While Al-Shabaab combatants have been the main perpetrators of violence against civilians, government forces have also been implicated in grave violations and abuses, including arbitrary arrests of individuals suspected of affiliation with Al-Shabaab. On 9 September Amnesty International verified video footage of security forces engaging in the torture and abuse of prisoners, the dismemberment of alleged Al-Shabaab fighters, possible extrajudicial executions, and the transport and disposing of corpses into apparent mass graves. Some activists and journalists have also faced intimidation and harassment.
Mozambique has a past history of atrocities stemming from its 1977-1992 civil war, during which approximately one million people died. War crimes and crimes against humanity were perpetrated by the armed rebel group, Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO), who carried out massacres of civilians and systematically killed teachers and health workers. The armed forces of the ruling Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) were also responsible for war crimes. A peace agreement was signed in 1992, but low-level conflict between the FRELIMO-led government and RENAMO resumed from 2013-2018. Despite a 2019 agreement, a breakaway group, the “Renamo Military Junta,” continues to wage an insurgency.
Although Al-Shabaab began as a small armed group in 2017, their attacks have intensified during 2020. The group’s willingness to perpetrate indiscriminate attacks on civilians increases the imminent risk of atrocities in Cabo Delgado. Al-Shabaab has exploited popular discontent over widespread poverty in Mozambique, as well as allegations of government corruption, to recruit fighters.
The government of Mozambique is struggling to uphold its responsibility to protect and requires international assistance.
During its 33rd Summit in February 2020 the African Union (AU) discussed the situation in Mozambique, but no concrete action was taken. During its August 2020 Summit the Southern African Development Community (SADC) condemned Al-Shabaab’s attacks and expressed its solidarity with Mozambique.
During April the European Union (EU) expressed its growing concern regarding the situation in Cabo Delgado and called upon the government to protect civilians and hold perpetrators accountable.
During June the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs launched a $103 million humanitarian appeal to assist Mozambique’s response to the dual threat of COVID-19 and escalating violence.
Security forces should ensure the protection of civilians and internally displaced persons in Cabo Delgado. All military operations against Al-Shabaab must be carried out with strict adherence to international law. The government should also welcome external support from the AU, EU, SADC, the UN and neighboring states as it attempts to combat Al-Shabaab.
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