Attacks by armed extremists and abuses by security forces leaves populations in Mozambique at imminent risk of mass atrocity crimes.
Since October 2017 an armed extremist group, known locally as “al-Shabaab” or Ahlu-Sunnah Wa-Jama (ASWJ), has engaged in a violent insurgency against the government of Mozambique in the northern province of Cabo Delgado. ASWJ, 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. An estimated 1,260 civilians have been killed and 210,000 displaced.
According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, over 300 violent incidents have taken place in northern Mozambique so far this year, resulting in 560 civilians killed and more than 50,000 displaced. On 11 August, following several days of clashes with government security forces, ASWJ took control of the port city Mocímboa da Praia. In response, the security forces sent reinforcements to seize back control of the city. Mocímboa da Praia is a strategic site due to its proximity to recently discovered offshore gas fields. The seizure of the city disrupted several natural gas projects valued at $60 billion.
While ASWJ 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 ASWJ. On 9 September Amnesty International verified video footage of security forces engaging in the torture and abuse of prisoners, the dismemberment of alleged ASWJ 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 1976-1992 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 ASWJ began as a small armed group in 2017, its willingness to perpetrate indiscriminate attacks on civilians increases the risk of atrocities in Cabo Delgado. Government forces have also been implicated in potential atrocities while targeting alleged insurgents. ASWJ 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 for the first time, but no concrete action was taken. During its August 2020 Summit the Southern African Development Community (SADC) condemned ASWJ’s attacks and expressed its solidarity with Mozambique.
During April the European Union 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 the escalating violence.
Security forces should ensure the protection of civilians and internally displaced persons in Cabo Delgado and ensure all operations against ASWJ are carried out with strict adherence to international law. The government should also welcome external support from the AU, SADC, the UN and neighboring states as it attempts to combat ASWJ.
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