Mercenaries from the Wagner private military company may have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in the West African nation of Mali along with the country’s military, United Nations experts said on Tuesday, calling for an independent investigation into multiple instances of human rights abuses.
“Since 2021, the experts have received persistent and alarming accounts of horrific executions, mass graves, acts of torture, rape and sexual violence, pillaging, arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances perpetrated by Malian armed forces and their allies” of the Wagner company, a group of independent experts, enlisted by the U.N. Human Rights Council to look into the group, said in a statement.
Since the Kremlin-affiliated group began conducting operations with the Malian military, its mercenaries have been suspected of disproportionately targeting civilians, raising alarms among human rights groups and Western governments who have repeatedly denounced the group at the U.N. Security Council.
African officials have also increasingly warned about the risk of destabilization and ethnic violence that the group could provoke.
The United States named the Wagner military group as a significant transnational criminal organization this month, a move expected to discourage countries and institutions from doing business with the company.
Wagner has drawn international attention in the past year as a vital adjunct to the Russian military, often more effective than the regular army, in the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine. Its leader, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, has tried to cast himself and his mercenaries as an essential, brutal instrument of Russian military and foreign policy.
In Africa, Wagner has been involved in at least half a dozen countries, and in Mali Western officials estimate that around 1,000 Wagner operatives may be deployed alongside the country’s military, which has been fighting a jihadist insurgency that has swept the country’s north and center.
But these tactics have come at a high price for local populations. Among other instances of human rights abuses, Wagner mercenaries and Malian soldiers have been accused of a massacre in the village of Moura, killing hundreds of people — including many unarmed captives and people who had no apparent ties to the insurgency — during a five-day siege last March.
Those killings echo methods deployed in the Central African Republic, where the group also operates. “There’s a pattern of extreme violence carried out against civilians by Wagner working with the government, in Mali and in C.A.R.,” said Sorcha MacLeod, chairwoman of the United Nations Working Group on the use of mercenaries.
What Is the Wagner Group?
A paramilitary group with ties to Russia. The Wagner Group is a private military force with close links to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. It gained prominence in recent months when its forces began appearing in Ukraine, to fight alongside Russian troops.
How did Wagner get its start? Wagner operatives were first deployed during Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The U.S. government has said that the organization is financed by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a Russian businessman and a close associate of Mr. Putin.
How did the group get its name? The group is reportedly named after the nom de guerre of its leader, Dmitry Utkin, a retired Russian military officer. Mr. Utkin is said to have chosen Wagner to honor the composer.
Where is the group based? The group is not registered as a legal entity anywhere in the world, and mercenaries remain illegal under Russian law. According to analysts, Wagner is a “proxy force” of Russia’s ministry of defense; its shadowy existence allows the Kremlin to play down its battlefield casualties and distance itself from atrocities committed by Wagner fighters.
Where do they recruit? Some of the fighters appeared to have been recruited from Syria and Libya, according to the Pentagon. Russia appears to have used mercenaries from those countries to bolster its troops in the east of Ukraine because of their experience fighting in the Donbas region for the past eight years.
Where have Wagner forces been deployed? Wagner operatives have fought in Syria, Libya, Central African Republic, Ukraine, Sudan, Mali and Mozambique. U.N. investigators and rights groups say these mercenary troops have targeted civilians, conducted mass executions and looted private property in conflict zones.
The statement on Tuesday marks the first time that U.N. experts have publicly linked Wagner to atrocities committed in Mali, but in practice, their call for an investigation into the crimes is unlikely to yield significant results. The Malian authorities have prevented U.N. investigators from accessing Moura or other sites of suspected human rights abuses.
In their statement, the U.N. experts, who work for the Human Rights Council on a volunteer basis, warned that most of the victims of the crimes committed by the Malian military and Wagner operatives belonged to the Fulani minority.
They argued that the ambiguity over the legal status of the Wagner group, as well as the reprisals against those daring to speak out, created a climate of terror for victims of the group’s abuses.
“The first priority is to make sure that these types of atrocities stop,” said Ms. MacLeod, one of the statement’s authors. “The second priority is making sure that the victims and their families are given a voice and that they get access to justice.”
The investigators stopped short of saying how many people suffered from human rights abuses in Mali, but the Malian authorities received a more detailed set of allegations this month, which they have 60 days to respond to.
These investigations are also unlikely to bring the Wagner group or any of its members before the International Criminal Court, for instance, since it has seldom dealt with mercenary organizations and prosecutes individuals rather than groups.
Ornella Moderan, an associate researcher in the conflict unit of the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch research institute, said the experts’ statement would likely worsen an already deteriorated relationship between the government and the U.N. peacekeeping operation in the country, known as MINUSMA.
“MINUSMA will pay the price for that kind of communications because they are the ones on the ground,” she said.
Malian military officials and a representative for the Wagner company did not respond to requests for comment.
Last week, Mali’s foreign minister, Abdoulaye Diop, said at the U.N. Security Council that his country would keep working with Russia, although he didn’t mention the Wagner group. He also rejected an offer by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres to reshuffle the peacekeeping mission.
Several countries, including Britain, Egypt and Germany, announced last year that they would pull troops out of the mission, which will mean a loss of around 2,250 personnel — 17 percent of the current force.
“Mali is one of the most difficult operating environments for peacekeeping,” Mr. Guterres said this month in an internal review of MINUSMA.