Now that the French-led forces have begun to retake towns in the North of the Country, we are getting the first reports of civilians killed in the bombardments and the fighting which followed. But the laws of war accept that such things happen: they just demand reasonable care be taken to try to avoid them.
That’s not the problem. African armies are not, unfortunately, known for their discipline. For the Malians, and for some of the other arriving contingents, the enemy is less religious than ethnic. AQIM has its origins in Algeria, after all, and the dynamic of Arab vs African, no matter how over-simplfied, is genuinely felt in the region.
As towns are retaken, therefore, and as bands of rebels are hunted down, ethnically-based violence is likely to become a major factor. Reprisals against rebels, those thought to have supported them, and even those who vaguely look like them, will be a real risk, and it’s not clear that troops (and even more local people) can be prevented from behaving violently.
Which puts the French in an uncomfortable position. If the International Criminal Court is serious about its investigations, it will have to take what the government and its allies do into account as well. That means that if French commanders “knew or should have known” what was likely to happen, and did not do enough to prevent it, they are guilty as well. This logic was used to convict Charles Taylor of crimes in Sierra Leone of which he had literally no knowledge. A case in Mali would be much easier to bring. Whilst nobody seriously thinks that the ICC would put white men on trial (and the French position on the ICC is complicated) the political fallout could be very nasty indeed.