Viral video shows alleged human rights violations by military in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique

Ponte fronteiriça de Cabo Delgado, norte de Moçambique, 4 de agosto de 2009. Photo by F. Mira via CC BY-SA 2.0.

On Jan. 12, 2023, the social networks in Mozambique were surprised by the sharing of a video, which showed the burning of bodies by supposed military members confronting terrorists in the north of the country, Cabo Delgado. The video shows people dressed as military personnel with the South African flag throwing bodies into the fire. These bodies are believed to be those of terrorists captured in combat by military troops based on the conversation heard in the video.

Soon after, the video caused a number of reactions, mainly to condemn the occurrence of such acts, as well as to draw attention to the serious violation of human rights that are committed since the beginning of the conflict in Cabo Delgado. For the Executive Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Adriano Nuvunga, the images are the tip of the iceberg of a larger violation of human rights and abuses by foreign military agents in Cabo Delgado.

Aquela é uma atitude dos esquadrões da morte, queimar corpos. Há uma lei própria que regula a atuação de tropas em situação de conflito, particularmente quando são forças internacionais.

That is the attitude of the death squads, burning bodies. There is a specific law that regulates the actions of troops in conflict situations, particularly when they are international forces.

How is the situation in Cabo Delgado?

Since October 2017, Mozambique has been experiencing an armed conflict in the northern province of Cabo Delgado. Various explanations have been given about the causes, such as religious issues or youth poverty, but overall the real causes remain unknown. Despite allegations that Islamic State is behind the attacks and intends to occupy the gas production areas in Mozambique, neither the perpetrators nor the origins of the violence have been identified.

Since this conflict began, an estimated 3,000 people have been killed and 784, 000 have been displaced, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Human rights groups have documented human rights abuses against local people in Cabo Delgado.

Recently, Human Rights Watch denounced that both government forces and Al Shabab rebels have horrendously violated the human rights of people. Both sides’ forces have been accused of committing war crimes, including the murder of people, sexual assault, and destruction of property.

According to Amnesty International, in 2021, the security forces in Mozambique mistreated the people they were supposed to be protecting through intimidation, extortion, torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings. The Dyck Advisory Group, a private military firm contracted by the government as a fast response force, frequently made no distinction between civilian and military targets as it dropped explosives and fired machine guns from helicopters.

In addition to the support being given by African countries, Portugal and other EU countries have been training soldiers from Mozambique's armed forces. This support has brought some relief and apparent security in Cabo Delgado, although pockets of conflict still persist in some parts of the province.

Calls for Justice

The president of the Human Rights Commission of the Mozambican Bar Association, Feroza Zacarias, regretted the cruelty in the video, and demanded that the offenders be held accountable:

Aquilo é uma desconsideração dos direitos humanos. Um olhar de normalização que norteia o nosso Estado.

That is a disregard for human rights. A look of normalisation that guides our state.

For Amnesty International (AI), the images are a “horrific” example of what is happening in the “forgotten war” that is taking place in this province in northern Mozambique, said Tigere Chagutah, the organisation's representative for eastern and southern Africa. Chagutah said:

A queima de corpos por soldados é deplorável e provavelmente uma violação do direito humanitário internacional, que proíbe a mutilação de cadáveres e exige que os mortos sejam tratados com respeito.

The burning of bodies by soldiers is deplorable and probably a violation of international humanitarian law, which prohibits mutilation of corpses and requires that the dead be treated with respect.

On the other hand, Namibian President Hage Geingob said the organisation could not yet condemn the act as an investigation is underway to ascertain the veracity of the allegations.

Geingob also chairs the Defence and Security Policy Troika of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which described the video as ‘disturbing’ and promised ‘action’ after the investigations are completed, without specifying what will actually be done. In reaction, Zenaida Machado, of Human Rights Watch, said that the military should respect human rights in the region.

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