Interview with Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat, co-winner of the UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence

Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat from Mali and Francisco Javier Estévez Valencia from Chile are the co-winners of the 2014 UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence. The Award Ceremony will be held at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris on 14 November 2014. At this occasion, Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat tells us more about his work ...

It is always possible to resolve conflicts without violence, and no situation can justify the recourse to violence, for violence is weakness in that the use of violence only leads to more violence sooner or later.
Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat

How do you feel about having been designated as one of the laureates of the UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence?

My designation as one of the laureates of the UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence filled me with an overwhelming feeling of joy and pride. Indeed, this distinction from UNESCO makes me even more aware of my duty and responsibility as a social innovator, to strive to build a new Mali that is peaceful and modern, with good governance, based on respect for the rule of law and the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms; for a Mali where justice, equality, social and political inclusion, solidarity and sharing may prevail.

I also express my feelings of sincere gratitude towards UNESCO, which through this distinction draws attention to the peaceful struggle of many men and women of my country to change mindsets for real social progress to the benefit of all Malians. Our weapons in this struggle are our determination and firm belief in the virtues of dialogue, tolerance and non-violence. We therefore say “Thank you” for this moral re-armament.

Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights prohibits slavery, servitude and slave trading in all forms. How has the Malian conflict affected the situation of people descended from slaves? How do you propose to fight against these practices?

Slavery is illegal in Mali, which is very important, but the practices of descent-based slavery and bondage still persist in several areas of the country. This social system, even if it no longer includes the capture and sale of human beings by others, entails the loss of fundamental rights (inheritance, property, compensation for labour and in some cases the custody of one’s children), and is the basis for social discrimination.

That these practices continue today highlights the fact that in some places traditional social systems still prevail over the modern republican system, and that in this context real social progress and development cannot be achieved. The problem of the practice of slavery is difficult to solve for reasons linked to the inherited traditions and ways of life of the communities involved, which can be perpetuated by local elites.

Descent-based slavery can take different forms. One can still find extreme cases of slavery as it was practiced in the 12th century (in which slaves are the property of a master, can be inherited, are deprived of the responsibility for their own children and hope to get to heaven with the master’s blessing). In more moderate cases, slaves have a degree of independence: their children serve the master when required; exchanges of goods are generally to the benefit of the master. Furthermore, this system allows the master to influence elections for political leaders (through ballot stuffing and illegal possession of voters' registration cards by village and community heads).

Although the public powers in Mali denounce such practices, much remains to be done in order to establish effective and legal means of empowering victims who continue to suffer from the practices of slavery, often for reasons of subsistence. This is vital for the survival of the State, which must deal with the flaws and weaknesses of our society. Before, it was a question of saving the outside world’s image of the country, or avoiding disturbing the established order to preserve stability at low cost. We say that this is not a sustainable solution; rather, we must face reality because any unresolved issues will one day lead to tragedy.

To improve the situation, the strategy must be based on training, information and public awareness on human rights, which is a prerequisite for deepening democracy. We must gain and build upon the trust of people in situations of slavery and servitude so they understand that there are ways out of these situations, with support available for them in their new lives. Advocacy campaigns must be undertaken on a permanent basis in order to convince national and international decision-makers (executive, judicial and legislative leaders, along with traditional chiefs and local governments) to adopt laws criminalizing the practices of slavery. Development policies must take the existence of these practices into account, thereby restoring confidence to groups that have been marginalized for centuries.

Socio-economic assistance should be offered to the emancipated victims of the practices of slavery, in addition to legal assistance for those who decide to pursue their masters in court. This assistance is crucial to their security and independence, and will help put an end to this waste of human resources.

In 2014, Mali’s human development index was ranked 176th worldwide by the United Nations Development Program, with life expectancy at birth of 55 years. According to UNESCO, less than half of the adult population in Mali can read or write, and less than one in three women are literate. This is to say that the education of children, youth, women and men, especially from modest social backgrounds, is essential to changing attitudes and the modernization of the country.

The Prize also recognizes your outstanding commitment to dialogue and non-violence as a way to resolve conflicts. Could you please explain what it means to fight continually against violence and intolerance in your country (Mali)? And how do you achieve this?

Above all, the fight against violence and intolerance in Mali means having empathy for other human beings, seeking understanding of others’ positions, and making the effort to see situations from the perspective of different actors in a conflict, which helps to comprehend the real differences between them. The value of Malian society lies in the diversity of its people. Only real harmony within this diversity makes sense and can foster social peace. As an illustration of this, for the settlement of the crisis in northern Mali, it is essential for us not to consider that we are dealing with two hostile parties, but rather to view the conflict as a debate between Malians, which may sometimes flare up, but remains between Malians.

This fight must appeal to social norms and cultural traditions, seeking the wisdom of the people concerned in order to find a consensus and restore peace and the rule of law in the northern regions of Mali.

Do you think that it is always possible to settle conflicts without violence? Are there any situations in your opinion which justify the use of violence?

Yes, it is always possible to resolve conflicts without violence, and no situation can justify the recourse to violence, for violence is weakness in that the use of violence only leads to more violence sooner or later.

In fact, for every case of conflict, there is a peaceful solution to be found, and for as long as it is not found, the conflict will continue, either openly or under the surface. Sometimes it can undergo metamorphoses, leading us to believe that we are dealing with new types of conflicts. This is why the settlement of conflicts requires intelligence and patience.