Hundreds of troops began human rights lessons Wednesday as part of their training for the Malian army, which is accused of abuses in its battle to flush Islamists out of its northern desert.
A group of 300 soldiers were given a manual spelling out the obligation of the front-line trooper to "refrain from the use of his weapon against the civilian population" and "protect and save women and children from attacks".
"Respect for civilians, mostly women and children, should be the top priority for all combatants," said To Tjoelker of the Dutch Embassy in Bamako, which is organising the training with the United Nations.
"Abuses have been committed in northern Mali by rebel groups and by the Malian military. We must move towards a situation of full respect for human rights on the ground."
French forces launched a surprise intervention on January 11 to help the Malian army stop Al Qaeda-linked fighters who had controlled the north since April 2012 from moving southward and threatening the capital Bamako.
Islamist groups have largely been driven out of the main cities in the north and are waging a guerrilla war against French, Malian and other troops seeking to help the government assert its control over the entire territory.
The UN's human rights body has accused Malian soldiers of carrying out retaliatory attacks since the French involvement that have appeared to target Tuareg and Arab communities, often conflated with jihadists.
Malian army commander Aminata Diabate, who was taking part in the training, described some of the accusations against the army as "pure fantasy" while admitting that several rights abusers had already been punished.
"Sanctions may go right up to expulsion from the army and prosecution," she said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch urged the transitional regime in Bamako on Tuesday to investigate claims that soldiers had tortured seven suspected supporters of Islamist groups near Timbuktu, in northwestern Mali.