Populations in Mali and Burkina Faso face potential atrocity crimes as a result of attacks by armed Islamist groups, as well as growing conflict between ethnic militias and community “self-defense groups.”
Since 2015 Islamist armed groups have expanded their activities from northern to central Mali, as well as to Burkina Faso and Niger, prompting the formation of ethnic militias and armed “self-defense groups” in many communities. Over the past year civilians across the Sahel – particularly in central Mali and neighboring parts of Burkina Faso – have endured increasing attacks by terrorist groups as well as inter-communal violence perpetrated by rival self-defense groups. According to the Head of the UN Office in West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), more than 4,000 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger during 2019 as compared to 770 during 2016. Nearly half of those killed were in Burkina Faso.
A cycle of reprisal attacks in the Mopti region of Mali has also dramatically increased since early 2019. Violence has taken place between Dozos (traditional hunters mainly from the Dogon ethnic community) and ethnic Bambara fighters, against members of the predominantly Muslim Fulani community. The attacks include the burning of villages and destruction of food sources. On 23 March 2019 Dozos massacred at least 150 people, including 50 children, in the predominately Fulani village of Ogossagou. Despite the government’s commitment to increasing security in the area, on 14 February 2020 at least 37 people were killed during another attack on Ogossagou.
Following a 2012 military coup, Tuareg separatists and armed Islamist groups seized territory in northern Mali. Despite the presence of a UN peacekeeping force (MINUSMA) and a French-led intervention force, as well as the 2015 “Bamako Agreement,” violence between government forces and various armed groups has continued. MINUSMA has frequently been attacked by these groups, with more than 130 peacekeepers killed since July 2013, including three killed by an Improvised Explosive Device on 10 May.
The porous border between Mali and Burkina Faso has facilitated the expansion of armed Islamist groups throughout the Sahel. Since mid-2018 these groups have perpetrated atrocities against populations in Burkina Faso, particularly in the regions bordering Mali. Such groups have also increased their attacks on Christian places of worship. Attacks in Burkina Faso since January have resulted in the deaths of 509 civilians according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
Counter-terrorism operations by the Burkinabè security forces have also led to grave human rights abuses perpetrated against civilians presumed to be sympathetic to Islamist armed groups. This includes the killing of 31 Fulani detainees in Djibo on 9 April.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the violence in Burkina Faso has forced 848,329 people to flee their homes since January 2019. The UN reported that close to 5 million children in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger will need humanitarian assistance in 2020 and that more than 4,000 schools have closed.
Militias and self-defense groups continue to target civilian populations on the basis of their ethnic and/or religious identity. Historically, the Dogon, Bambara and Fulani communities have clashed over land, water and grazing rights. Recent fighting in central Mali and neighboring areas of Burkina Faso has been exploited by armed Islamist groups who have targeted young Fulani men for recruitment.
Any security response in Mali and Burkina Faso must take mass atrocity risks into consideration in addition to countering violent extremism. Weak state institutions, porous borders, a climate crisis, and arms proliferation have exacerbated conflict in both countries. Despite support from international military forces, Malian and Burkinabè security forces have been unable to adequately protect civilians in the vast regions of central Mali and northern Burkina Faso. The Burkinabè government’s announcement during January that it would arm civilian security “volunteers” presents numerous risks as the proliferation of arms and militias may inadvertently fuel further violence.
The governments of Burkina Faso and Mali are struggling to uphold their responsibility to protect.
Following a referral by the interim government of Mali, the International Criminal Court launched an investigation in January 2013. During August 2017 former Ansar Dine leader Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi was sentenced for the war crime of partially destroying the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Timbuktu.
MINUSMA was authorized by the UN Security Council (UNSC) during April 2013 with a civilian protection mandate. On 28 June 2019 the UNSC renewed the mandate for an additional year. During January the UNSC also approved the extension of the mandate of UNOWAS.
On 20 December 2018 the UNSC authorized targeted sanctions on three individuals for obstructing the peace process and violations of human rights, including recruitment of child soldiers and attacks on UN personnel. The Council sanctioned five additional people on 10 July 2019.
On 23 and 24 March 2019 the UNSC conducted a visiting mission to the Sahel. On 27 March 2019, following the Ogossagou attack, the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide issued a statement calling for Malians “to prevent and refrain from stigmatizing entire communities.” The Special Adviser released a statement, together with the Special Advisers on the Responsibility to Protect and on Children and Armed Conflict, on 10 June condemning atrocities perpetrated against civilians in the Mopti region.
Operation Barkhane, a 5,100-member French force, has led the international military response in Mali since January 2013. During July 2017 the G5 Sahel Force was established to combat border insecurity using troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. The G5 Sahel countries and France established the International Coalition for the Sahel on 27 April in order to coordinate responses to security, political and development issues in the region.
On 27 March France and several other European countries also established a new task force to counter violent extremism in the Sahel.
While countering violent extremism remains crucial for Mali and Burkina Faso, it is essential that both governments ensure that their efforts do not further exacerbate inter-communal tensions and are undertaken in strict compliance with International Human Rights Law. Additional measures must be implemented to end the proliferation of arms, militias and self-defense groups. Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration efforts need to be focused on areas where atrocity risks are increasing in both Mali and Burkina Faso. International donors should also support efforts by UNHCR to provide shelter and psychosocial support to those fleeing atrocities.
The governments of Mali and Burkina Faso, with the support of MINUSMA, UNOWAS and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, should investigate human rights abuses and violations of international law, ensuring perpetrators are held accountable. Both governments should work with traditional and religious leaders to develop capacity building programs aimed at improving inter-communal relations and reducing recruitment into armed groups and ethnic militias.
Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date on R2P news and alerts
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5203
New York, NY 10016-4309, USA