Recurrent violence perpetrated by armed Islamist groups, as well as security operations to confront them, threaten populations in the Central Sahel – Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger – with violations that may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.
During 2012 Tuareg separatists and armed Islamist groups seized territory in northern Mali following a military coup. Despite numerous security initiatives, including the presence of international forces and a UN peacekeeping operation (MINUSMA), the conflict shifted into inter-communal violence and attacks by armed Islamist groups. Recurrent violence perpetrated by such groups – including those affiliated with al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) – subsequently spread into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger, threatening populations across the Central Sahel with violations that may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. At least 2.7 million people are internally displaced in the region, including 2.1 million in Burkina Faso alone.
For more than five years armed Islamist groups across the Central Sahel have systematically used sieges, threats, kidnapping, improvised explosive devices and landmines as deliberate tactics of war as they seek to control supply routes and increase their areas of influence. In Burkina Faso, over 1 million people are living in areas fully or partially besieged by armed groups and face daily threats of violence. Across the region these groups are imposing “zakat” (forced taxation) and strategically destroying and looting civilian objects, including places of worship, health centers, food reserves, water services and bridges and have targeted humanitarian workers and MINUSMA.
The UN Children’s Fund reported that 2022 was the deadliest for children in the Central Sahel since the crisis began. Niger was added as a situation of concern to the UN Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict given the gravity and number of violations reported in 2022. Armed Islamist groups across the region have routinely targeted secular state education, burning schools and threatening, abducting or killing teachers.
At times counterterrorism operations have led to human rights violations and abuses that may amount to war crimes. A group of UN independent experts concluded that the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) and allied mercenaries from the Wagner Group have perpetrated possible war crimes and crimes against humanity during counterterrorism operations since December 2021 while the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) found evidence of FAMa and mercenary operatives perpetrating hundreds of summary executions, rape, sexual violence and torture against civilians. State-sponsored militias in Burkina Faso, notably the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (VDP), have also been implicated in grave crimes along ethnic lines, particularly targeting the Fulani community.
The region has faced significant political and security upheaval in recent years. Both Mali and Burkina Faso have each undergone two military coups since 2020. In July 2023 a military coup occurred in Niger, prompting widespread condemnation. In the past year, amidst a shrinking of civic space across the region, human rights defenders, journalists and real or perceived critics of the transitional military authorities have faced increasing reprisals, including threats, intimidation and arbitrary arrests. Throughout the region violence has also taken place between rival ethnic militias and community-based self-defense groups resulting in countless abuses.
Since January 2023, there has been an intensification in fighting between ISGS militants and the so-called Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims in Ménaka, forcing thousands of Malians to flee. Militants have perpetrated widespread killings, rapes and lootings of villages, according to Human Rights Watch.
In April Burkinabé authorities announced a “general mobilization” of the military in a purported effort to curtail the spread of violence and recapture territory lost to armed Islamist groups. On 20 April at least 150 civilians, mainly from the Mossi ethnic group, were reportedly killed by the Burkinabé security forces in likely the deadliest incident against civilians since the crisis began. Burkinabé authorities announced during May the deployment of judicial police to ensure accountability during counterterrorism operations.
A July report by the UN Security Council (UNSC)-mandated Panel of Experts warned that FAMa troops and mercenaries are allegedly perpetrating systematic sexual violence against women and other grave human rights abuses to spread terror. On 30 August, due to a veto by Russia, the UNSC failed to renew the sanctions regime and mandate of the Panel of Experts.
On 16 June the Malian transitional authorities called for the immediate withdrawal of MINUSMA. In keeping with the host state’s request, on 30 June the UNSC unanimously voted to end MINUSMA. The withdrawal of Mission personnel will end by 31 December. The UNSC has authorized MINUSMA to respond to imminent threats of violence to civilians until 30 September.
While Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger each face distinct challenges, these states also share a legacy of structural vulnerabilities, weak governance, limited state presence and porous borders. The expanded area of influence and/or control by armed Islamist groups increases protection risks, including targeted attacks against certain communities.
Armed Islamist groups appear to be deliberately targeting civilians as a tactic to pressure local communities into cooperation or forcibly displace them. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Mali has previously implicated armed Islamist groups in crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Populations continue to be targeted and persecuted on the basis of their ethnic and/or religious identity. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, more than half of the civilians killed by the defense and security forces or ethnic militias in Burkina Faso and Mali during 2022 were Fulani despite comprising around 10 and 14 percent of the population in each country, respectively. The reliance on VDPs has fueled abuses and resulted in increasing attacks against villages that armed Islamist groups accuse of supporting the militias. By contrast, prior to the July coup, the Nigerien government had sought to remain reliant on the military, discouraging the creation of ethnic militias and self-defense groups, and pursuing inter-communal dialogue, which resulted in a decrease in ethnic violence since 2021.
The withdrawal of MINUSMA has raised grave concerns regarding the future of civilian protection, as well as independent human rights monitoring and reporting. The drawdown from areas where peacekeepers regularly patrolled may prompt armed Islamist groups to further increase their attacks and exacerbate an existing security and protection vacuum.
Following the coup in Niger, populations may face the erosion of fundamental human rights and severe socio-economic repercussions. Instability in Niger may further aggravate regional insecurity and protection concerns.
While countering violent extremism remains crucial in the Central Sahel, it is essential that all armed actors ensure that their efforts do not exacerbate inter-communal tensions or fuel further violence. All actors should refrain from supporting or collaborating with ethnically aligned militias with poor human rights records. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) should consider a mechanism to strengthen the protection of civilians in the Sahel at its next session in October 2024.
Additional measures must be implemented to end the proliferation of arms and improve land management and local governance in areas where atrocity risks are greatest. Authorities should support local reconciliation, dialogue and peacebuilding initiatives.
The transitional military authorities of the Central Sahel – with support from national human rights commissions, ACHPR and OHCHR – should investigate all violations and abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law. Malian authorities must respect the mandate of the UN Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Mali.
The international community should increase funding to community-based protection networks to ensure capacity for the continued monitoring and reporting of atrocity risks as MINUSMA withdraws.