Populations in the Central Sahel – Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger – face atrocity crimes as a result of attacks by armed Islamist groups and security forces, as well as conflict between ethnic militias and community “self-defense groups.”
Recurrent violence perpetrated by armed Islamist groups – including groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State Sahel Province – threatens populations in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger with violations that may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Although the activities of such groups have been spreading throughout the Central Sahel for over a decade, since the start of 2022 recurrent attacks by armed Islamist groups, as well as counterterrorism operations by national defense and security forces, have significantly intensified, particularly in Burkina Faso and Mali. More civilian fatalities have been reported in the Central Sahel this year than in all of 2021, with more than 2,300 killed. Since March 2022 groups aligned with the Islamic State launched an offensive in Ménaka and Gao, northern Mali, and have carried out systematic attacks against civilians – primarily those from the Dawsahak, a Tuareg ethnic group – in dozens of villages to consolidate control. Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands forced to flee. In Burkina Faso, approximately 1 million people live in areas under blockade and face daily threats of violence and dire humanitarian conditions. The situation in the town of Djibo, Soum province, has been particularly dire since February when an al-Qaeda affiliated armed group imposed a blockade and subsequently destroyed critical infrastructure to further isolate the estimated 300,000 residents. In Tilláberi, Niger, thousands of people were forcibly displaced from several departments in recent months following threats, ultimatums and abuses by armed Islamist groups.
For years armed Islamist groups across the Central Sahel have systematically used sieges, threats, kidnapping, improvised explosive devices and landmines as deliberate tactics of war. Communities that resist their rule have faced threats, violent reprisal attacks and blockades, leaving millions increasingly isolated and vulnerable. These groups also strategically destroy and loot civilian objects, including places of worship, health centers, food reserves, crops, water services and bridges. Armed Islamist groups have targeted secular state education across the region, burning schools and threatening, abducting or killing teachers. The number of schools affected by violence has tripled in three years, with more than 6,500 currently closed or non-operational. These groups have also perpetrated attacks targeting humanitarian workers and the UN peacekeeping operation in Mali (MINUSMA). Since July 2013 the UN has documented 167 peacekeepers killed in hostile acts.
The UN’s Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Mali and national human rights mechanisms have found that some counterterrorism operations by Sahelian security forces, the regional G5 Sahel Joint Force and international forces have led to grave human rights violations and abuses that may amount to war crimes. Since the beginning of 2022, hundreds of civilians, particularly ethnic Fulani people, have been killed in indiscriminate attacks during counterterrorism operations by the Malian Armed Forces and allied mercenaries from the Wagner Group. During August the Burkinabé army acknowledged it had killed civilians in airstrikes in Kompienga province. State-sponsored militias, notably the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland, have also been implicated in grave crimes, including unlawful killings, torture and enforced disappearances of hundreds of civilians and suspected Islamist fighters in Burkina Faso.
Throughout the region violence is also taking place between rival ethnic militias and self-defense groups. In Mali, violence between Dozos – traditional hunters that are mainly from the Dogon ethnic community – and ethnic Bambara fighters against members of the predominantly Muslim Fulani community has killed thousands since 2016. Communal self-defense groups, such as the Koglweogo, have committed numerous abuses and fueled violence along ethnic lines in Burkina Faso. In Niger, self-defense militias established during 2021 among ethnic Arab, Djerma and Tuareg communities in Tillabéri and Tahoua have perpetrated numerous attacks.
At least 2.5 million people are internally displaced in the Central Sahel, including at least 1.9 million in Burkina Faso alone. Nearly 15 million people need humanitarian assistance.
The crisis in the Central Sahel has its origins in Mali, where Tuareg separatists and armed Islamist groups seized territory in the north a decade ago following a military coup. Despite numerous security initiatives, the conflict shifted into inter-communal violence and attacks by armed Islamist groups. The CoI 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. The increased attacks against civilians are primarily in response to communities creating self-defense groups and/or resisting the punitive collection of “zakat” or alms. The surge in civilian deaths in Mali in 2022 coincides with the arrival of Russian mercenaries and the departure of French and other Western forces. The Burkinabé government’s plans to recruit 50,000 civilians to join the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland will likely worsen inter-communal conflicts and fuel abuses.
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. Impunity for human rights violations and abuses undermines confidence in state authority, heightens inter-communal tensions and fuels cycles of violence and recruitment into armed groups.
The governments of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are struggling to uphold their responsibility to protect.
In January 2013, following a referral by the government, the International Criminal Court (ICC) launched an investigation into alleged crimes committed in Mali since 2012. In July 2020 the ICC opened the trial of Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mahmoud, an alleged member of an armed Islamist group charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Timbuktu from April 2012 to January 2013.
The UN Security Council (UNSC) subjects eight individuals in Mali to targeted sanctions for obstructing the peace process and violating human rights, including recruiting child soldiers and attacking UN personnel. In July 2022 the European Union (EU) sanctioned three al-Qaeda affiliated commanders due to attacks against civilians, MINUSMA and defense and security forces in Burkina Faso. On 29 June 2022 the UNSC renewed MINUSMA’s mandate for an additional year.
Mali and Burkina Faso were suspended from the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States following their May 2021 and January 2022 coups, respectively. Following a second coup in Burkina Faso in September 2022, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed concern regarding alleged human rights violations and called on the transitional authorities to condemn all instances of hate speech and incitement to violence.
In September 2022 the European Council renewed the mandate of the EU civilian mission in Niger, EUCAP Sahel Niger, until 30 September 2024, with the aim of integrating a human rights-based approach in the fight against terrorism.
In January 2013 France deployed troops to Mali. In August 2014 France expanded counterterrorism forces to Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. Although the latest mission, Operation Barkhane, ended in November 2022, President Emmanuel Macron announced that approximately 3,000 troops will operate in coordination with national armies in Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.
While countering violent extremism remains crucial in the Central Sahel, it is essential that all three governments and international forces establish civilian harm mitigation mechanisms and ensure that their efforts do not exacerbate inter-communal tensions and fuel distrust of state authority.
Additional measures must be implemented to end the proliferation of arms, militias and self-defense groups and improve land management and local governance. Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration efforts, as well as support for local reconciliation initiatives, need to be focused on areas where atrocity risks are greatest.
All armed actors must rigorously adhere to their obligations under IHL and IHRL. The governments of the Central Sahel, with the support of MINUSMA, OHCHR and the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel, should investigate all violations and abuses of international humanitarian and human rights law. Malian transitional authorities must cooperate with MINUSMA and ensure that the Mission can carry out its mandate, particularly its human rights investigations.