Populations in Mali and Burkina Faso face potential atrocity crimes as a result of attacks by Islamist armed groups and state security forces, as well as growing conflict between ethnic militias and community “self-defense groups.”
Over the past two years civilians across the Sahel – particularly in central Mali and neighboring parts of Burkina Faso – have endured increasing attacks by terrorist groups and state security forces as well as inter-communal violence perpetrated by rival militias. 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.
A cycle of reprisal attacks in the Mopti region of central Mali has 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 160 people, including 50 children, in the predominantly 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. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, at least 589 civilians have been killed in central Mali so far this year, as violent disputes between armed groups from the Fulani and Dogon communities have intensified.
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 escalated. Since 2015 Islamist armed groups have expanded their activities from northern to central Mali, prompting the formation of ethnic militias and armed “self-defense groups” in many communities. MINUSMA has also frequently been attacked, with more than 130 peacekeepers killed since July 2013.
Since early June widespread protests have also taken place in Mali, with demonstrators demanding the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, due to alleged corruption, irregularities in recent elections and pervasive insecurity. On 10 July security forces shot dead 11 protesters.
The porous border between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger has facilitated the expansion of Islamist armed groups throughout the Sahel. Since mid-2018 these groups have perpetrated atrocities against populations in Burkina Faso and increased their attacks on Christian places of worship and schools. Attacks in the Central Sahel have increased four-fold since 2018, with more than 1,000 civilians killed in the first four months of 2020.
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. During July Human Rights Watch reported on the discovery of 180 bodies in mass graves. Evidence suggests the individuals were Fulani victims of extrajudicial executions committed by Burkinabè security forces between November 2019 and June 2020.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are currently 921,000 people internally displaced by violence in Burkina Faso, representing a 92 percent increase since 2019. The UN Children’s Fund reported that prior to COVID-19, over 8 million children were forced out of school in the Central Sahel due to attacks by Islamist armed groups, leaving them at increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence, exploitation and abuse. The number of people in need of protection and life-saving assistance in the Sahel has reached 24 million, with half being children.
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 the Central Sahel has been exploited by Islamist armed groups who have targeted young Fulani men for recruitment. Weak state institutions, porous borders, a climate crisis, and arms proliferation have exacerbated conflict in Mali and Burkina Faso.
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 29 June 2020 the UNSC renewed the mandate for an additional year.
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 23-24 March 2019 the UNSC conducted a visiting mission to the Sahel.
The UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide issued a statement, together with the Special Advisers on the Responsibility to Protect and on Children and Armed Conflict, on 10 June 2019 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. On 12 June 2020 the G5 Sahel countries and France launched the International Coalition for the Sahel, which is intended to coordinate responses to security, political and development issues in the region.
While countering violent extremism remains crucial for Mali and Burkina Faso, it is essential that both governments and international forces ensure that their efforts do not further exacerbate inter-communal tensions and are undertaken in strict compliance with International Human Rights Law. International donors should also support efforts by UNHCR to provide shelter and psychosocial support to those fleeing atrocities.
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.
The governments of Mali and Burkina Faso, with the support of MINUSMA, UNOWAS and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, should investigate all human rights abuses and violations, ensuring perpetrators are held accountable. Both governments should work with traditional and religious leaders to improve inter-communal relations and reduce recruitment into
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