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. Rival armed groups have targeted civilians in an increasing number of attacks in central Mali and Burkina Faso.
A cycle of reprisal attacks in the Mopti region of Mali dramatically increased during 2019, with more than 600 people killed in the first six months of the year. The violence has also included the burning of villages and destruction of food sources. Most fighting took place between Dozos (traditional hunters mainly from the Dogon ethnic community) and ethnic Bambara fighters, against members of the predominantly Muslim Fulani community. In one of the largest attacks, on 23 March Dozos massacred at least 150 people, including 50 children, in the predominately Fulani village of Ogossagou.
The violence in central Mali is partly a result of a stalled peace process. 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 extremist groups – including Ansar Dine and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb – has continued in northern Mali. MINUSMA has frequently been attacked by these groups, with more than 125 peacekeepers killed in “malicious acts” since July 2013.
The porous border between Mali and Burkina Faso has facilitated the expansion of Islamist armed groups throughout the Sahel. Since mid-2018 Islamist armed groups, including Ansaroul Islam, have perpetrated atrocities against populations in Burkina Faso, particularly in the regions bordering Mali. 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 victims of attacks in Burkina Faso. This includes 35 people, mostly women, killed in an attack on 24 December claimed by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on a military base and an internally displaced persons camp in Arbinda. Since May armed Islamist groups have also increased attacks targeting Christian places of worship.
The number of people displaced by violence in Burkina Faso has more than doubled since July, with over 500,000 people fleeing their homes, and more than 2,850 schools forced to close. 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.
Various parties to the conflict in Mali have violated the Bamako Agreement or impeded its implementation. Militias and self-defense groups continue to target civilian populations on the basis of their ethnic and/or religious identity.
Any security response in Mali and Burkina Faso must take mass atrocity risks into consideration in addition to fighting terrorism and countering violent extremism. Weak state institutions, porous borders and arms proliferation have exacerbated conflict in both countries. Despite support from international military forces, Malian and Burkinabè security forces have been unable to provide adequate protection to civilians in the vast regions of central Mali and northern Burkina Faso.
Historically, the Dogon, Bambara and Fulani communities have clashed over access to land, water and grazing rights. However, 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. The inability of Mali and Burkina Faso’s governments to provide adequate and equal protection to vulnerable populations has accelerated the recruitment into rival armed groups and ethnic militias.
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.
On 20 December 2018 the UNSC authorized targeted sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans, 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 added five additional people to the sanctions list on 10 July 2019. On 23 and 24 March 2019 the UNSC met with leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso as part of a visiting mission to the Sahel. During their visit the Council condemned the massacre in Ogossagou.
On 27 March 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 second 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 Barkane, a 4,000-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 13 January 2020 France and the G5 countries agreed to combine their military forces under a single command structure to fight armed extremist groups in the Sahel region.
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 stem the flow of weapons and end the proliferation of 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 government of Mali, with the support of MINUSMA and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, should investigate the massacres in the Mopti region and hold perpetrators accountable. Both governments should work with traditional and religious leaders to develop programs aimed at improving inter-communal relations and reducing recruitment into armed groups and ethnic militias.
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