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 – 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. An estimated 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. 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. Throughout the region violence has also taken place between rival ethnic militias and community-based self-defense groups resulting in countless abuses.
The UN Children’s Fund reported that 2022 was the deadliest year 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. The number of schools closed increased nearly sixfold between 2019 and 2023, from 1,700 to more than 9,000.
Counterterrorism operations have often led to human rights violations and abuses that may amount to war crimes. 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. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) found evidence of the FAMa and mercenary operatives perpetrating hundreds of summary executions, rape, sexual violence and torture against civilians while a July 2023 report by the UN Security Council (UNSC)-mandated Panel of Experts on Mali warned that FAMa troops and mercenaries are allegedly perpetrating systematic sexual violence and other grave abuses to spread terror. 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 and in July 2023 a military coup occurred in Niger. On 16 September Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger created the Alliance of Sahel States, a mutual defense pact to combat terrorism and organized crime, as well as to assist each other in the event of rebellion or external aggression.
In the past year, human rights defenders, journalists and real or perceived critics of the transitional military authorities have faced increasing reprisals, including threats, intimidation and arbitrary arrests. Burkinabé authorities are abusing an emergency law to conscript perceived critics to participate in counterinsurgency operations, 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. Despite this, more than 1,700 civilians have been killed so far in 2023. According to Amnesty International, al-Qaeda affiliated Ansaroul Islam and other armed groups are enforcing sieges in at least 46 localities and committing war crimes.
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 by 31 December. MINUSMA is using its remaining capacities to focus on a safe and orderly drawdown and withdrawal and is no longer authorized to respond to imminent threats of violence against civilians. Dozens of peacekeepers have been injured by explosive devices hit by UN convoys while withdrawing from northern Mali.
Since August the FAMa, accompanied by mercenaries, have clashed with the Permanent Strategic Framework (CSP), a collection of armed movements that were signatories to the 2015 Algiers Agreement. More than 200 civilians have been killed since August, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). Dozens of arrests and extrajudicial killings have also been reported. Compounding these clashes are growing attacks by armed Islamist groups in northern and central Mali.
According to ACLED, the first month of military rule in Niger was characterized by a 42 percent increase in political violence compared to the previous month, primarily due to continued activity by armed Islamist groups, organized banditry in the southern Maradi region and intercommunal violence in the western Tillabéri region.
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 new alliance will struggle to curb widespread insecurity due to overstretched military forces and limited resources, as well as failing to address root causes of violence.
The expanded area of influence and/or control by armed Islamist groups has resulted in war crimes and serious human rights abuses. Armed Islamist groups appear to be deliberately targeting civilians as a tactic to pressure 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. The reliance on VDPs has fueled abuses and resulted in increasing attacks against villages that armed Islamist groups accuse of supporting the militias.
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 has exacerbated an existing security and protection vacuum. The unprecedented fighting in northern Mali threatens to undermine the peace agreement and poses significant threats to the stability and security of the country.
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.
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. Malian authorities and the CSP should take steps toward de-escalation, including agreeing on an immediate truce and a lasting ceasefire.
The transitional military authorities of the Central Sahel – with support from national human rights commissions, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and OHCHR – should investigate all violations and abuses of IHL and IHRL.
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.