15 November 2020
Risk Level: Current Crisis
More than 6,600 people killed in attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger since October 2019

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 Central Sahel – particularly in central Mali and neighboring parts of Burkina Faso – have endured increasing attacks by Islamist armed groups and state security forces, as well as inter-communal violence perpetrated by rival militias. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 6,600 civilians have been killed in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger since October 2019.

Following a 2012 military coup, Tuareg separatists and Islamist armed groups seized territory in northern Mali. Despite the 2015 “Bamako Agreement” and the presence of international forces, including a UN peacekeeping force (MINUSMA), violence between the government 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 particular, a cycle of reprisal attacks in the Mopti region 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. Groups from both sides have attacked and burned rival villages.

In response to attacks by Islamist armed groups, the Malian security forces have carried out counter-terrorism operations resulting in numerous human rights violations, particularly in the Mopti and Ségou regions of central Mali.

On 18 August a group of Malian military officers, acting as part of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, deposed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in a coup. During October a transitional government, headed by former general Bah N’daw, agreed to hold elections within 18 months.

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, health centers and schools. Attacks on education more than doubled between 2018 and 2019 in Burkina Faso, with 140 incidents recorded in 2019. During October 25 displaced persons were killed when their convoy, enroute to their homes in Pissila, in the central-north of Burkina Faso, was ambushed by Islamist armed groups.

Counter-terrorism operations by the Burkinabè security forces have led to grave human rights abuses perpetrated against civilians presumed to be sympathetic to Islamist armed groups. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), more than half of the attacks launched by government-affiliated civilian security “volunteers” since February have been against other civilians – all from the country’s Fulani community – and have left dozens dead.

Recent legislative amendments to the electoral code in Burkina Faso will allow the 22 November presidential and parliamentary elections to take place without opening voting stations in unstable regions, preventing approximately 400,000 people from participating.

The Central Sahel is also facing one of the fastest growing displacement crises in the world with approximately 1.8 million internally displaced persons. Over 1 million people are displaced in Burkina Faso alone, a 258 percent increase in the past year. More than 4,000 schools were closed due to targeted attacks and insecurity while COVID-19 restrictions and conflict have forced 12.8 million children out of school. A record 13.4 million people need humanitarian assistance and 7 million are acutely food insecure.


Militias, self-defense groups and security forces continue to target 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. Weak state institutions, porous borders, a climate crisis and arms proliferation have exacerbated conflict in Mali and Burkina Faso. Recent fighting in the Central Sahel has been exploited by Islamist armed groups who have targeted young Fulani men for recruitment.

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 and eastern Burkina Faso. MINUSMA has also frequently been attacked, with more than 130 peacekeepers killed since July 2013. The Burkinabè government’s “Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland” law provides arms and training to civilian security volunteers, which presents numerous risks as the proliferation of arms and militias may fuel further violence.

The controversial amendment to the electoral code in Burkina Faso risks further disenfranchising residents in conflict-affected areas and may drive them towards armed groups.

The governments of Burkina Faso and Mali are struggling to uphold their responsibility to protect.


Following a referral by the 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 World Heritage Site at Timbuktu.

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. On 29 June 2020 the UNSC renewed MINUSMA’s mandate for an additional year.

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 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 to coordinate responses to security, political and development issues in the region. A counter-terrorism force composed of European special forces was launched as part of Operation Barkhane in July.

The coup in Mali drew international condemnation from the African Union (AU), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), European Union, France and United States. During October ECOWAS lifted the post-coup sanctions and the AU lifted its suspension of Mali. On 15 October the UNSC adopted a Presidential Statement calling upon authorities to protect civilians, reduce inter-communal violence and end impunity for violations of International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law (IHRL).

Twenty-four governments and institutional donors pledged more than $1.7 billion for lifesaving humanitarian aid and protection at the Ministerial Roundtable for the Central Sahel on 20 October.


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 IHRL. 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 Burkinabè government and Mali’s transitional government, with the support of MINUSMA, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Right and the UN Office on West Africa and the Sahel, should investigate all violations and abuses of IHRL, ensuring perpetrators are held accountable.


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