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 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.
Following a 2012 military coup, Tuareg separatists and Islamist armed 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 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.
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 intensify. The attacks include the burning of villages and destruction of food sources. On 1 July unidentified armed men attacked four ethnic Dogon villages in Mopti, killing 33 civilians, including children. In response to persistent attacks by Islamist armed groups, the Malian Defense and 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 (CNSP), deposed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in a coup, seizing control of the country. Keïta had faced widespread protests since June, with demonstrators demanding his resignation due to alleged corruption, disputed election results, pervasive insecurity and deadly inter-communal violence.
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. Violence against civilians in the eastern region of Burkina Faso has already increased by nearly 75 percent as compared to 2019.
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 that 180 bodies were discovered in mass graves. Evidence suggests the individuals were Fulani victims of extrajudicial executions committed by Burkinabè security forces since November 2019.
The Central Sahel is facing one of the fastest growing displacement crises in the world with approximately 1.5 million people internally displaced. At least 3,890 schools and 190 health centers have been closed due to ongoing insecurity, depriving vulnerable communities of essential services.
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. Weak state institutions, porous borders, a climate crisis and arms proliferation have exacerbated conflict in Mali and Burkina Faso. Escalating conflict has resulted in mass displacement as well as life-threatening disruption to farming practices, leaving communities with insufficient food supplies. 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 announcement during January that it would arm civilian security “volunteers” presents numerous risks as the proliferation of arms and militias may 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 World Heritage Site at Timbuktu.
The UN Security Council (UNSC) subjects eight individuals in Mali to targeted sanctions for obstructing the peace process and violations of human rights, including recruitment of child soldiers and attacks on UN personnel. During April 2013 the UNSC authorized MINUSMA with a civilian protection mandate. On 29 June 2020 the UNSC renewed the 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 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 to coordinate responses to security, political and development issues in the region.
The coup in Mali has drawn international condemnation. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) suspended Mali from its decision-making bodies and imposed sanctions, while the AU suspended Mali’s membership. Several military partners, including the United States and European Union, have suspended cooperation. The UN independent expert on the human rights situation in Mali called upon the Malian authorities to restore the rule of law and hold accountable those responsible for human rights violations.
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. 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 the transitional government of Mali, 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. ECOWAS must prioritize human rights and the protection of civilians during its negotiations with the CNSP.
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