Central Sahel (Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger)

31 May 2024
Risk Level: Current Crisis

Recurrent and expanding 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.


Populations in the Central Sahel – Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger – are enduring armed conflict and inter-communal violence amidst a decade-long insurgency driven by armed Islamist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State Sahel Province. These groups perpetrate recurrent abuses and escalating attacks against civilians that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, over 12,000 people, most of whom were civilians, were killed in 2023. At least 3 million people are internally displaced in the region, including more than 2.1 million in Burkina Faso alone. Violence has also taken place between rival ethnic militias and community-based self-defense groups resulting in reprisal attacks and countless abuses.

Armed Islamist groups have systematically used sieges, threats, kidnappings, improvised explosive devices and landmines as deliberate tactics of war as they seek to control supply routes and increase areas of influence. 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. Across the region, armed Islamist groups are imposing forced taxation and strategically destroying and looting civilian objects, including places of worship, health centers, food reserves, water services and bridges. Groups have also routinely targeted secular state education, burning schools and threatening, abducting or killing teachers.

Counterterrorism operations have often led to human rights violations and abuses that likely amount to war crimes. Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) and allied mercenaries from the Wagner Group (now Africa Corps) have perpetrated possible war crimes and crimes against humanity since December 2021, including summary executions, rape, sexual violence and torture against civilians. A July 2023 report by the then 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, which disproportionately target 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 2023 Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger created the Alliance of Sahel States, a mutual defense pact, and decided to withdraw from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in January 2024. During March the three military juntas announced the formation of a joint force to fight armed Islamist groups.

Despite the deterioration of the situation in Mali during 2023, the UNSC sanctions regime and peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA) were terminated.


During a visit to Burkina Faso in March 2024, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights denounced increasing massacres against civilians in the country. According to Human Rights Watch, the military summarily executed over 220 civilians on 25 February as part of a widespread campaign against civilians accused of aiding armed Islamist groups, which may amount to crimes against humanity. In March the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances said it received information on the existence of several mass graves and expressed concern about allegations of enforced disappearances, which mainly target the Fulani, and were reportedly committed by the armed forces or the VDP. On 30 April the African Francophone Coalitions for the International Criminal Court called for the Chief Prosecutor to open an investigation. During May a video verified by international media showed bodies burning while images documented a series of apparent civilian killings by the military in the eastern Foutouri area.

During April Burkinabé authorities extended the “general mobilization” decree in a purported effort to curtail the spread of violence and recapture territory lost to armed Islamist groups. In recent months, Burkinabé authorities have abused this law by forcibly conscripting dozens of perceived critics and activists in counterinsurgency operations, likely amounting to enforced disappearances.

Amid scaled up operations, the three Central Sahelian militaries regularly conduct aerial attacks. Airstrikes targeting suspected members of armed groups reportedly killed at least 15 civilians in Niger’s Tillabéri region from 5-6 January. According to Human Rights Watch, the FAMa carried out drone strikes in February on a wedding celebration and on a burial, killing at least 14 people, including children. The following month, a series of drone strikes killed at least 25 civilians and left more than a dozen injured.

Since August the FAMa, accompanied by mercenaries, have violently clashed with a collection of separatist Tuareg movements who had signed a peace deal with the former government. Although clashes have decreased in intensity since the FAMa recaptured Kidal in November, numerous reports have surfaced of past and ongoing indiscriminate killing of hundreds of civilians, targeted attacks on displaced populations, humanitarians and civilian property and looting. Meanwhile, armed groups linked to the Islamic State have besieged major towns in the north for months, trapping civilians and impeding aid access. An al-Qaeda-affiliated armed group has killed scores of civilians and destroyed civilian property in central Mali since January.


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. Although the military authorities in each country have expressed a goal of advancing security to protect civilian lives, risks to civilians have amplified, the security situation has deteriorated and longstanding alliances have been dismantled.

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, as well as utilizing blockades to punish communities perceived to be supportive of the military. 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 VDPs actions fuel abuses and possible atrocity crimes, aggravate ethnic tensions, encourage militant recruitment among pastoralists and contribute to prevailing impunity. The growing use of aerial weapons during counterinsurgency operations has contributed to indiscriminate violence, civilian harm and possible war crimes.

The withdrawal of MINUSMA has resulted in significant gaps in human rights monitoring and civilian protection, particularly for populations in the center and north of Mali.


    • Militarized approach of counterinsurgency that stigmatizes certain populations and increases risk of escalatory dynamics.
    • Unresolved long-standing inter-communal tensions and grievances and the use of militias and self-defense groups that perpetrate attacks along ethnic lines.
    • Impunity for large-scale atrocities perpetrated by all armed actors.
    • Political instability caused by irregular regime changes.
    • Shrinking civic space and crackdown on independent media, human rights defenders and real or perceived opponents as the military regimes consolidate power.


While countering violent extremism remains crucial, it is essential that all armed actors ensure that their operations comply with International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and do not exacerbate inter-communal tensions or fuel further violence. The militaries must establish guidelines on the use of aerial weapons during operations and ensure they minimize civilian harm. 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. Malian authorities and the separatist movements should take steps toward de-escalation and agree on a lasting ceasefire.

The military authorities of the Central Sahel – with support from national human rights commissions and independent experts – should investigate all violations and abuses of IHL and International Human Rights Law. The authorities must end the intimidation and harassment of civil society, including human rights defenders, journalists and dissenting voices. The authorities should also urgently come to an agreement with the UN on assigning peace and development advisers within each Resident Coordinator office to ensure conflict analysis and reporting. The Malian military government should cooperate with the UN Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Mali to ensure they can effectively carry out their mandate.


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