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 over the past decade, 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. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), over 12,000 people were killed, most of them civilians, in 2023. At least 3 million people are internally displaced in the region, including more than 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 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. 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 “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. Violence has also taken place between rival ethnic militias and community-based self-defense groups resulting in reprisal attacks and countless abuses.
Ongoing insecurity has a devastating impact on children. During 2023 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. School closures 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 likely amount to war crimes. Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) and allied mercenaries from the Wagner Group (rebranded as Africa Corps) have perpetrated possible war crimes and crimes against humanity during counterterrorism operations 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, particularly targeting the Fulani community. According to Human Rights Watch, the Burkinabé military killed at least 60 civilians in drone strikes between August and November 2023.
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 (AES), a collective security arrangement, and decided to withdraw from the Economic Community of West African States in January 2024.
Despite the deterioration of the situation in Mali during 2023, the UNSC sanctions regime, the mandate of the Panel of Experts and MINUSMA were terminated.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in October and November 2023 alone, nearly 700 civilians were killed, nearly double the rate reported in September. Large-scale attacks by armed Islamist groups and intensifying clashes between militants and national security forces, particularly in Mali and Burkina Faso, continued to expose civilians to significant risk.
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, with violence extending to Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. On 25 January 2024 the Malian military authorities announced the immediate termination of the Algiers Agreement. According to ACLED, Wagner mercenaries have been involved in the indiscriminate killing of hundreds of civilians, destruction of civilian infrastructure and looting of property.
There has been an increase in activity by armed Islamist groups since the coup in Niger. Consequently, the military has launched ground operations and airstrikes, which have resulted in civilian casualties. Airstrikes targeting suspected members of armed groups reportedly killed at least 15 civilians in Tyawa, Tillabéri region, from 5-6 January 2024.
In April 2023 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. Burkinabé authorities are abusing this law by forcibly conscripting dozens of perceived critics and activists in counterinsurgency operations. The abductions may amount to enforced disappearances. Following the forcible disappearance of prominent human rights defender Dr. Daouda Diallo on 1 December, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) condemned the acts of intimidation, harassment and reprisals human rights activists and defenders are increasingly facing.
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 AES will struggle to curb widespread insecurity due to overstretched military forces and limited resources, as well as the failure to address root causes of violence. While 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. 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 growing use of aerial weapons during counter-insurgency operations has contributed to indiscriminate violence, civilian harm and possible war crimes.
The full withdrawal of MINUSMA as of 31 December has raised grave concerns regarding civilian protection, as well as independent human rights monitoring and reporting. The unprecedented fighting in northern Mali, as well as termination of the peace agreement, poses significant threats.
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. 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 military authorities of the Central Sahel – with support from national human rights commissions, ACPHR and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – 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, national and international journalists and dissenting voices.
The international community should increase funding to community-based protection networks to ensure capacity for continued monitoring and reporting of atrocity risks following MINUSMA’s withdrawal.