On Monday, 13 May, armed men attacked a Catholic religious procession in Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso, killing four people. The attack was the third by armed groups against Christian populations in Burkina Faso over the past three weeks. The day before, 12 May, gunman attacked a Catholic Church in Dablo during Sunday Mass, trapping people inside before setting fire to the building. Six people, including a priest, were killed.
Populations in Burkina Faso face a growing threat of potential mass atrocity crimes as attacks by armed extremists have intensified across the Sahel region over the past year. 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. Escalating violence has resulted in the closure of more than 1,100 schools, while hundreds of people have been killed, and tens of thousands displaced so far this year.
International awareness of the Sahel crisis has grown following a UN Security Council visit to the region during March that coincided with an attack in Ogossagou, Mali, where more than 150 people were killed. On 16 May the Security Council held a briefing on the “G5 Sahel” regional mechanism (made up of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger). Several experts called for the accelerated deployment of the G5 Sahel Joint Force and for pooling resources with the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in order to combat armed extremist groups across the region.
While it is essential for Burkina Faso and all the Sahel states — as well as MINUSMA and other international forces — to provide increased protection to vulnerable populations from the threat posed by armed groups, they must do so in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law. In addition, as noted by the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Africa, Bintou Keita, the actions of the G5 Sahel Joint Force should be part of a “broader strategy encompassing poverty reduction, good governance, development and humanitarian assistance, and security interventions.”
Last week angry mobs in Sri Lanka carried out a series of attacks on Muslims. The attacks largely took place in areas north of the capital, Colombo. At least one mob was estimated to include up to 2,000 people who attacked a local mosque. Other groups carried out arson attacks and petrol bombed Muslim-owned shops. In the village of Kiniyama, a large mob attacked three mosques. A local Muslim community leader, Moulavi Mohammed Siddque, said that Muslims remained afraid that the mob “will come back to attack our houses.”
Some of the mobs have also targeted Muslim refugees who have fled violence elsewhere in the region, including Afghanistan. According to Human Rights Watch, nearly 1,000 mainly Muslim refugees and asylum seekers have also been evicted by landlords who were pressured by local populations.
Anti-Muslim sentiment has been growing in Sri Lanka since a series of terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday resulted in more than 250 people being killed. The attacks were claimed by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and most of the victims were members of Sri Lanka’s minority Christian community. Pre-existing tensions between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the minority Muslim community have been exploited by Buddhist chauvinist groups who have previously campaigned for a boycott of Muslim businesses. Sri Lanka’s government has increased security measures since the Easter attacks and mob violence, including imposing a nightly curfew and limiting access to social media.
On 18 May Sri Lanka also commemorated ten years since the end of the country’s 1983-2009 civil war against Tamil separatists of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). During the army’s final offensive against the LTTE in 2009, tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed. Despite several UN Human Rights Council resolutions calling for a credible reconciliation and accountability process, perpetrators of war crimes committed during the final stage of the civil war have not faced justice. The government of Sri Lanka must address the underlying sources of recurring conflict and uphold its responsibility to protect all of Sri Lanka’s diverse populations.
From Syria to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the war on healthcare continues. Currently in the DRC attacks by armed groups are preventing healthcare workers from containing a deadly Ebola epidemic, which has now claimed the lives of more than 1,200 people. This has included deadly attacks on emergency treatment facilities and staff in Butembo and elsewhere.
Meanwhile in Syria an intensifying government military offensive against the last remaining opposition-held area of the country has resulted in at least 18 hospitals and health centers being targeted and destroyed in the past three weeks. In order to ensure their protection, the coordinates of several of the hospitals were disclosed to parties to the conflict before they were bombed.
Syrian government airstrikes and shelling of areas within Idlib, Hama and Aleppo governorates have already displaced up to 180,000 people and killed 170 civilians, including at least 20 children. During a UN Security Council (UNSC) briefing on 17 May the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, said that “I am most of all concerned about the number of attacks damaging or destroying medical facilities…. The trend has continued, day after day.”
Beyond Syria and the DRC, systematic attacks on health care have increased in a number of conflict zones. During 2018 there were at least 973 attacks in 23 countries, according to a new report by the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition. This represents a significant increase as compared to 2017 despite explicit protections under international humanitarian and human rights law. The publication of the report also coincided with the third anniversary of UNSC Resolution 2286, which condemned attacks on medical and humanitarian personnel, hospitals and medical facilities.
According to the report, the greatest number of attacks on healthcare during 2018 occurred in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, with 308 documented attacks. Three health workers were killed and six health facilities destroyed or damaged. During 2018 Syria experienced the second highest number of attacks on healthcare with 257 recorded attacks, followed by Afghanistan with 98 attacks. In Cameroon, Sudan and Syria, over half of the attacks were perpetrated by state forces.
Targeted attacks on healthcare violate international law and constitute war crimes. All state forces and non-state armed groups that contravene UNSC Resolution 2286 should be held accountable for their actions, regardless of their position or affiliation.