Governments in the Sahel should adopt measures to better protect civilians, ensure that counterterrorism operations respect rights, and fully investigate abuses by all sides, Human Rights Watch said today. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, who is visiting Burkina Faso and Niger from November 28 through December 4, 2021, should raise concerns about rights violations by all sides.
During 2021, armed Islamist groups have killed over 800 civilians in attacks in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. In recent years, government security forces and pro-government militias in these countries have unlawfully killed hundreds of terrorism suspects and civilians, fueling recruitment into these groups. The violence by all sides has spurred the displacement of over two million people.
“Armed Islamist groups and government security forces in the Sahel have murdered and maimed a staggering number of people, including those in their custody,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “Bachelet should use her visit to raise the alarm about the scale of the atrocities and the crucial need to protect civilians and hold abusers from all sides to account.”
Throughout 2021, Human Rights Watch has documented the dramatic rise in attacks by armed Islamist groups allied to Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State in Burkina Faso and Niger. These fighters have murdered men and boys in their homes; during baptisms, weddings, and funerals; after forcing them off public transport; and while they farmed or watered their animals.
The groups also burned villages, markets, and schools; abducted men and pressed them into service; attacked health centers; abducted and raped women; and imposed their version of Sharia (Islamic law) via courts that did not adhere to international fair trial standards.
The killings largely targeted ethnic communities that had formed local civil defense groups, largely in response to the inability of local security forces to protect their villagers and property.
Massacres by armed Islamists documented by Human Rights Watch in Niger’s Tillabéri and Tahoua regions, which border Mali, include January 2 attacks on Tchomabangou and Zaroumdareye that killed 102; a March 15 attack on traders returning home from the Banibangou market that killed 66; and a March 21 killing of at least 170 ethnic Tuaregs near Tillia.
In Burkina Faso, armed Islamist groups killed at least 137 civilians during a June 5 attack on Solhan village; 59 civilians during an August 18 ambush on a convoy of traders near Arbinda; and over 30 civilians in northern Oudalan province, including 15 during a baptism in May.
The number of unlawful killings in 2021 by state security forces in Niger and Burkina Faso appears to have been reduced from 2019 and 2020. However, Human Rights Watch is investigating several allegations of extrajudicial executions by the Burkinabé security forces since early November, including the alleged killing of 15 men from around Djigoué village, in South-West region, and three men from Poikoro village, in the Cascades region.
There has been no accountability for over 150 alleged killings and enforced disappearances of people during counterterrorism operations by Nigerien forces in 2019 and 2020, most in the Tillabéri region, and over 500 suspects allegedly killed by Burkinabé security forces in and around the towns of Arbinda, Djibo, Tanwalbougou, and elsewhere. Malian officials have similarly failed to deliver justice for numerous extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearance by soldiers during counterterrorism operations, including for allegations in 2021.
The lack of investigations sends a message that security forces are above the law, and undermines confidence in the governments, notably by the ethnic Peuhl, or Fulani, community. Their members have been targeted for recruitment by armed Islamists and make up the vast majority of victims of pro-government forces.
Civilians from all communities consistently described to Human Rights Watch the failure of the Burkinabé and Nigerien security forces to protect their villages and property. They bitterly complained about the slow or absent security force response, including their failure to act on intelligence the local residents had provided, or to pursue armed Islamist fighters after an attack.
Village and community leaders throughout the Sahel – Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali – cited this failure as the reason for forming ethnic village self-defense groups, which have themselves been responsible for numerous atrocities. Human Rights Watch has since 2015 documented abuses by ethnic self-defense groups, especially in Mali, including massacres that have killed hundreds of civilians.
Bachelet should publicly raise concerns during her trip about the risks of governments subcontracting security responsibilities to these untrained ethnic defense forces, Human Rights Watch said.
“One need look no further than neighboring Mali to understand the profound risks of using untrained and unaccountable village defense forces to address security problems,” Dufka said. “These groups have not only killed civilians and destroyed villages, but also deepened communal tensions and fueled recruitment into armed Islamist groups in the process.”
Bachelet should press the Burkinabé and Nigerien authorities to reinforce the security presence in areas especially vulnerable to attack by abusive armed Islamists; strengthen early warning networks; reduce the military’s response times to threatened villages; and identify and respond to urgent protection needs by creating committees composed of local residents, security forces, and civil society groups.
Bachelet should also press governments to ensure that all operational units have provost marshals, responsible for ensuring discipline in security force operations. Governments should ensure adequate funding of justice system entities responsible for investigating and holding military personnel to account for serious abuses and redouble efforts to investigate allegations of abuse.
“The Sahel crisis has been punctuated by atrocities by all sides and is underscored by near-total impunity and untold human suffering,” Dufka said. “Bachelet’s visit offers a chance to focus international attention on the crisis and to press the involved governments, their partners, and armed groups to stop waging war on civilians and to vastly improve their respect for human life.”