Good afternoon to you all and thank you for coming.
I would like to begin by thanking the Government of Burkina Faso for its invitation. This has been the first-ever official mission by a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to Burkina Faso. My visit and – even more importantly – the invitation for us to establish a UN Human Rights Office in Burkina Faso are a testament to the State’s willingness and openness to collaborate on the promotion and protection of human rights.
Burkina Faso is today facing a multitude of challenges with severe impacts on a wide range of human rights of its people. Violent extremist groups are increasingly launching devastating attacks throughout the country, particularly in the regions bordering Mali and Niger. Climate change is stripping the livelihoods of farmers and herders, leading to more conflicts and affecting access to water, food, health and education. An already difficult humanitarian situation has become much more dire, with more than 3.5 million in need of humanitarian assistance – a 60 per cent increase since January last year. Of these, nearly 3 million are food insecure.
How the country faces these challenges will be decisive for its future. The fact that Burkina Faso successfully held peaceful legislative and presidential elections last year is, I believe, indicative of a deep desire to preserve the democratic and human rights progress the country has made in recent years – and gives much cause for hope.
During my four days in Burkina Faso, I was able to engage in frank and constructive discussions on these complex challenges with President Kaboré and the ministers in charge of foreign affairs, defence, justice and human rights, national reconciliation and social cohesion, women and humanitarian action, as well as the President of the National Assembly. I had important exchanges with the Commission Nationale des Droits Humains and several civil society organisations here in Ouagadougou.
I also spent some time in Dori yesterday, in the northeast of the country in the Sahel region. There, I was able to speak with local authorities, including the governor, as well as religious leaders, internally displaced people, refugees and host communities.
What I found was incredible resilience, dignity and integrity in the face of overwhelming hardship. Forced to flee from their homes, having left behind land and livelihood, the internally displaced people I met told me they were eager to find the means to earn a living. “We do not want charity – we want the opportunity to do something, to earn for ourselves,” one woman told me. I was immensely moved by the generosity of host communities sharing what little they have with the internally displaced people. These individuals, as well as local government and religious leaders, spoke of their grave concerns about the deteriorating security situation.
I very much share their concerns – the despicable violence by extremist groups has been growing in many parts of the country and its impact on the human rights of the population has been extremely serious. According to the Government, more than 1.4 million people have been internally displaced amid increasing reports of horrific acts of violence and other human rights abuses by violent extremist groups.
I strongly condemn the attack against the gendarmerie in the northern town of Inata on 14 November that left at least 53 people dead and many more injured. I offer my sincerest condolences to the families of those who were killed.
In the context of this challenging situation there have been allegations of summary executions, abductions, forced disappearances and sexual violence by violent extremist groups, local defence groups, the Volontaires pour la Défense de la Patrie (VDP) and national security and defence forces. As I stressed with President Kaboré, it is essential that all perpetrators of such human rights violations and abuses be brought to justice, regardless of their affiliation, and that they are held accountable for their actions. This is never easy but it is essential. Due process must be guaranteed for everyone. In that context, we also discussed the challenges in ensuring justice for terrorism suspects, in line with international standards.
We also spoke about the need to ensure that all State security and affiliated forces comply fully with international human rights law and international humanitarian law. During the past years, my office has been working in the five countries of the G5 Sahel to support the Joint Force of the G5 Sahel in setting up measures to secure such compliance. More efforts are needed on this, and we are ready to provide support also at the national level.
Complying with international human rights law and international humanitarian law by military and security forces is crucial to engender trust and confidence with the people, and to guarantee that the State’s response to those who seek to destabilize it is grounded firmly in the rule of law. Not doing so will lead to failure in confronting violent and lawless extremism.
Based on my interactions and observations, I am also seriously concerned about increased inter-communal tensions, in particular in relation to stigmatization of the Peul. Political and community leaders must work actively and take measures to prevent entire communities from being targeted or vilified for perceived affiliation with violent extremism. Burkina Faso has a long tradition of ensuring peaceful coexistence of its people. Efforts need to be based on this as well as be rooted in human rights to avoid discrimination, ensure inclusion and address inequalities.
With some 59 per cent of the total population under the age of 20 in Burkina Faso, I also spoke with the Government and civil society actors about the situation of youth across the country, but particularly in areas in the north most affected by extremist violence. Poverty, the lack of access to economic opportunities and, in some cases, discrimination and marginalization can make young people more vulnerable to radicalization by extremist groups.
As President Kaboré has said, the fight against terrorism cannot be carried out only by military means. And, as he highlighted in his 25 November address to the nation, national unity, inclusion and the freedom of expression are essential to tackle the crisis.
Understandably, there is a lot of frustration and impatience with the deteriorating security situation. At such a time, it is more important than ever to create the space for meaningful dialogue among all parts of society, for the airing of grievances, and to bring in civil society as partners in jointly crafting solutions to the many difficult challenges the country is having to face. In this, the voices of youth, of women and of underrepresented minority communities will be key. This requires an effective and consistent protection of the democratic space. I call on the State to take proactive measures to increase the number of women in decision-making positions at all levels.
This is why the recent decision to impose a mobile Internet shutdown over eight days was unfortunate and sent the wrong message. Internet shutdowns affect the exercise of many rights, including of course the freedom of expression but also people’s rights to access livelihoods, educational resources, health information and much more. While freedom of expression may be subject to certain restrictions, these restrictions must be proportionate, using the least intrusive method to accomplish a legitimate aim, and may never be invoked to justify the suppression of advocacy for democratic rights.
In the context of the ongoing national reconciliation process, I discussed with the Government the need to ensure inclusiveness of all groups and sectors of society, particularly ethnic and religious minorities, women, youth, trade unionists and civil society actors in urban and rural parts of the country, to enable true dialogue. Solutions need to be found together – not imposed. And my Office is poised to support efforts to promote national reconciliation, along with the entire UN system.
The ongoing trial on the assassination of former President Thomas Sankara is an important step in establishing the truth, ensuring accountability and allowing the country to move forward on the issue of national reconciliation. This trial is an emblematic one and I hope it will re-energize efforts to combat impunity and corruption in the country.
Burkina Faso has made great efforts in the elaboration of a new development plan in cooperation with numerous partners. It will be important for this to lead to tangible results, with the support of the international community. As I have mentioned to Government interlocutors and other partners, it is essential that human rights be at the heart of the implementation of this plan to ensure that all Burkinabé will benefit without discrimination.
As I said before, Burkina Faso is in the grips of not one but several major, intersecting crises, including challenges from the broader region. I want to use my visit to encourage the international community to step up its support to help resolve this serious situation. How it is managed can have repercussions for peace and security and human rights for millions of people in the country, in the region and beyond. International and regional support is and will continue to be vital.
The present moment is a decisive one – and it presents a window of opportunity for robust action grounded in human rights and the rule of law to prevent the situation from spiralling out of control.
I leave the country shortly but my Office will begin building its presence with a full mandate, to offer technical assistance, advice, training, and to conduct monitoring and reporting. We will work with government and civil society partners, the Commission National des Droits Humains and the rest of the UN presence in Burkina Faso and in the region on the promotion and protection of human rights for all. This is part of the broader UN response to the crisis in the Sahel.
In confronting threats of violent extremism, climate change, humanitarian crises, I can speak for my Office and the UN system as a whole to say: nous sommes tous ensembles.