Armed ViolenceHuman RightsNews

Human Rights Abuses Shake Burkina Faso Amidst Insurgency

As Burkina Faso battles armed violence, a report by the Human Rights Watch exposes the army's abuse of power, including summary executions and forceful disappearances.

Human Rights Watch has documented several incidents of gross human rights violations committed by Burkina Faso armed forces against civilians, raising serious concerns about war crimes and human rights abuses in ongoing counterinsurgency operations in the country. 

According to the report released by the HRW on Thursday, June 29, the incidents of the violations in Séno province between February and May 2023 included the summary death of at least nine individuals, the forced abduction and apparent slaughter of 18 others, and the severe beating of eight children aged 6 to 16. 

For the report, HRW said it “interviewed in person and by telephone 30 people with knowledge of 4 incidents. Interviewees included 8 witnesses of abuses, 11 family members of victims, 6 members of Burkinabè civil society organizations, and 5 representatives of international organizations.” 

According to the report, the Burkinabe soldiers executed six persons in Gangaol, Séno province, on April 3. This came after Soldiers seized ten ethnic Fulani men after accusing them of collaborating with Islamist fighters. 

These individuals were then driven several kilometers away, shot at close range, and abandoned. Only four of the arrested men survived, with two sustaining serious injuries.

Another harrowing tale of an operation in Ouro Hesso, Séno province, in which three persons, including two children aged 13 and 14 were summarily executed, was recorded in March. 

Also on Feb. 15, the forces arrested 18 individuals in Ekeou and a neighboring town, and nine of them were later found dead on May 26. 

According to the HRW, the army killed and abducted or “disappeared” people during village raids, frequently inspecting their victims’ identity cards before attacking them. 

Some people told HRW that they were accused of being militant allies merely because they did not abandon their villages in crisis zones. 

Since 2021, the armed conflict in Burkina Faso has claimed almost 7,900 lives and displaced over 2 million people. The conflict began in 2016 when Jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara stormed the Burkina Faso border from Mali. 

The country has since seen an increase in violent attacks, which have been linked mostly to the ISGS, and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM). The groups have exploited existing grievances, socioeconomic inequities, and ethnic tensions inside the country to fuel insurgency.

Burkina Faso’s increase of armed conflicts is traced back to the outbreak of the Malian crisis in 2012, which spilled over into neighboring nations, including Burkina Faso. The fall of the Libyan regime in 2011 aided the spread of weaponry and the migration of armed terrorists across the Sahel area. 

The response of the Burkinabe government and its armed forces has been plagued by reports of major human rights violations and weakening trust, further destabilizing the region.

In April 2023, the transitional military government initiated a “general mobilization” campaign to reclaim territory lost to armed factions, which are reported to hold up to 40% of the country’s land.

However, the Burkina Faso military’s counterinsurgency operations have been heavily criticized for their disproportionate use of force and indiscriminate targeting of civilians, notably members of the Fulani ethnic group. 

According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (Acled), the army and Islamist militants killed 1,694 civilians in the last year, with the number increasing between April and June after the “general mobilisation” was announced.

Because of the Islamist groups’ recruitment efforts among their communities, the Fulani, also known as the Peul, have been targeted.

“In the cases we documented, most of those who have been victims of these crimes were from the Fulani ethnic group,” explained Ilaria Allegrozzi, the senior regional researcher at Human Rights Watch.

On April 20, the deadliest massacre in Burkina Faso since 2015 occurred in Karma village, Yatenga province, when soldiers allegedly slaughtered at least 156 residents, including women and children. 

According to HRW, this tragic occurrence demonstrates the amount of atrocities committed against innocent citizens in the guise of combating terrorism.

The transitional authorities of Burkina Faso established the “Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland” (VDP), a militia that aided security forces in counterinsurgency operations. However, this militia has also been linked to human rights violations. 

A 2020 order authorized VDP members to carry guns and provided them with basic human rights training. According to reports, these insufficiently trained volunteers have also been involved in unlawful executions and other violations.

International human rights organizations, including the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, have expressed grave alarm about the conflict’s mounting toll on civilians. 

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, has urged Burkina Faso’s authorities to examine the allegations and hold those responsible accountable.

Burkina Faso is a signatory to the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute, which grants the court jurisdiction over those responsible for serious international crimes. As a result, those responsible for the human rights crimes may face prosecution before the ICC.

Human Rights Watch has urged Burkina Faso’s transitional authorities to act immediately to protect civilians, respect human rights, and hold those responsible accountable for these atrocities accountable.

“Executions and disappearances by Burkina Faso’s army are not only war crimes, but they breed resentment among targeted populations that fuels recruitment to armed groups,” said Carine Kaneza Nantulya, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

“Burkina Faso’s authorities should base their counterinsurgency strategy on protecting civilians, respecting human rights, and holding perpetrators accountable.”

They have also asked the authorities to seek help from the United Nations Human Rights Office in order to bring those responsible for significant abuses to account.

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Aliyu Dahiru

Aliyu is an Assistant Editor at HumAngle and Head of the Radicalism and Extremism Desk. He has years of experience researching misinformation and influence operations. He is passionate about analysing jihadism in Africa and has published several articles on the topic. His work has been featured in various local and international publications.

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