Burkina Faso: Upsurge in Atrocities by Islamist Armed Groups

Summary Killings, Looting, Arson Committed with Impunity


Islamist armed groups in Burkina Faso have killed scores of civilians, looted and burned property, and forced thousands to flee in attacks across the country since late 2022, Human Rights Watch said on June 15, 2023. The armed groups have also besieged several towns, cutting residents off from food, basic services, and humanitarian aid.

In April 2023, Burkina Faso’s transitional military government, formed in October 2022, announced a “general mobilization” as part of a plan to recapture the country’s territory lost to the Islamist armed groups.

“Islamist armed groups are wreaking havoc in Burkina Faso by attacking villages and towns and committing atrocities against civilians,” said Carine Kaneza Nantulya, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The transitional authorities should work with regional bodies and concerned governments to provide better protection and greater assistance for people at risk.”

Since 2015, successive Burkina Faso governments have been battling an Islamist insurgency spreading from neighboring Mali that has killed thousands of people and forcibly displaced almost two million more. Fighting has intensified in recent years so that now the Al-Qaeda linked Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, JNIM) and, to a lesser extent, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, control up to 40 percent of Burkina Faso’s territory, the Economic Community of West African States reported. Mounting civilian and military casualties, and the loss of government-held territory have spurred two military coups in Burkina Faso since 2022.

Between January and May, Human Rights Watch interviewed 36 people, in person or by phone, about abuses allegedly committed by Islamist armed groups in the Centre-Ouest, Centre-Nord, and Sahel regions since November 2022. Those interviewed included 19 witnesses of abuses, 4 family members of victims, 6 members of Burkinabè civil society organizations, and 7 international organization representatives.

No armed group is known to have claimed responsibility for the attacks. However, witnesses believe the assailants were members of Islamist armed groups because of their methods of attack, choices of targets, and their clothes and turbans. People interviewed also cited statements by the attackers, including demands for residents to leave the area. Islamist armed groups have used displacement as a strategy in recent years to assert their power and authority and collectively punish villagers and townspeople for collaborating with government authorities and security forces.

The military authorities have relied heavily on local militias to counter the attacks. In October 2022, they opened a campaign to bolster these militias by recruiting 50,000 civilian auxiliaries, called Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (Volontaires pour la défense de la patrie or VDPs). In response, Islamist armed groups attacked villages they accused of supporting the militias.

From December to January, Islamist armed groups repeatedly attacked the town of Dassa and surrounding areas in Sanguié province, where militia recruitment took place, driving residents from the area.

A 46-year-old resident said Islamist fighters killed 12 men in Dassa on January 26, allegedly in retaliation for militia recruitment in the area. “[Islamist fighters] arrived, asked who registered to be VDP. [The residents] answered: ‘No, we don’t have a candidate among us.’ [The fighters] said they knew that people had registered to be VDPs. After people denied that, they killed the men and left.”

A 27-year-old woman said armed fighters riding motorbikes and wearing ammunition belts stormed her village of Zincko in Sanmatenga province on January 4 and issued an ultimatum to residents to leave the area. “They gave us 48 hours to leave,” she said. “They stopped to say that the day after tomorrow a wave will be coming, and that they don’t want to find anyone here.”

The Islamist armed groups have also besieged several towns in Burkina Faso’s Sahel and Est regions, blocking food, other necessities, and humanitarian aid to the civilian population and causing starvation and illness among residents and displaced people. Families in Djibo in the Sahel region described feeding their starving families boiled leaves for days.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented Islamist armed group abuses in Burkina Faso, including summary executions, rapes, abductions, and pillage. The groups have also attacked students, teachers, and schools.

Burkina Faso armed forces and pro-government militias have also committed serious abuses during operations against Islamist armed groups. Human Rights Watch has separately investigated the killing and enforced disappearance of scores of civilians since February by alleged Burkinabè armed forces in the Sahel region.

The fighting between the Burkina Faso government and the armed groups qualifies as a non-international armed conflict under the laws of war. Applicable law includes Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and customary laws of war, which apply to non-state armed groups as well as national armed forces. The laws of war prohibit attacks on civilians and summary executions, collective punishment, looting, and arson, among other abuses. Serious violations of the laws of war committed by individuals with criminal intent are war crimes.

In an April 30 statement, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights condemned “the terrorist attacks against the Defence and Security Forces and the civilian population,” and underlined that “a State may also be held responsible for killings by non-state actors if it approves, supports or acquiesces in such acts or if it fails to exercise due diligence to prevent such killings or to ensure there is a proper investigation.”

Repeated Islamist armed group attacks on villages and towns with impunity have spread fear in Burkina Faso and led to retaliatory killings.

“Islamist armed groups are adding to the misery of civilians caught up in the fighting by unlawfully cutting them off from food and humanitarian aid,” Kaneza Nantulya said.

“The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights should not lose sight of the alarming situation in Burkina Faso and should help ensure the transitional military authorities impartially investigate and prosecute members of Islamist armed groups implicated in these atrocities.”

Source:Human Rights Watch