Already caught in the crossfire of multiple violent extremist organizations, civilians in Burkina Faso are saying they need to be protected by their security forces, not victimized by them.
Since 2016, rival Islamist terror groups affiliated with the Islamic State group and with al-Qaida have spilled into the country from the north with deadly consequences.
Recent government counterterrorism efforts, however, similarly have been fraught with accusations of civilian deaths and abuses.
In April, a coalition of 17 Burkinabe civil society organizations released a statement declaring the “need to make human rights a central issue in the fight against the armed violence.”
The coalition reported that two children and a 100-year-old man were among at least 80 civilians shot dead during government military operations on April 10 and 11 in villages in Burkina Faso’s northernmost province of Oudalan.
“Human rights violations during military operations undermine security and encourage violent extremism,” the statement said. “Only security policies focused on the protection and respect of human rights will end and prevent cycles of armed violence in the long term.”
The coalition’s appeal was directed to the transitional government formed by a military junta that ousted Burkina Faso’s president on January 24, citing insecurity as its primary motivation.
Since the coup, however, violent incidents have quadrupled and deaths have tripled, compared to the same time period in 2021, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
Violence has displaced more than 1.7 million people — the largest refugee crisis in the Sahel, according to the National Council for Emergency Relief and Rehabilitation.
Nearly one in four people in Burkina Faso, a country of 20 million people, urgently need humanitarian assistance, the United Nations reports.
The country’s recent counterterrorism response has seen government security forces and pro-government volunteer militias increasingly abuse, abduct and kill civilians.
In a May 16 report, international nonprofit Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented the suffering of Burkinabe caught in the middle.
“Armed Islamist groups are demonstrating day after day their profound disregard for the lives and livelihoods of civilians,” HRW West Africa director Corinne Dufka said in a statement. “Government forces and associated militias must scrupulously uphold international human rights and humanitarian law and desist from killing in the name of security.”
Dufka also warned that new issues are emerging with the continuing carnage.
Islamist terrorists have targeted villages with mortars and buried improvised explosive devices on main roads, killing dozens in recent weeks and stifling humanitarian aid.
Unchecked violence is fueling the recruitment of child combatants. Women and girls have been sexually abused.
“I documented dozens of cases of girls and women who were sexually abused and beaten, as they forged for wood, as they went back and forth to the market, and as they fled their villages from fighting,” she said.
HRW’s report urged Burkina Faso’s government to revoke a 2021 decree that gives members of a special counterterrorism force immunity from prosecution for acts committed “in the exercise of their functions.”
It also suggested that the government should increase medical and mental health support to abuse victims.
“There have been very few investigations, much less prosecutions, for the atrocities which have punctuated Burkina Faso’s conflict,” Dufka said. “The government should ensure the presence of provost marshals with responsibility for troop discipline and detainees’ rights in all military operations and adopt measures so that civilian and military courts provide fair trials for suspects.”