Committing Human Rights Atrocities In The Name Of National Security: Unarmed Detainees Executed In Burkina Faso

On Monday 20 April 2020, Human Rights Watch called for an immediate investigation following the execution of 31 unarmed detainees by Burkina Faso’s security forces in the northern town of Djibo, approximately 200 kilometres north of the capital Ouagadougou. The men, all from the Fulani ethnic group, were allegedly killed in the hours following their arrest on April 9 during a government counterterrorism operation.

Burkina Faso has been dealing with an intensifying security and humanitarian crisis in the northern Sahel region. By late March this year, it was reported by Human Rights Watch that over 775,000 people have been displaced as a result of the growth of jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel. The bodies of the 31 men who were last seen in the custody of the security forces, were found by locals who heard gunfire. Several of the men had their eyes or hands bound. Residents claim that none of the men were armed.

This is not the first time that Burkina Faso’s military has dealt with accusations of committing human rights violations in an attempt to combat the violence. The conflict has led to attacks on Fulani people who have been accused by other communities of supporting extremist groups. According to Human Rights Watch, since 2017, it has been documented that hundreds of men have been killed by government security forces as a result of their alleged support for rebels.

Corinne Dufka, Human Rights Watch’s West Africa director has said that “This is hardly an isolated incident. The Burkinabè security forces face a real and serious threat as armed Islamists murder civilians and terrorize the population.” Dufka has referred to this incident as “a brutal mockery of a counterterrorism operation that may amount to a war crime and could fuel further atrocities.” Human Rights Watch interviewed 17 people over the killings and found that local people are speculating that the Fulani men were targeted as a result of the recent presence of armed fighters around Djibo.

The violence in Burkina Faso began in neighbouring Mali. Mali’s crisis began in 2012 and was followed by a French-led military intervention which led to armed fighters losing their control over major towns. As reported by Héni Nsaibia, a researcher at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), the spillover into Burkina Faso has turned into an insurgency which has now put the country at the centre of the conflict. Armed Islamic groups began recruiting from the nomadic Fulani community in 2016 and have subsequently forged attacks against security force posts and civilians. The majority of attacks have been in the Sahel region on the border of Mali and Niger.

One of the worrying aspects of the situation is the fact that the violence has taken a “disturbingly ethnic tone,” as stated by Dufka. According to Daouda Diallo, head of a Fulani rights group in Burkina Faso, there has been a significant increase in the number of attacks. In the space of a year, attacks have gone from 20 per month to 20 per week. In March this year, at least 43 people in two largely Fulani populated villages in Yatenga province were massacred by armed men. Following the recent execution of unarmed detainees, the locals have speculated that they were targeted as a result of the presence of armed Islamists in the area. One of the residents claimed “The jihadists have been roaming around lately. It’s like we’re punished for their mere presence.”

Despite the Fulani being increasingly targeted by the military and defence militias, on 20 April 2020 the Ministry of Defense claimed that it does not target its own people and that “now more than ever success in ending the crisis depends on the confidence and collaboration of local populations”. However, many Fulani people are worried that the government’s attempts to curb the violence will only heighten tensions.

Committing human rights violations in the fight against terrorism is not only unlawful, but it is also counterproductive as it only serves to push those seeking revenge into the ranks of extremist groups. The arbitrary killing of unarmed detainees is another example of how there must be greater accountability held by governments who commit human rights atrocities in the name of national security.

Anita Mureithi