Burkina Faso Accused Of War Crime Amid Humanitarian Crisis

On April 20th, 2020, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report accusing the Burkina Faso Security Forces of executing 31 detainees. HRW claims the attack was on April 9th in the Northern town of Djibo. The accusation against Burkina Faso’s security forces comes amid a growing humanitarian crisis. Djibo, a town in Northern Burkina Faso, are in the Sahel region of Africa. The area stretches from Northern Senegal on the Atlantic Ocean to Sudan and Eritrea in the Red Sea.

The district has seen intense conflict since the 2011 Libyan revolution and 2012 Mali uprising. Revolutionary forces destabilized the region, creating a power vacuum that allowed terrorist and criminal groups to exploit weak governance to expand their power. Jihadist groups Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin and the Islamic State are two terrorist groups active in the area. According to the United Nations, attacks have increased fivefold in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger since 2016. The UN reports that there are more than 700,000 displaced peoples in Burkina Faso. As a result, this has created a massive refugee crisis in the state that has begun to exasperate ethnic tensions. 

A multi-national force made up by the G5 Sahel regional body was created in 2017 to combat the rise in violence. However, the G5 has faced several downfalls in funding and coordination. In response, the Economic Community of West Africa announced in September a billion-dollar funding plan to fight the armed groups. France, the former colonizing power of Burkina Faso, followed suit and announced that it would increase the number of its troops in the region to 5,100.

Both France and the UN have faced intense criticism for their failure to stabilize the area despite their presence. In February, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, expressed severe alarm over the condition of the region. Grandi commented after his tour that, “the emergency is here. It is here that people are suffering, people are being killed, women are being raped, small children cannot go to school. It’s here that we must intervene before this crisis becomes unmanageable.” However, many Human Rights groups have argued that military presence in the region is part of the problem. This argument has only strengthened following HRW’s accusation against Burkina Faso’s security forces. A new response that won’t aggravate the existing conflict in the Sahel is necessary. 

In response to the massacre in Djibo, Human Rights Watch has called for an internal investigation within the security forces. As well as Burkina Faso to commit to a “rights-respecting counter-terrorism strategy.” Considering the human rights violations and possible war crimes performed on behalf of ‘counter-terrorism,’ the increase in troops and military funding in the area is alarming. The region has poor governance, advisory, and coordination capabilities that increase the risk of future military abuses. In the case of the Djibo massacre, Human Rights Watch found that the 31 detainees executed were unarmed. The victims had been arrested during the morning of April 9th and executed without any consideration for their right to a fair trial.

HRW called on the European Union and America to push the Burkina Faso government to respond to the atrocity. “They should ensure that any military assistance provided to the Burkinabè security forces is not being used by units responsible for this or other atrocities for which no one has been held to account,” said Human Rights Watch. The unlawful behavior by Burkina Faso security forces is working against the goals of the state. Alienation of the public by the state can lead to an increase in voluntary membership to the armed groups in the region. 

However, military presence should not be absent from the Sahel. Defensive military protection is necessary for the safety of the population and to halt the growth of armed groups. Nevertheless, before more troops enter, social and economic challenges that the region faces need to be considered. Although a military presence can decrease attacks on villages, it does not solve the resource shortage or reforms weak governance. The Humanitarian Crisis in the Sahel is often viewed as second in priority to the fight against terrorism. Following the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ tour of the region, Filippo Grandi commented, “In the Sahel, the response to the crisis must not be a security one alone. The protection of those forced to flee must remain at the core of our response to this displacement crisis.” If aid for refugees and an emphasis on reform do not follow, it could cause a deterioration of society. 

Regulatory and economic factors need to be addressed in Burkina Faso to see progress towards long-term peace. Stabilization cannot last if there is not a stable government and economic structure in the country. Rather than throwing more troops in a region already criticized for its lack of coordination and success, there should be an emphasis on reforming existing social structures. Burkina Kosa’s government needs to have direct advisory over its security forces and implement investigations into alleged abuses. Improving the military and the judiciary branches of the state is necessary to function efficiently. 

More robust governance makes it harder for armed groups to increase their hold on the region and builds public trust in the military. Many of the civilians in Burkina Faso fear the security forces, making communication between the two scarce. For instance, a witness of the Djibo massacre told Human Rights Watch, “how can unarmed people be thrown into a vehicle and murdered by our own army without even being interrogated or tried?” The unlawful behavior of the military is proving to turn citizens away from their cause. Forming a stable, central government would increase communication between civilian and military bodies. Communication is crucial for tracking the movement of armed groups and decreasing membership to such groups. A reliable and trustworthy military could prove to change the tides of the conflict, without aggravating existing violence.

An emphasis on building an efficient, central government will also aid in the humanitarian crisis. A stable government can greatly help human rights groups in the allocation of supplies for displaced peoples. The state needs to work with non-governmental agencies and international actors, to ensure there is a system to house refugees and supply necessary resources. Filippo Grandi spoke about the need for the government to work with humanitarian groups. “This includes better coordination between civilian and military authorities to ensure humanitarian access for immediate assistance. It is also critical to create the conditions for humanitarian and development actors to help with solutions to the affected population,” said Grandi. It is challenging for humanitarian groups to function in a conflict without the help of an organized central government. The situation becomes even more complicated when the military of a country lacks public trust and does not follow the rules of war. For the safety of humanitarian workers and supply lines, government and military reform are crucial. 

The humanitarian crisis and recurrent droughts have taken an enormous toll on the economy of Burkina Faso. The building of the state’s economy and infrastructure will also prove to be necessary. Many of the villages that border the Sahel in Burkina Faso do not have the support to care for refugees. Not only will a strong economy increase resources available to citizens, but it will also boost economic opportunities and could be a deterrent for armed group recruitment. Furthermore, a more reliable infrastructure could greatly aid with rising ethnic tensions in the region. Displaced peoples in Burkina Faso come from a range of ethnic groups, and in the context of a resource depleted state, this has caused friction. More resources, better job opportunities, and village infrastructure would lessen this tension. Citizens of different ethnic groups would not feel as if they are competing with each other for their survival. Instead, civilians and refugees would work together to better their village and, as a result, weaken Jihadist power. 

Response to violence in the Sahel goes beyond security concerns. In Burkina Faso’s current condition, adding more troops to the area could make things worse if reforms are not present. The state is not only in the midst of a war against terrorist groups but also a humanitarian crisis. Both need be of equal importance in the eyes of officials and the international community for the crisis to remain manageable. Fundamental human rights for survival are absent from many areas in Burkina Faso. To secure a stable future for the region, strengthening the democratic principles, accountability of the military, and emphasizing economic growth is crucial. Incalculable death and violence can be the future of this region if there is no change in response. 

Catherine Kreider


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