Armed Islamist groups in Burkina Faso have committed targeted attacks and summary executions that have killed over 250 civilians since April 2019, Human Rights Watch said on Monday.
Witnesses said that assailants sought to justify killings by linking victims to the government, the West, or Christian beliefs.
A surge in attacks in recent months have caused hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee their homes.
The armed Islamist groups responsible for the attacks began operating in neighboring Mali and from 2016 spread into Burkina Faso. Initially concentrated in Burkina Faso’s northern Sahel region, the attacks have steadily spread to the Nord, Centre-Nord, Boucle du Mouhoun, and Est regions. The groups have concentrated recruitment efforts on the nomadic Peuhl, or Fulani, by exploiting community grievances over poverty and public sector corruption. This has inflamed tensions with other largely agrarian communities, notably the Foulse, Mossi, Songhai, and Gourmantche, who have been the victims of most attacks.
“Armed Islamist groups in Burkina Faso have attacked civilians with unmitigated cruelty and utter disregard for human life,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Deliberately targeting farmers, worshippers, mine workers, displaced people and traders are war crimes.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 54 victims and witnesses of abuses in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, in November and by telephone in December 2019. The attacks documented took place between April and December 2019. Human Rights Watch previously conducted research into abuses by armed Islamist groups and government security forces in Burkina Faso.
Human Rights Watch documented 256 killings of civilians in 20 attacks since April 2019 by groups allied with Al-Qaeda, including the local armed group Ansaroul Islam and the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS). Witnesses said that victims were gunned down in marketplaces and villages, as they worshipped in churches and mosques, and as they transported aid to displacement camps. Many others were killed during ambushes, including 39 mine workers in November 2019. Armed Islamist groups have rarely claimed responsibility for attacks.
The fighting between the Burkina Faso government and armed groups amounts to a non-international armed conflict under the laws of war. Applicable law includes Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and other treaty 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, torture and other ill-treatment, sexual violence, and looting. Serious violations of the laws of war committed by individuals with criminal intent are war crimes.
“The Islamist armed groups need to immediately end their attacks on civilians,” Dufka said. “At the same time, the Burkina Faso government should take stronger steps to protect vulnerable communities from harm and impartially investigate and appropriately prosecute those implicated in war crimes.”