The Sahel: "In 2020, more civilians were killed by the security forces than by extremist groups"

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In an op-ed article in the French daily newspaper, Le Monde, the human rights activist Drissa Traoré highlights "the failure of a strategy that focuses entirely on security issues without improving protection for civilians." Mr Traoré is coordinator of the joint programme of FIDH and the Malian Association for Human Rights (AMDH), a member of the People’s Coalition for the Sahel.

"The results are there to see," declared French President Emmanuel Macron in his New Year address to French forces on 19 January. A few days earlier, in an interview published in the French daily newspaper, Le Parisien, his minister of defence welcomed with satisfaction "significant military successes." In the run-up to the G5 Sahel Summit, which sees African, French and European leaders meet in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena on 15 and 16 February to review the results of the strategy to stabilize the Sahel, there is talk of "operational progress." But for us, the Sahel civil society actors who are working closest to the populations affected by the multiple crises impacting our region, it is difficult to reconcile these declarations with the reality on the ground.

For civilians in the Sahel, 2020 proved the deadliest year yet, claiming almost 2,400 victims in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, according to data on the website of the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). No week goes by without us being alerted to fresh attacks. The violence has led to the enforced displacement of more than two million people. For a farmer, whose family has been living for months under a tarpaulin in a makeshift camp, far from his field and with his children deprived of their schooling, the results mentioned by President Macron are not, in fact, there to see. The massive deployment of Sahelian, French, European and UN troops has not as yet brought him his yearned-for and rightful security.

Unpunished crimes

The scaling-up of antiterrorist operations, which the French president and his Sahelian counterparts at the Pau Summit decided on a year ago, has had unexpected, tragic consequences: in 2020, more civilians and unarmed suspects were killed by the defence and security forces than by extremist groups. This trend signals the failure of a strategy that focuses entirely on security issues without improving protection for civilians. Even more serious is the fact that it hampers the reinstatement of the State, despite this goal being rightly prioritised by participants at the Pau Summit. How can confidence be restored in the State when men in uniform are perceived as a threat by a large proportion of the population?

This sentiment is fuelled by a string of serious abuses that remain unpunished. Among the growing list of grieving towns and villages, three cases stand out. In Inates in Niger, the National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH) identified 71 bodies of civilians in mass graves and showed that responsibility lay with elements in the defence and security forces operating in March-April 2020. In the Burkina Faso town of Djibo, the deaths of over 210 people in mass executions attributed to government forces were recorded by Human Rights Watch between November 2019 and June 2020. In Binedama in Mali, 37 people, including several women and children, were killed on 5 June 2020 in an assault on their village by a military convoy of 20 vehicles accompanied by self-appointed defence militias, according to a UN expert.

Someone who escaped the Inates massacres confided to CDNH investigators that: "When you’re more afraid of the soldier who is supposed to protect you than of the armed bandit who could kill you, it doesn’t make sense." Nine months after the events, no Niger official has travelled to the site to pay homage to the victims. No reparations have yet been paid to the families. The judicial proceedings announced by the authorities still have not materialised. In Burkina Faso, the commitments given to investigate acts of violence committed by the armed forces have not led to any significant progress. In Mali, court orders for proceedings against the soldiers involved in the incidents have indeed been signed, but no arrest warrant has been issued, a failure condemned by the UN.

Populations show defiance

It is not just imperative for governments in the region to ensure justice for the victims of crimes committed by members of the defence and security forces in the Sahel, in accordance with their international obligations, it is also a precondition for re-establishing trust between the populations and those who govern them, and thus for restoring stability in the region. Crimes that go unpunished heighten tensions between communities and fuel the cycle of violence by making recruitment easier for the armed groups that exploit the frustration and defiance populations feel towards the authorities.

In June 2020, the heads of state at the G5 Sahel Summit undertook to impose "exemplary sanctions" on the elements of the defence and security forces acknowledged as guilty of violent abuses. Six months later, their commitments remain unfulfilled. The N’Djamena Summit provides an opportunity for them to match words with action by placing protecting civilian populations, human rights and fighting impunity at the heart of a renewed strategy for the Sahel, as recommended by the National Commission for Human Rights for the Sahel. Faced with the limitations of the security-based approach, France and the other partners must encourage this re-ordering of priorities, a precondition for a return to stability in the Sahel.

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