As government forces battle armed groups in Burkina Faso, civilians face daily abuses, even death, amid a range of violations of their security and their property. At least 6,201 civilians have been killed in Burkina Faso between 2017 and June 2023, according to the Armed Conflict Location Event Database (ACLED). Human rights have become an afterthought. It is critical that the international community works to ensure the government of Burkina Faso upholds its obligations to respect human rights and prevent even more atrocities than have already been documented in recent years.

To do so, the United States, Europe, and their partners should continue to engage with the government, at least to a certain extent, despite the two military coups of 2022 and the deployment last week of 100 Russian private military contractors in the country, with another 200 planned. Furthermore, the pending U.S. Senate confirmation of a new ambassador to Burkina Faso after a year-long gap offers an opportunity for the United States and the international community at large to prioritize human rights for a more successful policy approach.

Deteriorating Situation

The people of Burkina Faso have become disillusioned by the deterioration of conditions in recent years. In 2014, they rose up to protest President Blaise Compaoré’s attempt to eliminate presidential term limits after he’d already held power for three decades. People took to the streets, disrupting the planned parliamentary vote on the term limit legislation, which in turn prompted the army to intervene and mediate between the government and the protesters. Compaoré left office, and a rocky political transition led to a presidential election in October 2015 that brought the former Prime Minister Roch Marc Christian Kaboré into the presidency.

But hopes for better governance were soon checked by instability, as armed conflict spilled over from Mali into northern Burkina Faso, as the two countries and their neighbor Niger were in the eye of the storm for spreading militancy. Despite regional security partnerships such as the G5 Sahel and other international military support through bilateral and multilateral agreements, including from the United States, the violence spread progressively from the north.

Frustration followed, and the inability to roll back the expanding violence, along with regular abuses against civilians, became a major and divisive topic in domestic politics. This paved the way for the army’s interference in political affairs. In January 2022, Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba led a miliary coup and was installed as the interim leader. He lasted only eight months, however, before he was removed in September 2022 for his own failure to address the security crisis, and was replaced by 34-year-old Army Captain Ibrahim Traoré. Since then, Traoré has declined to hold elections until the security situation improves. He also has sought out new partners to combat instability, including Russia, and even withdrew Burkina Faso from its longstanding membership in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Successive Rollbacks to Human Rights Under the Guise of Security

Throughout the past two years of political turmoil, civilians have been attacked and subject to other human rights abuses by both the military and armed groups. In 2019, prior to the military coups, the government passed a law criminalizing some aspects of reporting on security operations, including requiring jail time for certain violations. Since then, our organization, Amnesty International, and other groups have documented increasing attacks on press freedom in Burkina Faso, whether harassment or judicial proceedings against journalists for their editorial tones, or the expulsion of foreign correspondents from the country without respect to the rule of law. In June 2021 and August 2023, the authorities suspended the broadcasting of OMEGA Media group, one of the most important private media groups in the country.

In late 2023, journalists and human rights defenders came under even greater pressure, as the government appeared to use an April 2023 decree on national military mobilization to carry out targeted conscription of individuals who had become recognized independent public voices. This decree, “on general mobilization and safeguarding” allows the government to call up most adults for military service. But the process is not clear, nor is there an option to challenge it. Among the conscripts are prominent activists and critics such as Dr. Daouda Diallo (no relation to co-author Ousmane), who was conscripted and forcibly disappeared in December 2023, and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Ablassé Ouedraogo, a public critic of the transition. Just last month, Me Guy-Hervé Kam, a lawyer and former spokesperson of the civic movement Balai Citoyen (meaning Citizens’ Broom or Civic Broom), was arrested and taken to an unknown destination without any charges against him.

Atrocity Risk

The government’s security forces and their proxies also have committed rights violations that may amount to crimes under international law, in the course of their efforts to suppress armed groups. For example, in April 2023, the village of Karma in the northern region was attacked by soldiers whom the community thought were conducting a routine patrol. Instead, the army troops reportedly rounded up at least 147 residents and shot them at point-blank range. Although an investigation was announced by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, no one has been arrested or charged, a pattern of impunity that has become common. Under international humanitarian law, all parties to an armed conflict must distinguish between civilians and combatants and are prohibited from carrying out attacks on the civilian population and extrajudicial executions. In November 2023, the military, with the support of auxiliary forces, also attacked in the village of Zaongo in the Center-North region and unlawfully killed more than 100 civilians. Although an investigation was announced, no person has been charged for these crimes, a trend that has been common in Burkina Faso.

There is also an increasing atrocity risk for ethnic groups perceived to support armed groups. This is particularly true for members of ethnic Fulani groups, who have been indiscriminately attacked by pro-government forces. At the end of December 2022, Amnesty International documented the killing of dozens of civilians, most of them ethnic Fulani, by government-linked armed groups in the northwestern town of Nouna. In February 2023, members of the military raided an internally displaced persons’ site in the northern town of Ouahigouya and arrested several civilians, most of them Fulani. The arrested IDPs were subsequently detained at the Zondoma military camp, where their fatal stoning was videotaped and shared on social media.

Another consequence of the conflict that contributes to a heightened risk of atrocities is the humanitarian situation. As of January 2024, more than 2 million Burkinabè are internally displaced in poor economic and social conditions. This is in addition to the nearly 1 million individuals in 46 cities under blockade by armed groups, with limited or no access to basic necessities. Since August 2022, a ministerial decree imposes military escorts on vehicles carrying fuel and other cargo in areas where armed groups are present after there were instances of armed groups diverting aid. But without an exception for humanitarian relief, humanitarian organizations, keen to respect their neutrality, have turned to airlifts, which has reduced the frequency of deliveries.

As these violations demonstrate, the government’s counterinsurgency approach shows little concern for its obligations under international human rights law and humanitarian law. And, the abuses ultimately are a bad strategy for the government’s own expressed goal of advancing security to protect civilian lives. By further restricting freedoms, preventing media from reporting on military operations in the name of transparency, and attacking civilians, the government is paving the way for further increased violations of human rights, which ultimately will do more harm to civilians.

The International Community’s Remaining Levers

While the government has recently severed ties with some of its traditional foreign allies such as France and sought closer collaboration with other ECOWAS-sanctioned governments through the new Alliance of Sahel States, the international community still has a role to play in ensuring that human rights are respected. And it still retains leverage. Given the recent pre-coups record of cooperation, particularly military support, partners should not underestimate the influence they continue to have in encouraging the government to protect human rights. Many within the government have received military training from the United States and other international actors and value those relationships and how they are perceived; when called out on human rights violations, the prospect of reputational damage to themselves individually or to other leaders or the country may motivate a push internally for adherence to standards. Therefore, while publicly the government may be appearing to pull away, the international community still has leverage, as many within the government still value those bilateral ties.

One thing the international community can offer regardless of its relationship with the government is sorely needed humanitarian support; according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), 6.3 million people (one in four of Burkina Faso’s population of 23.2 million) needed humanitarian relief in 2023, and 2 million people have been forced to flee their homes to other areas of the country. UNOCHA has appealed for $877 million “for prioritized assistance based on needs and vulnerabilities,” and expresses “growing concern” that illness and deaths will increase “in the most insecure areas.”

For a year now, the government has had testy relations with the humanitarian community; the expulsion of the U.N. Resident Humanitarian Coordinator in December 2022 over an internal note on the security situation epitomized this tension. Civilians at the frontlines are directly impacted by this situation, and the international community can help defuse the tensions between the government and humanitarian aid providers by supporting a dialogue that will accommodate humanitarian concerns and legitimate military objectives.

At the same time, the international community must call for the government to investigate incidents such as those in Karma, Nouna, and Zaongo, and support a judicial process that will deliver justice for victims. A recent U.S. State Department statement noting the crackdown on human rights was well-received by Burkinabè civil society. The government has not publicly reacted to this statement, even though it is often quick to fire back at internal notes or public statements by foreign media, the U.N. or France; that suggests their own wariness of alienating some in the international community.

While some foreign or international officials might be reluctant to deliver such public messaging toward Burkina Faso’s leadership for fear of embarrassing them or pushing them to an even greater extent towards other partners such as Russia, doing so sends a strong message to the government of the importance of respecting human rights. It also gives support to a civil society increasingly prone to self-censorship to avoid state reprisal.

Finally, the international community should work with regional partners and bodies to amplify these messages. Although Burkina Faso, along with Mali and Niger, last month announced their decision to withdraw from ECOWAS, the severance is not yet official, leaving room for dialogue. Furthermore, there are other bodies such as the continent-wide African Union that can still help wield influence and may be good messengers on the urgency of respecting human rights.

Burkina Faso is at a turning point, and if the international community works closely with other bodies in Africa, government action can be shifted to ensure human rights are protected and the risk of atrocities reduced. It is vital that the international community continue to engage with the government and offer support where appropriate, such as increased funding for the humanitarian response. Human rights defenders under threat also need a platform to draw greater global awareness to rights violations. If, on the other hand, the United States and its partners do not take a human rights-focused approach to Burkina Faso, attacks on rights holders will continue, and the hard-won gains that have strengthened the country’s civil society over the past decade will be erased.

IMAGE: Army Captain Ibrahim Traore, Burkina Faso’s new president, arrives at a ceremony for the 35th anniversary of the assassination of revolutionary president Thomas Sankara, in Ouagadougou, on October 15, 2022. Traore had taken power in a coup two weeks earlier (Photo by OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT/AFP via Getty Images)