Sahel counter-terrorism takes a heavy toll on civilians

Military operations that cause civilian deaths and violate human rights are fuelling terrorist groups’ propaganda.

National and foreign forces deployed to fight terrorism in the Sahel are increasingly harming civilians. Figures from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) indicate that security forces caused more civilian fatalities in Mali and Burkina Faso in 2020 than violent extremist groups or communal violence.

Civilian fatalities by attributed perpetrator in 2020

Civilian fatalities by attributed perpetrator in 2020

Source: ACLED
(click on the graph for the full size image)

Things aren’t getting any better this year. French Operation Barkhane, Chadian contingents of the G5 Sahel Joint Force and other national and international forces in the region have recently faced serious allegations of human rights violations against locals. These range from rape and sexual assault to deliberate or mistaken killings of civilians during operations.

Violence against civilians in this context breaks international humanitarian law. It also deprives military operations of a key ingredient to their success: the population’s cooperation. Repeated blunders and unaccountable military interventions make it unlikely that civilians will trust or support counter-terrorism operations.

Civilians are increasingly caught in a vice. On the one hand, violent extremists continue to target entire villages in brutal attacks. Since the beginning of 2021, over 300 people have died in an unprecedented series of assaults in Western Niger alone. This includes some 203 civilian deaths in less than a week, from 16 to 21 March.

On the other hand, local communities can’t fully rely on the protection of national and foreign anti-terrorist forces whose reaction often comes too late, and who can be abusive.

Security forces caused more civilian fatalities in Mali and Burkina Faso than violent extremist groups

As some interviewees in Niamey told the Institute for Security Studies, the military’s actions against civilians create the impression that ‘terrorists are on both sides’. This view deepens the divide between civilians and state armed forces, including their international allies.

On 3 January, airstrikes by French forces on Bounti village in central Mali allegedly mistook a wedding party for a terrorist gathering, killing at least 19 civilians. In a report published on 30 March, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) confirmed the allegations. It called for further investigations by Malian and French authorities and reparations for victims’ families.

But France persistently denies what appears to be a blunder – and this reaction is counterproductive. By openly questioning the UN investigation's credibility, France’s government risks compounding deep-seated anti-French sentiments among some of Mali’s population. It also revives old questions about accountability over foreign anti-terrorist troops operating in the Sahel.

Malian authorities’ timid and delayed reaction, which backed France’s official narrative without further investigation, worsens matters. It doesn’t bode well for the state’s ability to meet its obligations of providing redress to victims.

Repeated blunders make it unlikely that civilians will trust or support counter-terrorism operations

This isn’t the first time France has denied accusations of violence against Malian civilians. In 2013, Amnesty International revealed that a French air raid might have killed five civilians, and called for an independent investigation. History has repeated itself several times since then.

The recent MINUSMA report came just days after France was accused of killing six other civilians in another air raid in Talataye, Northern Mali, during an operation targeting terrorist groups. Six days later, another French raid in Northern Mali’s desert, about 95 km from Tessalit, left one woman dead and a child injured.

These incidents raise fundamental questions about the reliability of the information on which Operation Barkhane bases its strikes, and the country’s willingness to admit its errors. It also tests the international community’s capacity to demand accountability from leading counter-terrorism actors for international law and human rights violations.

But French troops aren’t the only ones recently accused of harming civilians, leading observers to question the price populations pay for counter-terrorism actions. Members of a Chadian contingent deployed to Téra in Western Niger last month reportedly raped at least three local community members, including an 11-year-old girl and a pregnant woman. They’re also accused of sexually assaulting at least five others.

This isn’t the first time France has denied accusations of violence against Malian civilians

A fact-finding mission conducted by Niger’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) confirmed the allegations, documenting additional human rights violations by some Chadian troops. These included aggression, illegal confiscation of goods and other forms of coercion. The abuses occurred just days after the force was deployed. This raises questions about the selection and vetting processes that precede deployments and the command chain's capacity to control their troops in the field.

The legal framework for this deployment also lacks clarity. It seemingly deviates from the initial arrangement that G5 Sahel Joint Force contingents would operate under a unified command chain from their own countries, with a right of pursuit into neighbours’ territory. Following the Téra incidents, the G5 Sahel Joint Force must inform citizens of any adjustments to these arrangements that might affect them.

Following the CNDH communiqué, both Chadian authorities and the G5 Sahel Joint Force leadership acknowledged the crimes and committed to taking disciplinary and legal action against the alleged perpetrators. While the official reaction is commendable, swift and decisive corrective action must now follow.

G5 Sahel Joint Force military personnel have been implicated in human rights violations before. But the Téra incidents are the first known case since a dedicated mechanism to identify, monitor and analyse the harm caused to civilians by the force’s operations was launched in January this year.

The attacks in Téra will test the new instrument, which is part of a broader human rights compliance framework that includes seven pillars, but isn’t yet fully implemented.

As the G5 Sahel Joint Force strives to improve its accountability, a similar conversation about Western troops must take place. It will become increasingly difficult for Western actors in the region to call for the G5 Sahel Joint Force’s accountability without addressing military cooperation agreements that exempt them from similar liability.

The governments of countries where counter-terrorism operations lead to human rights violations against civilians should also be more proactive. They need to investigate allegations that implicate their own security forces or those of their partner countries. Governments should also provide adequate reparation to victims and prevent such violations from recurring.

Ornella Moderan, Sahel Programme Head, Habibou Souley Bako, Research Officer, ISS Bamako and Paul-Simon Handy, Senior Regional Adviser, ISS Addis and Dakar

This article was produced with the support of the UK Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.

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