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Joint statement: The People’s Coalition for the Sahel urges governments to uphold their commitments to protect civilians and fight impunity

25 June 2021

The People’s Coalition for the Sahel, represented by the undersigned Sahelian and international civil society organisations, is deeply concerned about the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Sahel region, marked by a surge in violence against civilians and two unconstitutional changes of power in the space of a few weeks in Chad and Mali.  

We condemn in the strongest terms the increase in attacks by armed groups, including so-called "jihadists", against civilian populations in the tri-border region of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, which have resulted in more than 500 deaths since the beginning of the year 2021. We honour the memory of the 140 victims of the Solhan and Tadaryat massacres that occurred on June 4 and 5, 2021 in Burkina Faso. We also pay tribute to the more than 300 civilians, including many children, women and elderly persons, killed in large-scale indiscriminate attacks on their villages in January and March in the Tillabéri and Tahoua regions of Niger.  

These tragic events demonstrate once again that the governments of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are facing real challenges to uphold their responsibility to protect their populations. The announcement of a "civilian and political surge" by heads of state of the G5 Sahel and their international partners during a summit in N'Djamena in February 2021 had nonetheless raised a glimmer of hope. We welcomed new commitments by the region's leaders to protect civilians, respect human rights, fight impunity and respect the rule of law. Since then, we have unfortunately witnessed worrying setbacks.  

Two of the five G5 Sahel countries experienced institutional coups within weeks of one another, Chad in April and Mali in May (the second in nine months). The leniency shown in this regard by the African Union (as regards Chad) and ECOWAS (as regards Mali) – in disregard not only of their usual practices, but above all of the provisions and sanctions provided for in their texts and mechanisms – is of deep concern. We call on African institutions to demonstrate leadership based on strict respect for the rule of law and the principles of democratic governance.  

In this context, French President Emmanuel Macron's decision to end Operation Barkhane in the Sahel, though its detail remains to be clarified, could represent an important step towards the change of approach that the People’s Coalition for the Sahel has called for. For us, this decision is recognition of the conclusion presented in our report, "Sahel: What Needs to Change": a primary military response, notably a counter-terrorism approach, is insufficient to effectively address the multidimensional crisis in the Sahel.  

We call on governments of Sahelian countries to seize this opportunity to adopt a renewed approach that places the protection of civilians at its heart, following the specific recommendations based on measurable indicators we presented in April 2021. This includes zero tolerance for serious human rights violations in the region, regardless of who commits them.  

In this regard, we are deeply concerned about a specific provision in the statute of the newly created "Special Forces" in Burkina Faso, which states that they "may not be prosecuted for acts committed in the performance of their duties”. This measure contradicts the commitments by the region's heads of state to fight impunity in their armed forces. None of the defense and security forces present in the Sahel should have a specific status that exonerates them from their responsibilities in the event of committing abuses. For our organisations, the fight against impunity is a crucial element in stabilising the region and restoring the people’s confidence in the State.   

Finally, the announcement of a reformatting of the French presence in the Sahel presents a twofold opportunity for international partners: on the one hand to revisit the spirit underlying existing partnership, in order to give priority to expectations and priorities expressed by Sahelian populations, and on the other hand, to undertake a courageous in-depth review of their interventions in response to the ongoing crisis. If this shift were simply to result in strengthening the European Task Force Takuba (to which only a limited number of European states have contributed to date) or extending the mandate of the European Union training mission EUTM (whose results have been limited to date), with a sole counterterror focus, it would be a missed opportunity at the expense of Sahelian communities who continue to face growing insecurity.  

International players, including France, the European Union, and the United States, must support and accompany efforts to better protect civilians and effectively combat impunity in order to bring justice to the countless victims of violence in the region. They must also use their influence with the governments of the Sahel to ensure respect for the rule of law and the principles of transparent and democratic governance.

Read the full statement in English here.

Read the full statement in French here.

The joint statement has been signed by 26 organisations including Association des Femmes Africaines pour la Recherche et le Développement (AFARD), West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), Association Nigérienne pour la Défense des Droits de l'Homme (ANDDH), Mouvement Burkinabè des Droits de l’Homme et des Peuples (MBDHP), Search for Common Ground (SFCG) and Saferworld.