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Statement by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism

12 April 2013

Burkina Faso: UN Expert calls on the UN, the EU and the international community to provide the technical, material and other support necessary to safeguard Burkina Faso against the external and internal security challenges it faces in light of the conflict in Mali and other parts of the sub-region.


The Special Rapporteur thanks the Government of Burkina Faso for the invitation to conduct a country visit at this time, and for the constructive and co-operative way in which all Government representatives approached the mission. He particularly commends the transparency shown by Ministers and their officials during their engagement with him, which allowed a frank and open dialogue on the current terrorist threat to Burkina Faso, and the measures necessary to address this threat in a manner consistent with the rule of law and the protection of human rights.

During the course of his visit the Special Rapporteur had productive meetings with the Prime Minister, the Minister of Human Rights and Civic Promotion, the Minister for the Territorial Administration and Security, the Minister in charge of Relations between Institutions and Political Reforms, and the Minister of Justice. He also met with the Attorney General, the President of the National Authority for the Treatment of Financial Information, the High Authority for the Control of Arms, and high level representatives of the National Commission against Proliferation of Small Arms. During a visit to the National Assembly the Special Rapporteur met with the President and Vice-President of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence and the President of the Committee on Human Rights. He also met with the Vice-President and Rapporteur of the National Committee on Human Rights, a quasi-autonomous body that was recently given legislative underpinning so as to conform with the Paris Principles for national human rights institutions.

The Special Rapporteur also met with lawyers, judges, non-governmental organizations and representatives of the international community including the Ambassador of the United States of America, the Ambassador of France, and the Ambassador and Head of Delegation for the Mission of the European Union in Burkina Faso.

In addition, the Special Rapporteur conducted a visit to the Maison d’Arrêt et de Correction des Armées which houses members of the armed forces and the gendarmerie detained on remand or convicted of military offences, including many of those currently awaiting trial for offences connected with the army mutiny of April 2011. He had the opportunity of discussing the challenges faced by staff and inmates, and met privately with a number of detainees. He also visited Maison d’Arrêt et de Correction d'Ouagadougou and was given a comprehensive account of the systemic problems in the penal system of Burkina Faso.

The Special Rapporteur also consulted with relevant UN agencies operating in Burkina Faso including those involved with the influx of refugees from the conflict in Mali. He wishes to express his thanks to the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Burkina Faso for providing logistical support throughout his mission.

Preliminary Assessment

Burkina Faso is a land-locked country situated in Central West Africa with a population of just over 17 million with the population growing at a rate of 3% per annum. The country does not have extensive natural resources or a strong industrial base. A large part of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture. The main cash crop is cotton-growing. Since 2004, restrictions on inward investment have been very significantly relaxed, which has resulted in an increase in the exploration and mining of gold, which is now the country’s main export revenue.

Burkina Faso has extensive borders with a number of States affected by conflict in recent years including Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Niger. Its GDP is approximately $24.03 billion. According to the UNDP human development report 2013 approximately 45% of the population lives on an income level under the World Bank poverty line. The highest rate of unemployment is among the age group 18-25. Approximately 60% of the population is Muslim, with the remainder made up of Catholic (20%), animist (15%), and Protestant (5%). The population includes more than 60 different ethnic groups and there are more than a 120 different languages spoken. The official language is French.

Despite the apparent geographical vulnerability of Burkina Faso, the country has not so far suffered from serious internal armed conflict or from acts of terrorism. All those who spoke to the Special Rapporteur ascribed this to the country’s long history of promoting inter-faith tolerance and dialogue, a tradition which is described as a part of the national consciousness. The rate of inter-faith and inter-ethnic marriage is high, and it is common for the children of one faith to be educated in schools run by religious organizations other than their own. The people of Burkina Faso attach considerable importance to the principle of respect for alternative faiths and cultures. This is reflected in Government policy at the highest level. In April 2011, for example, the Human Rights Ministry published its Stratégie Nationale de Promotion d’une culture de la Tolérance et de la Paix au Burkina Faso; and in January 2012 the Ministry published it Manuel de Prévention et de Gestion des Conflits entre Agriculteurs et Éleveurs, aimed at the resolution of long running disputes concerning land usage in rural areas.

Since the early 1990’s the Presidency of Burkina Faso has acted as mediator in regional disputes and armed conflicts between and within the States’ in the region, facilitating peace negotiations in a variety of situations including conflicts involving the Toureg peoples of the sub-region. Most recently, during 2012, the President and Foreign Minister played a central role in the efforts by ECOWAS to mediate the conflict in Northern Mali, hosting negotiations between the Government and rebel factions in Ouagadougou. During that process the President drew a clear distinction between national rebel forces such as MLNA and Islamist insurgents from outside Mali such as MUJWA. Following the French military intervention in Mali in January 2013 Burkina Faso provided a contributory contingent of 700 soldiers to the ECOWAS force operating in the country.

Some interlocutors considered that this might represent a threat of reprisal against Burkina Faso from MUJWA, Ansar Dine or AQIM, and noted that at least one group had previously announced an intention to mount a reprisal attack against a number of major cities in different parts of the sub-region, including Ouagadougou. Government sources however noted that domestic intelligence and security arrangements, in the capital and elsewhere in the Burkina Faso, had been considerably strengthened since January 2013, and consider the threat of an externally planned terrorist attack is currently well-contained.

The first human rights obligation of any State is to protect the lives and physical safety of its people, including citizens and all those within its jurisdiction. The Government attaches very considerable importance to this obligation and rightly recognizes that this obligation involves a careful assessment of the external and internal security threats, and requires a State to tackle not only the manifestations of terrorism but also its root causes.

Following the last visit of the Security Council’s Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate, Burkina Faso enacted Loi No. 060-2009, 17 Décembre, 2009 Relative a la Repression D’Actes and Loi No. 061-2009, 17 Décembre 2009, Relative a la Lutte Contre le Financement du Terrorisme. The former law defines and prohibits acts of terrorism in Burkina Faso. It adopts a definition of terrorism which broadly corresponds with international standards, although the offence of l’association de malfeaiteurs, which derives from French law, has in some countries been used to prosecute individuals with only the most the tenuous connection with alleged terrorists. However, since no individual has so far been arrested or charged within Burkina Faso for any offence under the 2009 counter-terrorism legislation, there is no evidence so far to suggest that this very broad offence has been, or would be, misused by the authorities. The legislation also prescribes a range of terrorist offences relating to civil aviation, maritime navigation, fixed platforms and public transport, offences against internationally protected person, kidnapping, offences connected with the use of dangerous materials, and acts concerned with the provision of material support to terrorism, including the provision of arms for the purpose of terrorism, and for recruitment or training of individuals in acts of terrorism. The legislation provides for a range of penalties up to and including life imprisonment.

The 2009 terrorist financing legislation is designed to give effect to UNSC Resolution 1373 and to the obligations of Burkina Faso under the UN Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Financing, 9 December 1999. To date, the Government has signed and ratified 12 out of the 16 international anti-terrorism instruments. Those remaining to be signed and ratified are the 2005 Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, the 2005 amendment to the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, the 2005 Protocol to the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, and the 2005 Protocol to the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Fixed Platforms Located on the Continental Shelf.

Government sources provided the Special Rapporteur with a realistic and transparent assessment of external and internal threats Burkina Faso is facing. As to the former, the country’s border security is a matter of very considerable concern to the Government. The border with Mali is 1200 kilometres long and is not marked by any natural or man-made physical boundary. Along approximately half its length the border is in direct contact with the conflict zone in northern Mali. The border as a whole is highly porous and difficult to secure. The Burkinabe army is 10,000 strong, but more than 2,000 troops are currently committed to military operations in other States including Sudan, Guinea Bissau and Mali, placing considerable strain on Burkinabe military resources.

In response to the existence of external threats on its borders, the Government has created a dedicated counter-terrorism force, and has stationed 1,000 troops (army and specialist gendarmerie) in the northern part of the border with Mali. There have so far been a small number of cross-border incidents in the north, including the kidnapping of two French nationals who were abducted and taken across the border with Mali where they were executed. There remains an ever-present risk that groups such as AQIM and MUJWA may transit across Burkina Faso from Mali and Niger and carry out kidnappings and similar attacks in the Sahel.

There have also been a number of sporadic and so far relatively minor border incursions by insurgents from Mali into the territory of Burkina Faso along these southerly sections of the border. There is no evidence that any of these groups has so far established an operational base within the territory of Burkina Faso, but the need for international support to police the border is urgent and imperative. The southerly part of the border with Mali is poorly protected, and is dependent upon intermittent manned border posts, with ground patrols and a limited amount of air support from the Burkinabe Air Force.

Taken as whole, border security represents a considerable vulnerability for the country. The Government has received a certain amount of bilateral support in its efforts to secure the border, but this has been largely confined to capacity-building, training and the supply of a limited amount of equipment. The Government considers that further international assistance is essential to the maintenance of its border security. Government security sources stressed to the Special Rapporteur that in order to guarantee the protection of the population the army needed additional material and other support including, in particular, communication, observation and radar equipment as well as additional vehicles.

During his meeting with the National Commission against Proliferation of Small Arms, the Special Rapporteur was informed that poor border security also represented a major obstacle to the suppression of arms trafficking. The Commission estimates that there are approximately 2 million unlawful light weapons in circulation within the borders of Burkina Faso, including automatic weapons and light missiles. For a country with a population of just over 17 million, this represents a significant threat to security and is evidence of continuing cross-border arms trafficking. Prior to the conflict in Mali the Commission estimated that inward trafficking represented a significant problem, with 39% of weapons coming from Ghana, 6% from Mali, and 19% from Cote d’Ivoire. A recent initiative to monitor and suppress arms trafficking across the Malian border since the start of the conflict had to be abandoned due to lack of funds. The Commission has been working with a number of organisations promoting arms control, including Amnesty International, to shape the recently adopted UN Arms Trade Treaty. However senior members of the Commission emphasised to the Special Rapporteur that improved border security was essential to the suppression of the proliferation and cross-border smuggling of light weapons capable of use in armed conflict.

As a result of the conflict in Mali, Burkina Faso is home to approximately 48,000 refugees who have fled the fighting and are currently living in refugee camps close to the northern border in Mentao and Ferrihao as well as the province of Kadiogo. The Government has taken considerable care to screen refugees and to disarm them before admitting them to refugee camps. Nevertheless, the Special Rapporteur was informed that a significant number of former combatants associated with Ansar Dine and other groups involved in the conflict in Mali are among the refugees within its borders, and are organised into identifiable groups. Government officials maintain a close watch on these groups and individuals in order to identify and prevent security risks that may arise from their presence on the territory of Burkina Faso.

The Special Rapporteur notes that whilst the conflict in Mali has not so far spilt over to the territory of Burkina Faso, there is a risk that it may do so. Burkina Faso is in need of further international support and assistance in order to be able to guarantee the security of the border and the safety of its citizens and others within its territory. Whilst the primary need is for support in connection with border security some interlocutors suggested that improved intelligence systems training would also be useful. At present it appears that any report of abnormal activity is escalated to Ministerial level. Many of these reports turn out to be unfounded, with a consequent diversion of resources. It was suggested by one interlocutor that international assistance would be useful in introducing the systematisation of intelligence evaluation so that only reliable threat reports are escalated to Ministerial level. Again, this points to the need for additional international support.

Turning to internal risks, Pillar I of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, most recently re-affirmed by the General Assembly in June 2012 emphasises that conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism include not only long-running regional conflicts such as that in the Sahel, but also social, political, economic and educational exclusion, shortcomings in good governance, and the persistence of unresolved human rights violations.

Within Burkina Faso, poverty, as well perceived inequality are sources of increasing levels of frustration among poorer sections of the population, as evidenced by civil unrest and the army mutiny in 2011. The Special Rapporteur heard from civil society representatives that there is a perception among disadvantaged sections of the community that the wealth generated by mining has been unfairly distributed, that land disputes have generated a sense of frustration, and that there are signs of mounting political dissatisfaction and unrest.

Viewed objectively, the underlying problem is one of poverty. In recent years, GDP has increased at a growth rate of approximately 5% per annum, but at the same time the population growth has been in the region of 3%. Some consider that growth of this level ought to have been reflected in at least some reduction in absolute poverty levels which have in fact remained relatively static. On the other hand, the Prime Minister informed the Special Rapporteur that a recent job creation initiative had allocated CFA 10 billion for the creation of 60,000 new jobs. All interlocutors, however, agreed that there is evidence of growing frustration and social dissatisfaction, particularly amongst the young, which has the potential to lead to radicalization and even violent extremism.

The Special Rapporteur was informed of some minor, but unprecedented, incidents that some have suggested are “early warning signs” pointing to the emergence of religious intolerance in some sections of society. Examples cited to the Special Rapporteur included threats that were reportedly made to a senior Imam following a meeting with a Catholic Archbishop in Ouagadougou as of an ongoing process of inter-faith dialogue between religious leaders; and an incident in which a number of Muslim families had removed their children from a Christian school in protest at the fact that a religious emblem (a cross) was introduced into the school uniform. It appears to the Special Rapporteur that these incidents may have attracted disproportionate attention in the media and among the political classes in Ouagadougou due to the importance attached to the Burkinabe tradition of religious tolerance and inter-faith co-operation. Nonetheless, the very fact that these incidents have attracted so much attention is some evidence of social fragility and perceived vulnerability.

Whilst incidents such as these have caused unease, and are closely monitored by Government and civil society, the Special Rapporteur agrees with most interlocutors that they do not amount to proof of any discernable shift of attitudes among any section of the population towards religious intolerance or radicalization. The attention attached to them is perhaps best seen as evidence of sensitivity of the population, the Government and the media to signs of intolerance. Moreover, the Government pursues an active programme of inter-faith co-operation. Under the Constitution, the institutions of state are committed to secularism (Article 31), but freedom of thought and plurality of religion are guaranteed (Article 7). In September 2012 the Ministry of Relations between Institutions and Political Reforms sponsored a forum for dialogue between faith leaders aimed at examining the relationship between religious and State institutions, and promoting tolerance and understanding between them.

The Special Rapporteur was informed that over the past year a number of Imams and scholars from outside the sub-region had entered Burkina Faso for religious purposes and had been preaching at local mosques. The Government monitors their activities and preachings and is satisfied that none has so far crossed a line from inflammatory rhetoric to the incitement of acts of violence.

There was a consensus among all interlocutors that the Burkinabe tradition of inter-faith tolerance, dialogue and peace-building represented a significant defence against the growth of violent religious extremism, and that there was currently no evidence of a significant trend in this direction. On the other hand, all interlocutors also agreed that poverty, social and educational exclusion, and frustration, combined with the presence of armed groups and ideologues operating in the sub-region mean that there can be no grounds for complacency. The Government is very much alive to the need to address social concerns and to improve local governance, but is severely constrained by the scarcity of economic and other resources.

The most visible and persistent human rights violations in Burkina Faso affect those who are deprived of their liberty. Allegations persist of torture and ill-treatment by the gendarmerie during the stage of detention at a maison d’arrêt prior to first appearances in court. The Special Rapporteur did not hear any direct evidence of such incidents during his visit, but notes that this issue will form part of the examination of the country’s UPR report by the Human Rights Council later this month.

The Special Rapporteur did, however, see and hear first hand evidence of the conditions of detention in military and civilian prisons. The total prison population is in the region of 5660, including approximately 160 military prisoners detained as a result of alleged involvement in the 2011 army mutiny (which was reportedly motivated by perceived inequalities in pay and conditions, rather than broader political considerations).

During his visit to the military prison in Ouagadougou (Maison d’Arrêt et Correction Militaire d’Ouagadougou) the Special Rapporteur was informed that there is a severe shortage of medical support and supplies for sick prisoners. He was also informed that the majority of those detained as a result of the mutiny have been in pre-trial detention for more than two years, and still do not have a date fixed for their trial. The conditions of detention were extremely basic, but morale among the prisoners appeared to be generally satisfactory and the relationship between prisoners and prison staff appeared polite and friendly. The Special Rapporteur conducted a number of private and confidential interviews with detainees, none of whom reported ill-treatment or made any complaint about their conditions of detention other than the absence of medical treatment and the length of pre-trial detention.

However the position in the civil prison system is radically different and grossly inadequate. The Special Rapporteur visited the Maison d’Arrêt et Correction d’ Ouagadougou, inspected the premises, and spoke at considerable length with the senior staff who were transparent and forthright in expressing their concerns about the conditions in which prisoners were being held. The Special Rapporteur was impressed by the professionalism, care and commitment of the senior staff, including the Regional Director for the Ouagadougou district who is responsible for the supervision of 16 prisons. It appeared clear that the staff were striving to do their utmost to provide a constructive and healthy environment for the prisoners, and were frustrated by their inability to afford humane conditions of detention.

The facility currently houses 1281 prisoners, including adult males and females and juveniles. The Special Rapporteur was informed that the adult male facilities were currently approximately 250% over-capacity, with many sleeping more than six to a cell. The sanitation was extremely poor, and the fabric of the prison was in an observably poor state of disrepair. The Special Rapporteur was informed that there was an almost total absence of medication for the treatment of infections or diseases which, in view of the overcrowding and poor sanitation, were commonplace. The medical infirmary was an empty building, without medical staff or equipment, and senior prison staff expressed grave concern about the health implications for prisoners. The prison had only one functioning pick-up truck for transporting prisoners to court or hospital and this was on loan from the Ministry of Justice. The authorities depended heavily on Catholic and other religious charities for donations and support to run even the most basic of services. The Special Rapporteur was informed that the conditions in the MACO were typical of most prisons in Burkina Faso. He considers these conditions of detention to amount to inhuman and degrading treatment and stresses the imperative need for urgent action.

On the second day of his visit the Special Rapporteur discussed the situation with the Human Rights Minister who fully acknowledged the scale of the problem and pointed out that it could only be partially alleviated by the building of more prisons. During his meeting with the Prime Minister towards the end of his visit the Special Rapporteur was informed that the Human Rights Minister had put forward a proposal for the establishment of a commission to examine solutions to the crisis in the Burkinabe prison system which had been approved the previous day by the Cabinet and the President. The Special Rapporteur welcomes this initiative and stresses its urgency. He recommends that the commission should urgently examine solutions that involve a change in judicial remand and sentencing policy, and stresses that finding a solution to this serious crisis is a joint responsibility of government and judiciary which can only be solved by a partnership between the two. In the MACO approximately 40% of those in custody were held on remand pending trial. An immediate means of easing the crisis would be to ensure that any person on pre-trial remand for a non-violent offence should be urgently considered for conditional release. In the short to medium term, however, the solution must lie in a comprehensive review of sentencing policy to ensure that the judiciary do not impose terms of imprisonment which the Government is unable to administer in humane conditions.

Provisional conclusions and recommendations

At the end of his visit the Special Rapporteur said:

“Burkina Faso has so far escaped the threat of terrorist attack, the spread of armed conflict across its borders, and the religious intolerance, radicalization and violent extremism among its population. But it remains vulnerable to all these threats due to its geographical proximity to the conflict in northern Mali, the length and insecurity of its borders with Mali and Niger, the economic instability of the country and its lack of natural resources, and the social and political tensions that have been evident in recent years, particularly amongst the youth population aged 18-25 which suffer the highest levels of unemployment, as well as the fact that nearly half of the population falls beneath the poverty line.”

“The country has so far proved to be resiliently committed to peaceful negotiation and co-existence within a sub-region that has been riven by conflicts in neighbouring states including Cote d’Ivoire, Niger and Mali. Burkina Faso has acted as chief peace negotiator for many of the major conflicts in the region. This is largely due to a long and deeply-held tradition of religious and ethnic tolerance, dialogue and co-operation among its people.”

“It would, however, be naïve to assume that the country is not at risk. It is essential that a vulnerable State in such an exposed geographical location, has the tools at its disposal to ensure the security of its borders, to maintain the security of inward investment that it is essential to its development, and to address the economic, social, political and human rights concerns that can so easily become conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism, as foreseen in Pillar I of the UNs Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.”

“Burkina Faso has for a number of years been the beneficiary of considerable overseas development aid. For the 5 year period from 2008 to 2013 the EU provided €700 million in development aid. The EU budget for the period 2014 to 2019 is currently under review. The economic crisis in the Eurozone, and the austerity measures that have been introduced in many European States pose a threat to international aid budgets. However, the Special Rapporteur strongly urges the EU, and other international donors, to maintain and indeed to increase levels of international support for Burkina Faso. Such support should be targeted at measures that contribute to securing stability and social justice, to the protection of the country’s borders, to the alleviation of poverty, to the resolution of the crisis in the penal system, to the protection and promotion of human rights, and to the promotion of inward investment and job and wealth creation.”

“Burkina Faso plays a critical role in promoting peace and dialogue within the sub-region. It will almost certainly occupy an important mediating position in the forthcoming negotiations concerning the future of Mali, and will significantly contribute to the maintenance of any settlement that is reached. In performing this role Burkina Faso needs the active support of the UN, its agencies and the Secretary-General's Special Envoy for the Sahel.”

“Any significant terrorist attack on the infrastructure or security of Burkina Faso would undermine social cohesion within the country, impair inward investment, and further de-stabilise the region. The international community needs to ensure that the material and other resources necessary to protect this small and peaceful State, from both external and internal threats, are made available to it as a matter of regional priority.”