Burkina Faso, the landlocked West African country is facing a multitude of challenges with severe impacts on a wide range of human rights of its people, so says United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.
Concluding a four-day visit to the country, she notes that Burkina Faso is facing the on-going threat of violent extremism, climate change and humanitarian crises, stressing also that her fact-finding mission was “a testament” to the state’s openness the promotion and protection of human rights, in collaboration with the UN.
This is even as more than a million people in the country have been displaced from their homes, victims of ongoing conflict and poverty. Nevertheless, following a recent visit to the central and northern regions of the country, Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Burkina Faso, Barbara Manzi, said she met a resilient people keen to find their own solutions, to a better future.
“This was my first field mission in Burkina Faso, and I visited Kaya, some 100 kilometres northeast of the capital, Ouagadougou; Dori, which is the capital of the Sahel region, on the border with Niger and Mali; and Djibo, a town in the north of the country.
The people we met all asked the same questions: can we get jobs? Can we get back our dignity and go back to our normal life? Can we become the actors of our future? Can you help us to go back to a normal life?
Women make up half of the population, and more than three-quarters of people in the country are under 35. However, they are conspicuously absent from decision-making.
I made a point of speaking to women, and I asked them if they can help to resolve longstanding issues and stop the violence. “Yes, that’s true”, they said. “If we say to our husbands, our sons, our brothers, to stop fighting, to stop the violence, they’re going to listen to us, and we need to find a space to make that happen, so that we have a seat at the table.”
My second question to them was, ‘what can I do? What can we do as United Nations to help you?’ They replied that they want to find their own solutions, but they asked for help educating the men to shift some of the traditional and cultural ways of doing things.
During the crisis, education and health services have been particularly vulnerable to violent non-State groups, and many have closed down, which has exacerbated the situation.
‘’But I have seen that the UN and our partners are having a positive effect, from food distribution to out-of-school activities, psycho-social support, nutrition centres, and health centres. Our guiding star must be to ensure that we contribute to solutions and do no harm. We can’t just see vulnerable communities as victims, but also as actors involved in finding a solution to humanitarian issues.
‘’We need to listen to them, and bring their voices across the whole spectrum of discussions. And we need to be the voice of the voiceless, in a constructive way.
‘’My message for people outside Burkina Faso, including donors and development partners, is that there is hope, despite all the terrible things that are happening, and I think we have a collective responsibility to make sure that this hope does not fade away.
‘’We need to be ready for some setbacks. It’s likely to happen, considering the situation, but this should not discourage us from continuing to focus on the people, trying to bring them to the forefront of discussions, supporting the state in what they’re doing, and ensuring that all levels of the traditional community systems are involved.
‘’I think I’m really lucky to be in this position. It’s not an easy job, but it’s a job I love because I see the whole spectrum of the work that the UN is doing, and how the system can be put to better use to serve people in need.”
However, armed Islamist groups have killed hundreds of civilians there, as well as in Mali and Niger, while government security forces and pro-government militias have also killed terrorism suspects and civilians.
Meanwhile, climate change is robbing farmers and herders of their livelihoods – sparking more conflicts and hindering access to water, food, healthcare and education.
“An already difficult humanitarian situation has become much more dire, with more than 3.5 million in need of humanitarian assistance – a 60 per cent increase since January last year. Of these, nearly three million are food insecure”, she explained.
Ms. Bachelet discussed the country’s complex challenges with President Kaboré, senior ministers, as well as the President of the National Assembly and others.
“What I found was incredible resilience, dignity and integrity in the face of overwhelming hardship”, she said.
She described the plight of people forced to flee their homes, leaving behind lands and livelihoods, while host communities share what little they have with internally displaced people.
According to the government, more than 1.4 million people have been displaced within Burkina Faso, as reports swirl of horrific violence and other human rights abuses, including allegations of summary executions, abductions and sexual violence.
“I stressed with President Kaboré, it is essential that all perpetrators of such human rights violations and abuses be brought to justice, regardless of their affiliation, and that they are held accountable for their actions”, said Ms. Bachelet, “in line with international standards”.
During her visit, she also underscored the need for all state security and affiliated forces to comply with international human rights law and international humanitarian law, as being “crucial to engender trust and confidence…and to guarantee that the State’s response to those who seek to destabilize it, is grounded firmly in the rule of law”.
“Not doing so will lead to failure in confronting violent and lawless extremism”, warned the High Commissioner.
She expressed serious concern over an increase in inter-communal tensions and urged political and community leaders to prevent communities from being targeted or vilified for perceived affiliation with violent extremism.
“Burkina Faso has a long tradition of ensuring peaceful coexistence of its people. Efforts need to be based on this as well as be rooted in human rights to avoid discrimination, ensure inclusion and address inequalities”, she stated.
With some 59 per cent of the total population under age 20, she worried about the situation of youth, particularly in the north, where extremist violence is most prevalent.
“Poverty, the lack of access to economic opportunities and, in some cases, discrimination and marginalisation can make young people more vulnerable to radicalisation”, she said.
While acknowledging the frustration and impatience over deteriorating security in the country, she reminded that “it is more important than ever” to create space for dialogue to allow society to air grievances and jointly craft solutions.
Ms. Bachelet described as “key” the voices of youth, of women and of underrepresented minority communities and called on the state to “take proactive measures to increase the number of women in decision-making positions at all levels”.
“Solutions need to be found together – not imposed”, said the High Commissioner.
Amid the crises, she hoped the international community would step up with greater support: “How it is managed can have repercussions for peace and security and human rights for millions of people in the country, in the region and beyond. International and regional support is and will continue to be vital”.
Now is a decisive moment that presents “a window of opportunity for robust action” grounded in human rights and the rule of law to “prevent the situation from spiralling out of control”, she argued.
Ms. Bachelet said her office (OHCHR) would now put in place a State-approved operation to provide technical assistance and training; conduct monitoring and reporting; and work with Government, civil society partners and UN agencies, to promote and protect human rights for all.
“This is part of the broader UN response to the crisis in the Sahel”, she added.