A Public Relations Balancing Act Amid Burkina Faso’s Counterterrorism Operation

The Burkinabé army released a communiqué (.pdf, French) on 18 July describing counterterrorism operations that units of the Groupement des Forces Anti-Terroristes (Grouping of Anti-Terrorist Forces) have been conducting since 8 July in the northern frontier zone of the country. According to the communiqué, around 100 people were interrogated in the north, of whom sixty were transferred to the Gendarmerie for further questioning. The communiqué also states that anti-terrorist units dismantled bases and seized explosives, contraband, and other materials.

The communiqué takes pains to state that the soldiers “act with strict respect for International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.” This emphasis comes on the heels of public comments by Burkinabé President Roch Kaboré about the importance of human rights – comments that in turn were responding to allegations of human rights abuses by Burkina Faso’s security services. In particular, a recent Human Rights Watch report really appears to have gotten authorities’ attention.

Here is an excerpt from that report, one relevant to the official descriptions of the current operation:

Community leaders complained of numerous instances in which the security forces appeared to randomly detain men en masse  who happened to be in the vicinity of incursions, attacks or ambushes by armed Islamist groups. Gendarmes released the majority of detainees after preliminary investigations which often lasted several days, but others have been detained for months.

The security forces, then, have at least two public relations objectives that are now in tension: on the one hand, they want to demonstrate their efficacy (“we got a lot of bad guys”); on the other hand, they want to demonstrate their professionalism (“we’re not just detaining any fighting-age men”). Amid this public relations balancing act, ascertaining the truth of what is happening is hard, especially in the moment.

In related news, RTB (French) reports on the recent killing of the chief of Hocoulourou, a commune in Burkina Faso’s Soum Province (Sahel Region).

 

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