March 30, 2021 – A report released today by the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), following investigations into an airstrike conducted by French forces in the village of Bounti, Mali on January 3, 2021, finds that 19 of the 22 people killed by the airstrike were civilians. Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) condemns the killing of civilians and calls for all parties to strengthen civilian harm mitigation measures in their own and partner operations. We also call on French authorities to conduct a separate, independent investigation into the incident and urge full transparency and cooperation throughout the process.
Earlier this year, troops from Operation Barkhane – an ongoing operation led by the French military against violent extremist groups in the Sahel region of Africa – conducted a joint military operation with Sahelian forces in Douentza cercle in Mopti region, Mali. French forces conducted an airstrike in Bounti and, soon after the incident, reports emerged alleging that the airstrike killed civilians attending a wedding celebration. To date, French officials deny that civilians were killed in the Bounti airstrike and argue that they “neutralized” members of an armed terrorist group.
Shortly following the incident, MINUSMA announced that it would conduct an investigation into the Bounti airstrike. On January 25, MINUSMA officials traveled to Bounti, where they spent several days conducting their investigation, including speaking with over 300 people with knowledge and information related to the incident. The compiled findings, published today, document 22 deaths resulting from the airstrike – 19 were killed instantly (16 civilians and three members of a violent extremist group) and three more civilians later died of injuries. The report also confirmed there was a wedding celebration on the day of the strike and highlighted that while violent extremist groups operate in the area, individuals present there cannot be considered combatants — and therefore legitimate targets — by default. Under international humanitarian law (IHL), individuals enjoy protected status unless they are positively identified as a combatant or directly participating in hostilities, while retaining civilian status.
“The French military and all armed forces in the region have a responsibility to protect civilians and should be held accountable for preventing and responding to civilian harm.” says CIVIC Executive Director, Federico Borello. “The death of 19 civilians in Bounti underscores the need for all armed actors to implement effective strategies and best practices on the protection of civilians. Civilian harm is not an unavoidable consequence of war and must be prevented.”
CIVIC urges France to lead by example and commit to full transparency when civilian harm incidents arise from their own operations or those of their partners. In addition, CIVIC strongly encourages France to ensure that victims and their families receive amends consistent with local traditions and expectations. We also call on national forces and their international partners in the region to strengthen civilian harm mitigation in their unilateral and partnered operations, including through the development and implementation of internal civilian harm tracking and response mechanisms.