Sahel: Amnesty identifies Serbian weapons in stockpiles of brutal armed groups

Amnesty International’s arms experts have identified Serbian-manufactured weapons in videos posted by armed groups operating in the Sahel, including an Islamic State affiliate which has claimed responsibility for hundreds of civilian deaths. The new rifles, some the latest available models, match trade records of Serbia’s sales to Burkina Faso, suggesting the weapons were recently sold to the government before falling into the hands of armed groups.

Amnesty International’s analysis of commercial trade data also shows that the Czech Republic, France and Slovakia have exported large quantities of small arms and light weapons to Sahel governments since widespread conflict broke out.  

By 2020, when Serbia made its latest reported arms transfer to Burkina Faso, violence between armed groups was already well underway.

Patrick Wilcken, Head of Business, Security and Human Rights

Since 2011, Mali has been facing an insurgency led by various armed groups including Islamic State of Greater Sahara (ISGS), and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), and the conflict has spilled over into Burkina Faso and Niger. Armed groups have carried out multiple attacks on civilians and a humanitarian crisis is fast engulfing the region. Serbia, the Czech Republic, France and Slovakia have all ratified the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which prohibits the transfer of arms if there is a risk they will be used to commit or facilitate human rights violations.    

The conflict in the Sahel has been characterized by serious human rights violations by all parties, including massacres of civilians by unaccountable armed groups. More than a million people have been displaced in the region, and the humanitarian crisis is fast becoming one of the worst in the world,” said Patrick Wilcken, Head of Business, Security and Human Rights at Amnesty International. 

“In this increasingly dire context, states must act with extreme caution when considering arms transfers to the Sahel. Not only is there an unacceptably high risk of diversion to armed groups, national armies and police forces in the region have appalling human rights records. Ahead of the annual Arms Trade Treaty conference next week, we urge all states to live up to their obligations and refrain from any arms transfers that could fuel human rights violations.” 

A stockpile of weapons, including a Zastava M02 Coyote heavy machine gun, captured by JNIM in July 2020 in Burkina Faso.

On 30 August, delegates from 110 countries will meet in Geneva for the Seventh Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty. The ATT prohibits exports of arms where there is an overriding risk they will be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law. This includes the risk that weapons sold to governments will be illicitly diverted to human rights violators. 

Worsening conflict

The situation across the central Sahel region is growing increasingly unstable, and armed groups have proliferated in the context of a multi-faceted and brutal conflict. More than 6,000 civilian deaths were reported between 2017 and 2021 in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location Event Database. More than 1,200,000 Burkinabè have been displaced since 2016, according to UNHCR.  

In June 2021, unidentified armed men killed 130 civilians in the village of Solhan in Burkina Faso, the worst attack on civilians seen so far in the conflict. ISGS has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks on civilians in 2021, including one on 21 March which left 137 people dead across several locations in Niger.

So-called ‘self-defence’ groups, established in opposition to JNIM and ISGS, have also carried out massacres of civilians, leading to a bloody cycle of reprisals. In March 2020, one such ‘self-defence’ group, the Koglweogo, launched a series of appalling attacks on villages in Burkina Faso which left at least 43 people dead. A month earlier, Dan na Ambassagou, an ethnic armed militia, killed 32 villagers in Ogossagou, Mali.  

Serbian weapons in hands of fighters

Amnesty International collected and analysed more than 400 pieces of digital content from Burkina Faso and Mali, including verified photos and videos posted on social media by members of armed groups between January 2018 and May 2021. The imagery shows weapons stockpiles and fighters from various armed groups and state auxiliaries, including ISGS, JNIM, Dozos, Volunteers for the Defense of the Fatherland (VDP), Koglweogo, and Dan na Ambassagou, in both Mali and Burkina Faso.  

While most of the weapons visible were legacy Kalashnikovs of Soviet origin, many decades old, Amnesty identified 12 cases where fighters carried newer weapons made by Serbian company Zastava. These include M02 Coyote heavy machine guns, and M92 and M05 series rifles, including the most up to date M05E3 models which were not available before fighting began in northern Mali in 2011.  

Modern Zastava M05E1 rifles are included in a cache of JNIM weapons in Burkina Faso in February 2020. Credit: Calibre Obscura

While tracing precise chain of custody was not possible, it is likely that these weapons were diverted to the armed groups either through illicit channels or battlefield capture. 

Between 2015-20, Serbia reported total transfers of 20,811 rifles and carbines; 4,000 assault rifles; 600 revolvers and self-loading pistols; and 290 machine guns to Burkina Faso, in its annual reports to the ATT. 

The ATT requires States Parties to assess the risk of diversion of the arms covered by the Treaty – particularly small arms and light weapons which are easy to conceal and transport. If there is a substantial risk that arms will be diverted to end users who will use them to commit or facilitate human rights violations,  exports should not be authorized. 

“By 2020, when Serbia made its latest reported arms transfer to Burkina Faso, violence between armed groups was already well underway. Any adequate risk assessment by Serbia would have concluded that arms sales to Burkina Faso were likely to contribute to human rights violations,” said Patrick Wilcken.  

Any arms sold to governments in the Sahel region risk falling into the hands of armed groups and fuelling the conflict.

Patrick Wilcken

Other European Arms

According to official EU annual report data, since 2013, EU states have issued 506 licences, worth 205 million euros, of military equipment to Mali and Burkina Faso. 

Slovakia has reported transfers of 1,000 assault weapons, 2,460 rifles and carbines, 550 machine guns; 680 pistols and revolvers and 750 sub-machine guns to Mali; the Czech Republic has reported transfers of 3,500 assault rifles and 10 sub-machine guns to Burkina Faso; and France has reported a further 1,164 pistols and self-loading revolvers, 4 rifles and carbines, along with 13 armoured combat vehicles to Mali. 

“The Serbian weapons we identified are the latest evidence that any arms sold to governments in the Sahel region risk falling into the hands of brutal armed groups, and fuelling the worsening conflict,” said Patrick Wilcken.  

“As the situation deteriorates across the Sahel, all exporting states must adopt strict safeguards in order to prevent weapons being diverted to armed groups, or used to commit human rights violations by armed forces. If such safeguards cannot be guaranteed, arms should not be transferred. Importing states must also clamp down on illicit arms sales, and ensure that stocks are secure.”