Human Rights Watch welcomes the holding of a long overdue Special Session on the human rights crisis affecting Northern Nigeria and neighboring countries and the devastating toll for civilians caught up in the conflict.

Based on witness accounts and an analysis of media reports, Human Rights Watch believes that at least 3,750 civilians died during Boko Haram attacks in northern Nigeria in 2014. Reported attacks have increased in the first quarter of 2015 with more than 1,000 civilians killed.

Boko Haram fighters have deliberately attacked villages and committed mass killings and abductions as their attacks have spread from northeast Nigeria into Cameroon, Chad, and Niger since February.

Since 2009, the group has abducted hundreds of women and girls many of whom were subjected to forced conversion, forced marriage, rape, and other abuse. Scores of young men and boys were forced to join Boko Haram’s ranks or face death. Hundreds of thousands of residents were forced to flee the area, either because Boko Haram fighters ordered them to leave or out of fear for their lives.

Human Rights Watch also documented abuses by Nigerian security forces since 2009 as they responded to attacks by Boko Haram, including excessive use of force, burning homes, physical abuse and extrajudicial killings of those suspected of supporting Boko Haram.

Security forces have rounded up hundreds of men and boys suspected of supporting Boko Haram, detained them in in humane conditions and physically abused or killed them. Hundreds of others have been forcibly disappeared.

In a recent incident in December 2014 documented by Human Rights Watch, Nigerian security forces attacked and burned down the village of Mundu near a Boko Haram base in Bauchi State, leaving 5 civilians dead and 70 families homeless. Witness told Human Rights Watch that Boko Haram was not present in the village when it was attacked. When briefed about the incident by Human Rights Watch, the army said it had ordered military police to investigate the claims, a step that is welcome, but rare.

Nigerian military authorities have charged and tried soldiers for “cowardice,” mutiny, and other military offenses, sentencing 70 of them to death, but no military personnel have faced prosecution for human rights abuses against civilians in the northeast. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty.

Without a stronger effort to protect civilians and accountability for abuses, the situation is likely to get worse. War crimes committed by Boko Haram should be properly investigated and the perpetrators held to account in fair trials.

Human Right Watch urges Nigeria and other countries participating in the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) to observe international human rights and humanitarian law as they conduct military operations against Boko Haram and to uphold prohibitions against torture, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and extra-judicial execution.

They should also ensure that all allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes are effectively investigated with those responsible held to account, including commanders, and ensure that joint military operations with neighboring states include lawyers with experience of applying the law of war in non-international armed conflicts as part of the operation.  

The Human Rights Council should dispatch a team of human rights officers to investigate and publicly report on violations by all parties, and provide advice and trainings to the MNJTF on ensuring respect for human rights and humanitarian law and minimizing harm to civilians and civilian objects during military operations.

Denouncing Boko Haram’s crimes and standing with its victims is a necessary but not a sufficient answer to the crisis. It also requires action to address the persistent lack of accountability for abuses committed by all sides to deter future abuses and work towards justice for every victim.