On February 16, Burkina Faso’s transitional parliament passed a bill to beef up the role of provost marshals, who are responsible for discipline in the armed forces and the protection of detainees’ rights during military operations and at military posts.
Under article 241 of Burkina Faso’s code of military justice, provost marshals previously operated mainly at military command centers and seldom accompanied soldiers on military operations. These restrictions undermined their core function of protecting detainees’ rights and reducing abuse. In addition to expanding their role, the law provides for provost marshals to have the status of judicial police officers, who are trained in judicial investigations.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly emphasized the essential role of provost marshals and called on Burkinabe authorities to increase their presence in military operations, ensure they monitor and respond to any abuse, and liaise with the relevant judicial authorities.
Burkina Faso’s security situation is precarious. Attacks by armed Islamist groups on civilians have surged since 2022 while state security forces and pro-government armed groups have conducted a number of abusive counterterrorism operations. The violence has forced 1.9 million people from their homes.
Burkina Faso’s defense and veterans minister, Col.-Maj. Kassoum Coulibaly, told local media on February 16 that with an uptick in attacks by armed groups and increasing military operations, “there is a growing risk of human rights violations,” making the deployment of provost marshals “necessary.”
The expansion of the provost marshals’ role is a positive step toward ensuring that the armed forces respect basic rights in military operations and detainees are treated humanely and afforded due process before the law. However, concerns about the misconduct of gendarmes, among whom provost marshals will be selected, remain. Human Rights Watch has documented serious abuses by the Burkinabé gendarmerie, including summary executions of suspects during counterterrorism operations in both Burkina Faso and Mali.
The authorities should ensure provost marshals are fully vetted so perpetrators of serious crimes do not end up in this new pool. Strong, effective vetting is key to developing provost marshals willing to step in to prevent abuses from happening and supporting national efforts to build more disciplined, rights-respecting security forces that protect civilians from violence and abuses.