Human Rights Watch on Thursday said widespread and systematic violence by the dreaded militant group Boko Haram amounts to crimes against humanity.
In a statement on its website, the group said that government security forces also are responsible for numerous abuses, including extrajudicial killings.

Security forces view the scene of a bomb explosion at St. Theresa Catholic Church at Madalla

Human Rights Watch has released a nearly 100 page report entitled Spiraling Violence: Boko Haram Attacks and Security Force Abuses in Nigeria. The document also explores the role of Nigeria’s security forces, whose own alleged abuses contravene international human rights law and might also constitute crimes against humanity. The violence, which first erupted in 2009, has claimed more than 2,800 lives.

“The unlawful killing by both Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces only grows worse; both sides need to halt this downward spiral,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

“Nigeria’s government should swiftly bring to justice the Boko Haram members and security agents who have committed these serious crimes,” he added.

Rona Peligal, deputy director of Human Rights Watch, Africa Division said compiling evidence was difficult and dangerous.

“For one thing, the security conditions on the ground were menacing, and we had to be very careful about how we did the research in Northern Nigeria. In addition, we were monitoring attacks by Boko Haram and security forces over a three-year period. Finally, these are really difficult, nettlesome and polarizing issues, which made the report more complicated to write, but I think the report is balanced and fair and comprehensive,” she said.

Boko Haram attacks, which began in 2009, are concentrated in northern Nigeria and have targeted police, government forces, Christians and Muslims.

“What we did was we looked very closely at the kinds of attacks that we were seeing by Boko Haram. The fact that the attacks were widespread – that they were systematic – that they were targeted – that they were focused on particular groups of people, who had nothing to do with any kind of abuse or bad behaviour. And we decided that both the intensity of the abuses, the extent of the abuses rose to the level of crimes against humanity,” said Peligal.

She said these are the most serious human rights violations that a person or group can commit. She said they demand investigation and prosecution.
Peligal also points out the International Criminal Court is monitoring the situation, including the attacks on innocent civilians.

“People who were killed in churches while they were praying. The report has a photo essay with pictures of people who died while they were in church. And it’s absolutely heart-breaking to see wedding pictures, graduation pictures of young and promising people, whose lives were taken as a result of this callous violence,” she said.

The report also criticizes Nigeria’s Joint Task Force, or JTF, which is trying to track down Boko Haram members and end the attacks.

“They have begun to crack down on Boko Haram, but in a way that’s quite violent. And that in itself has contributed to its own abuses. The government itself has engaged in extrajudicial killings – has engaged in excessive use of force in communities where Boko Haram members might be located. And sometimes these have an impact on the neighboring communities,” she said.

The Joint Task Force issued a statement Wednesday denying reports soldiers killed more than 30 people and burned shops and houses in Maiduguri. Residents in the northeastern city say soldiers became violent following a bomb attack that killed at least one soldier. The JTF statement read, in part, that there is “no recorded case of extra-judicial killings, torture, arson and arbitrary arrests by the JTF in Borno State.”

Peligal said, however, the deaths continue to mount.

“The violence between both Boko Haram and the security forces has claimed more than 2800 lives. But of those we estimate that 1500 have been committed by Boko Haram, and that the remainder are largely because of security force abuses and killings. In the first nine months of 2012 alone, more than 815 people have died from this violence. And that’s more than in 2010 and 2011 combined,” she said.

Human Rights Watch calls on Boko Haram to “immediately cease all attacks and threats of attacks that cause loss of life, injury and destruction of property.”