Government-sponsored paramilitary forces known as “Guardians of the Peace” have committed many killings, rapes, and other crimes over the last four years in Burundi, Human Rights Watch charged today.

In an eighteen-page report entitled “To Protect the People: The Government-Sponsored ‘Self-Defense’ Program in Burundi,” Human Rights Watch called on the Burundian government to disband the paramilitary force, which has been responsible for many violations of international humanitarian law.

The Guardians, as well as similar patrols in urban areas, were established by the previous government as part of a “civilian self-defense” program to combat rebel forces in the eight-year-old civil war. A recently installed transitional government has so far continued the program.

“The government has a duty to protect its citizens,” said Alison Des Forges, Senior Advisor to the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, “but it also has an obligation to ensure that all its armed forces obey the laws of war. Calling the Guardians ‘civilians’ does not change the facts: they are recruited, trained, and armed by the authorities. They act under military orders and, like soldiers, must be held accountable for any abuses they commit.”

In many cases, authorities required unwilling participants to serve as Guardians or as members of similar patrols in the cities even though there was no legal process for conscripting them for such service. Participants receive no pay and generally do not know how long they will be required to serve. They receive no uniform or insignia. Whatever powers they exercise are not formally established or publicly known to other citizens.

Human Rights Watch has found that Burundian officials recruited many children aged fifteen and younger for service in the Guardians and in urban patrols. Supposedly recruited to defend their own neighborhoods, many of these children were ordered into full-scale military operations far from their homes. Some officers saw the children as more expendable than better-trained adult troops and sent them into combat in the front lines. Hundreds have died in military operations and from beatings suffered in the course of training.

All parties to the civil war have used children as soldiers. The government of Burundi has signed international conventions banning the use of children under the age of eighteen years in combat, and military authorities have ordered that children younger than that age not be recruited for military service.

The report underlined the danger of preaching “self-defense” in a region where ethnically-based violence has cost hundreds of thousands of lives in recent years. “Telling people that they may have to take up arms to defend themselves makes them more afraid and more open to manipulation by ruthless leaders,” said Des Forges. “If people think the government cannot or will not protect them, they will be far readier to attack others.”