(New York) - The African Union should make protecting civilians and fighting impunity for human rights abuses central to its initiatives against conflicts in the region, Human Rights Watch said today in a briefing paper released ahead of the AU summit on July 6-8.
“The African Union should take strong proactive measures to prevent and intervene in conflicts across the continent,” said Peter Takirambudde, director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. “By taking constructive steps to ensure protection for civilians and human rights, the AU can play a key role in stemming conflicts in the region.”
In their deliberations at this week’s Assembly meeting in Addis Ababa, AU member states have an opportunity to act on their stated commitment to peace and security by addressing three crises: Sudan’s western Darfur region, Cote d’Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Each of the conflicts, which are marked by widespread abuses against civilians, threatens to escalate rapidly unless the African Union and the broader international community take decisive action now, Human Rights Watch said.
In Darfur, the Sudanese military and their allied Janjaweed militias have committed crimes against humanity, “ethnic cleansing” and war crimes including rape. Tens of thousands of civilians have died, and more than one million persons have been displaced. International aid agencies estimate that hundreds of thousands will die of starvation and disease in the coming months unless the Sudanese government allows unimpeded humanitarian access immediately. The most egregious conflict in Africa today, Darfur demands prompt and effective AU action.
Human Rights Watch called on the African Union to increase its ceasefire monitoring force in Darfur, include human rights monitoring in the mandate of the ceasefire commission, gather evidence of war crimes and other violations. The African Union should impose sanctions on Khartoum if it does not cooperate with the AU mission and the ceasefire agreement. Working with the United Nations, the African Union should take steps to reverse the effects of ethnic cleansing in Darfur, compensate victims, and provide for the safe and voluntary return of displaced persons and refugees.
In Cote d’Ivoire, the government’s military and security forces and government-backed militias continue to commit serious human rights abuses with total impunity. Political opposition supporters are intimidated and abused, along with persons who are believed to oppose the government by virtue of their religion, ethnicity or nationality. The country is split in half, with the government holding areas in the south and rebels controlling territory in the north. Civilians endure abuses at the hands of both sides and their associated militias, and suffer from the economic hardship engendered by the conflict. Cote d’Ivoire requires AU attention, without which the situation threatens to draw in roving combatants from neighboring countries. In the event of a return to armed conflict, the crisis in Cote d’Ivoire would jeopardize regional stability.
Human Rights Watch urged the African Union to condemn the abuses in Cote d’Ivoire and call on government and rebel forces to end them. The African Union should insist that the government disarm and disband pro-government militias and investigate abuses and hold accountable those responsible, including those committed since the 1999 military coup—The African Union should also insist that West African governments comply with the ECOWAS moratorium on small arms trade to Cote d’Ivoire.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, recent fighting in Bukavu is the latest event in a pattern of deteriorating security and massive violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Rebellious factions of former rebel groups and other armed groups that have not joined the transitional process use violence to oppose integration into the new Congolese army and to challenge the authority of the transitional government in Kinshasa. Former rebel group leaders, even while taking part in the transitional government, have apparently encouraged or tolerated these challenges.
The transitional government has been unable to meet these challenges and has failed to stop the violence. The complex power-sharing agreement and distrust among participants in the transition and outsiders are factors likely to result in future violence and abuses. A new crisis in the country and a return to conflict may result in the destabilization of Central Africa unless an increased and consistent commitment emerges from the international community and the African Union.
Human Rights Watch called on the African Union to denounce and demand an end to the abuses in the DRC and insist that commanders responsible be held accountable. The African Union should insist that all new members of the Congolese armed forces be screened for past abuses, and it should conclude its Bukavu investigation and make public the findings. Human Rights Watch also urged the African Union to assist the DRC and the International Criminal Court in bringing perpetrators of grave abuses to justice, and it should call on the U.N. Secretary General to establish a Group of Experts to recommend justice mechanisms for war crimes committed before the ICC Statute.
“These three hotspots have a common need for immediate attention and substantive action by the AU” said Takirambudde. “Protecting civilians, upholding human rights and preventing impunity should be integrated into all AU initiatives to address conflicts in the region.”