(New York) - The European Union should urgently move forward with its planned deployment of troops to protect civilians in eastern Chad, Human Rights Watch said today. Recent fighting between Chadian government forces and insurgent groups has left tens of thousands of civilians at grave risk and has paralyzed the delivery of humanitarian aid.

EUFOR, a European Union civilian-protection mission mandated by the UN Security Council to protect civilians in Chad, has already deployed 150 soldiers to Chad. Further deployments have been delayed by the recent fighting, however. EUFOR is mandated to provide protection for more than 400,000 Sudanese refugees and Chadian internally displaced persons in eastern Chad.

Nowhere is the need for EUFOR more urgent than in the Guéréda area of eastern Chad, where 12,000 Sudanese refugees have been living in desperate conditions since February 10, when they fled West Darfur after attacks by Sudanese government military aircraft and “Janjaweed” militias. Recently arrived Sudanese refugees are concentrated in the border village of Birak, a remote location where the Chadian government presence is minimal and numerous armed groups are active, including some that have attacked civilians in the past.

“The refugees who recently fled from Darfur to Chad are in a volatile and dangerous region with little food and no one to protect them,” said Georgette Gagnon, acting Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The European Union is mandated to protect these refugees, but it needs to deploy its troops to Chad immediately.”

In addition to those who have recently fled Darfur for Birak, refugees are also at risk in two UN-supervised camps in the Guéréda area, Kounoungo and Mile, with a combined population of 30,000. Paramilitary groups operate in both camps and have actively recruited refugees, reportedly including children. In April 2007, refugees at Kounoungo camp told Human Rights Watch about violent abuses by Chadian rebel groups operating in the area, including attempted rapes. In December 2007, Human Rights Watch received reports of violent abuses by armed groups against refugees at Mile camp, including rape.

“At some camps, Chadian police responsible for protecting refugees have been unable to carry out their duties because of intimidation and death threats from armed groups,” said Gagnon. “The continuing risk to civilians is great, and there is an urgent need for EUFOR to deploy immediately.”

In addition to its civilian protection role, EUFOR is mandated by the UN Security Council to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid, which has been severely compromised by growing insecurity. In late January 2008, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began to evacuate national and international staff in response to escalating violence in the country. Since that time, Chadian rebel activity has paralyzed road travel to eastern Chad, cutting off food supplies to 400,000 refugees and displaced persons living in camps. In February, UNHCR issued an urgent plea for the establishment of an air corridor to transport humanitarian aid between eastern Chad, the capital N’Djaména, and the wider region.

Some EU member states have expressed concern that EUFOR will not be a neutral force in the conflict because France, which provides military assistance to the Chadian government, is contributing some 2,100 troops out of the 3,700-strong force. They have suggested that the force would not be able to steer clear of internal Chadian politics. EUFOR officials maintain, however, that they would remain strictly neutral in the conflict between the Chadian government and the rebels.

“EUFOR is a European force operating under a UN mandate, and it is not supposed to take sides,” said Gagnon. “Troop commitments from a broader range of EU members would help provide EUFOR with the support it needs to protect civilians.”

Human Rights Watch expressed concern for the safety of recently arrived Sudanese refugees in Birak and called on EUFOR to consider establishing a field office in the embattled Guéréda area of eastern Chad.

Human Rights Watch strongly condemned the arrest of three leaders of Chad’s political opposition in N’Djaména on February 2 during a rebel attack, and expressed particular concern for the safety of human rights activists. In addition, Human Rights Watch welcomed the February 11 declaration by EU Commissioner Louis Michel calling for the immediate release of the arrested opposition politicians.

In September 2007, the UN Security Council approved a multidimensional EU-UN presence in Chad and the Central African Republic comprised of three distinct elements:

  • EUFOR;
  • MINURCAT (the United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad), comprised of approximately 1,400 UN civilian staff, 300 UN police and 50 UN military liaison officers; and
  • PTPH (Police Tchadienne pour la Protection Humanitaire), an 850-member Chadian police force trained by United Nations police.

EUFOR represents the first European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) mission under UN mandate in a country where the International Criminal Court (ICC) has jurisdiction. The EU has a cooperation agreement with the ICC, and EUFOR should provide the ICC with any needed assistance.

In September 2008, the halfway point in EUFOR’s one-year mandate, the UN Security Council and the Chadian government will evaluate every aspect of the mission and will make a decision on a potential handover to UN peacekeeping troops by March 2009. UN Security Council resolution 1778, which authorized the EU/UN force deployment to Chad, envisioned EUFOR as a bridging force to a longer-term UN mission.