(New York) - While the government and rebel groups take steps toward ending the civil war in the Central African Republic (CAR), civilians in the northwestern part of the country are being abused at the hands of a variety of armed groups, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today.

The 23-page briefing paper, "Improving Civilian Protection in the Central African Republic," released following a round of peace talks that began on December 5 in the capital, Bangui, urged the government to make civilian protection the highest priority and to adopt measures to protect civilians better in insecure areas in the country's lawless northwest. It also urged the United Nations and regional groups to support this effort.

"The people in this area are at the mercy of uncontrolled armed groups and gangs of armed bandits," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The government should be making every effort to protect them, beginning with expanding military patrols and making clear that attackers will not get away with their crimes."

In 2008, Human Rights Watch documented attacks against civilians in the region by rebels from the Popular Army for the Restoration of the Republic and of Democracy (Armée populaire pour la restauration de la République et la démocratie, APRD) and by elements of the Chadian National Army (Armée Nationale du Tchad, ANT).

Human Rights Watch also documented violent abuses by loosely organized bandits, known as zaraguinas, who are a huge threat to civilians in the northern part of the country.

The government's regular Central African Armed Forces (Forces Armées Centrafricaines, FACA) has been ineffective in protecting civilians from these armed groups, largely because it lacks the capacity, but also because of the way it operates. Many units are confined to Bangui, and when they go to the danger zones, they do not conduct regular patrols and generally venture no further than a few kilometers from the towns in which they are based. In some instances documented by Human Rights Watch, government forces did not give civilians effective warning of impending military operations and used indiscriminate lethal force, killing civilians during military operations.

"The mere deployment of security forces that are poorly armed, badly trained, or are not strategically mobilized to safeguard civilians is clearly failing to achieve the necessary protection," Gagnon said. "If the government sends out well-trained, well-equipped soldiers beyond the capital and the immediate vicinity of army bases, it will be able to protect civilians more effectively."

Last year, the FACA assumed primary responsibility for security in the northwest from the government's elite Presidential Guard, which had summarily executed and seriously abused civilians while conducting counterinsurgency operations in the region from 2005 to 2007. Human Rights Watch reported on these abuses in a September 2007 report, "State of Anarchy: Rebellion and Abuses Against Civilians".

The withdrawal of most Presidential Guard units from the northwest reduced government attacks against civilians in the region. But the individuals known to be responsible for the worst human rights abuses during 2005-2007 have yet to answer for their crimes.

"The lack of accountability is one of the major impediments to protecting human rights and establishing the rule of law in the Central African Republic," said Gagnon. "The government is required to investigate and prosecute those responsible for rights violations, and failure to do so can lead to even more serious abuses."

While the government bears primary responsibility for improving civilian protection, regional and multinational organizations may be in a position to enhance those efforts. Both the United Nations and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) have sent missions to the Central African Republic, including peacekeeping troops, which can augment government efforts to improve civilian protection in the northwest by conducting patrols in insecure areas.

The United Nations Peace-Building Support Office in the Central African Republic (Bureau d'appui des Nations Unies pour la consolidation de la paix en République centrafricaine, BONUCA) can help counter impunity by monitoring judicial proceedings and facilitating practical aspects of investigations such as transportation and forensics.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) can also support efforts to ensure accountability for international crimes by encouraging domestic judicial processes. If the government is unable or unwilling to hold those responsible for war crimes to account, the ICC may have jurisdiction.

Background

The country's current president, François Bozizé, came to power in 2003 after deposing Ange-Félix Patassé in a coup d'etat. Bozizé was elected president in 2005 elections that were considered free and fair but that excluded Patassé. Shortly thereafter, rebellion broke out in Patassé's home region in the northwest.

The main rebel group there, the Popular Army for the Restoration of the Republic and Democracy (Armée Populaire pour la restauration de la République et la Démocratie, APRD), largely consisted of elements of Patassé's Presidential Guard. A separate rebellion in the northeastern part of the country, led by the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (Union des forces démocratiques pour le rassemblement, UFDR), consisted mainly of soldiers who helped bring Bozizé to power but later turned against him for failing to compensate them adequately for their support. A third group, the Democratic Front of the Central African People (Front démocratique du peuple centrafricain, FDPC), was led by Abdoulaye Miskine, a Chadian with close ties to the Libyan government.

On June 21, 2008, the Popular Army and the Union of Democratic Forces signed a peace accord that extended a general amnesty to all parties to the conflict (except individuals accused of war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, or any offense within the jurisdiction of the ICC) and prepared the groundwork for an internationally mediated Inclusive Political Dialogue (Dialogue Politique Inclusif) between the government, former rebel factions and civil society groups. An opening round of peace talks was held in Bangui from December 5 to 20.