(New York) - The United Nations Security Council should focus on the protection of civilians, justice, and human rights during its upcoming visit to Africa, from May 14-21, 2009, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the council member states.

The 15 members of the Security Council will visit Liberia, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and meet with African Union officials in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, about the crises in Somalia and Sudan. In all of these countries, Security Council action is urgently needed to end ongoing human rights abuses and to bring to justice those responsible for past abuses, said Human Rights Watch.

"Millions have suffered the disastrous effects of armed conflict in each of these African countries," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The Security Council should urgently address serious human rights abuses with national leaders and the African Union."

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, killings, rape, abduction, and displacement persist, and the humanitarian and human rights situation in eastern Congo remains dire. Human Rights Watch urged the Security Council to ensure that the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUC) has the troops and resources it needs to protect civilians. It also called on the council to provide urgently needed helicopters, as well as rapid-reaction, logistical, and intelligence support. Human Rights Watch has pressed both the peacekeeping mission and the Security Council to develop and put in place a more detailed and transparent strategy for protecting civilians.

Bringing to justice those responsible for serious human rights abuses is also essential for the current and future protection of the Congolese people, Human Rights Watch said. The council should ensure that known human rights abusers such as Bosco Ntaganda, who has been given a leadership role in the Congolese army despite an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC), are immediately removed from military duties, and it should condition future MONUC operational support on their arrest.

"MONUC and the Security Council are shamefully turning a blind eye to Ntaganda's ongoing military role," added Gagnon. "What kind of signal does it send to military commanders when they see an alleged war criminal getting a free pass?"

In Rwanda, the Security Council should urge that all defendants in cases from the 1994 genocide be tried expeditiously in a jurisdiction that respects basic fair-trial rights. Human Rights Watch also called on the council to encourage President Paul Kagame to acknowledge that the Rwanda Patriotic Front, now the governing party, committed war crimes in 1994 and urge him to allow the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to do its work unimpeded.

In Liberia, the Security Council should press President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to ensure accountability for past human rights violations by supporting a strategy to apprehend and prosecute those responsible for serious crimes in violation of international law. The council should also press for a repeal of a July 2008 law that allows the death penalty for certain crimes and the establishment without delay of the Independent National Human Rights Commission, the Law Reform Commission and the Land Reform Commission.

On Somalia, Human Rights Watch expressed support for efforts to improve security for Somali civilians, but urged the council to press the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) to make government security forces more accountable. Human Rights Watch also called for the long-overdue establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry into human rights abuses in the country. At the same time, the council should urgently address Somalia's terrible humanitarian crisis.

More than 1.2 million Somalis had been displaced from their homes as of March, and 3.25 million now need humanitarian assistance. Human Rights Watch has reported extensively on the failure of the Kenyan government to protect the rights of Somalis seeking refuge in Kenya.

"While the West focuses on piracy from Somalia, the real tragedy is occurring within Somalia and to those seeking refuge in neighboring states," said Gagnon. "The Security Council should avoid past mistakes and use this visit to put human rights at the heart of Somalia strategy."

Human Rights Watch called on the African Union and Security Council members to insist that Sudan fully reverse its decision in April to expel humanitarian organizations from the Darfur region, which has put millions of civilians at risk.

Human Rights Watch also urged the council to challenge those in the African Union who claim that peace efforts in Sudan are being undermined by the ICC warrant to arrest President Omar al-Bashir. Peace has eluded Darfur for years, and the region is no closer now to a durable peace for the victims of the violence. There is no evidence that the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the National Congress Party and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army is at risk of unraveling due to the ICC warrants, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch also pressed the council to make clear that - even though it has the authority - it will not consider any deferral of the ICC arrest warrant for President al-Bashir. Given the al-Bashir government's responsibility for the deaths of more than 300,000 Africans, such a decision would set an appalling precedent in international justice.

"The Security Council should insist on accountability for Khartoum's past and ongoing crimes," said Gagnon. "Justice is not a commodity that can be traded. It is essential to Sudan's  - and Africa's - long-term peace and stability, and to Darfur's thousands of victims."