(New York) - The African Union (AU) should improve its strategies for civilian protection and accountability in its efforts to end ongoing crises on the continent, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to AU  heads of states. The AU will hold a Summit meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from January 25 to February 2, 2010.

"African heads of state declared 2010 the ‘Year of Peace and Security in Africa' for compelling reasons," said Aloys Habimana, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Now they need to act, by coming up with long-term solutions for armed conflicts and stronger measures to protect civilians and ensure justice for victims of atrocities."

Human Rights Watch highlighted the worsening human rights crises in Sudan and Somalia and urged African leaders to take concrete steps to advance both civilian protection and accountability for victims of serious human rights violations throughout Africa.

In Sudan, with general elections scheduled for April, the situation is volatile. As Human Rights Watch has extensively documented, the government in Khartoum has maintained a climate of fear and oppression. In Southern Sudan, increasing violence has heightened the risk of attacks on civilians in the absence of adequate protection from the southern government or the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS). Under the circumstances, Human Rights Watch said, it is unlikely the elections will be free, fair, and transparent, as required by the 2007 African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.

"The African Union should promptly deploy a robust election observer team across Sudan, including in Darfur, and ensure that regional standards for observing and reporting on the elections are strictly met," Habimana said. "African leaders should also press the two peacekeeping forces in Sudan to give top priority to protecting civilians, a crucial aspect of their mandates."

Human Rights Watch said that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is running for re-election, should instead be in The Hague facing trial before the International Criminal Court, where he is wanted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In Somalia, the situation continues to worsen, despite important efforts by the African Union to tackle massive security problems. Thousands of civilians have been killed and wounded since fighting between a weak interim government and insurgent forces trying to control the country began in 2007. Mogadishu remains a war zone, with an ever-worsening humanitarian crisis throughout the country. In parts of southern Somalia controlled by the militant group Al Shabaab, women routinely endure human rights violations linked to its harsh enforcement of Shari'a.

Human Rights Watch also called on African leaders to ensure that all allegations of indiscriminate bombardment of civilian neighbourhoods of Mogadishu - including by troops from the AU Mission in Somalia - are promptly, transparently, and impartially investigated by independent experts operating under the mandate of the AU's Peace and Security Council. The AU should take the first step in requesting a UN Commission of Inquiry, which could contribute to accountability for abuses and stability in the region.

"The African Union has an important role to play in improving the situation in Somalia," Habimana said. "But as impunity is a key catalyst for the abuses committed there, it's crucial that African leaders focus more on accountability and the human rights consequences of the conflict."

Human Rights Watch called on African leaders to increase their attention to justice for victims of serious crimes, referring in particular to African Union discussion of a proposal to extend the power of the UN Security Council to suspend International Criminal Court activities under article 16 of the Rome Statute to the UN General Assembly. This should be avoided because it would substantially increase the risks of political interference in the court's work, Human Rights Watch said. The AU should also focus on making the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights a more robust institution.

"The AU has a tremendous opportunity to further the cause of justice on the African continent," Habimana said. "Only by taking steps to ensure accountability for human rights violations can African states contribute effectively to justice, lasting peace, and long-term stability."