Displacement camp at the Kaga-Bandoro catholic parish where several thousand civilians from the town and nearby Mbres are seeking safety from attacks.

(Amsterdam) – The new United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic should urgently improve protection for civilians in eastern and central parts of the country where sectarian violence is increasing, Human Rights Watch and Stichting Vluchteling, a Netherlands refugee foundation, said today. The new mission is to take over peacekeeping responsibilities from African Union forces on September 15, 2014.

During two research missions to the country, in July and September, one conducted jointly with Stichting Vluchteling, Human Rights Watch documented the killing of at least 146 people since June in and around the towns of Bambari and Bakala in Ouaka prefecture, Mbres in Nana-Gribizi prefecture, and Dekoa in Kémo prefecture. This figure represents only a fraction of the total reported to have occurred since many killings were in remote areas that are difficult to reach.

“Civilians are being killed by all sides at an alarming rate and people are desperate for protection,” said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “There is no time to lose. The new UN mission urgently needs to get more troops into eastern and central areas and take bold steps to protect civilians from these brutal attacks.”

The Central African Republic has been in acute crisis since early 2013, when the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in a campaign characterized by widespread killing of civilians, burning and looting of homes, and other serious crimes. In mid-2013, groups calling themselves the anti-balaka organized to fight against the Seleka. The anti-balaka began committing large-scale reprisal attacks against Muslim civilians and later against others.

The deadly cycle of sectarian violence has been escalating in central and eastern parts of the country in recent months, particularly in Ouaka and Nana-Gribizi prefectures, despite the signing of a ceasefire agreement between the two factions in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, on July 23, 2014.

Some 6,000 African Union peacekeepers, known as MISCA, who began to deploy in October 2013, and 2,000 French peacekeeping troops deployed as part of Operation Sangaris in December 2013, have been struggling to protect civilians. Thousands have died in the violence, some 500,000 civilians have been displaced from their homes, and 300,000 have fled across the borders as refugees, many of them Muslims.

While the presence of AU and French peacekeepers has helped deter some of the violence, it has not stopped attacks on civilians. In Dekoa, a town where peacekeepers are based, most of the population has crowded into a makeshift displacement camp around the Catholic parish desperately seeking safety from Seleka fighters. On September 9, 2014, the Seleka shot and killed three men, one of them elderly, only 200 meters from the camp. A Human Rights Watch researcher working nearby heard the shots and interviewed the witnesses.

Of the recent 146 killings that Human Rights Watch documented, at least 59 were in Bambari, where French and African Union peacekeepers are based. Of the 59, 27 were killed in July while taking shelter in a displacement camp at Bambari’s Saint Joseph’s Parish and the adjacent Bishop’s residence.

Civilians were also attacked in or near their villages, when they fled or attempted to hide from their attackers. The attackers tied up some victims, then slit their throats.

In one case on June 19 in Sabanga, a village a few kilometers from Bakala, a small group of civilians hiding from the Seleka was attacked. Five members of one family were killed, including a 7-year-old girl and 12-year-old boy. A witness said: “There were bullets whistling everywhere. We ran in every direction but those who were hit could not run away. The Seleka continued to shoot even those who were injured.”

In another case, in the Kajbi gold mine, near Morobanda in June, anti-balaka militias buried a man alive and killed another with a machete for speaking to the Seleka. One witness told Human Rights Watch in despair: “We are trapped between the anti-balaka and the Seleka. We cannot breathe.”

The UN Security Council approved the establishment of the new peacekeeping mission, known as MINUSCA, on April 10. The mission, with almost 12,000 peacekeepers, is to protect civilians and facilitate humanitarian access.

Human Rights Watch and Stichting Vluchteling urged the UN member countries to ensure that MINUSCA has its full deployment of peacekeepers and adequate and appropriate resources to protect civilians, including Muslim populations living in enclaves in western areas and those living in displacement camps.

In particular, MINUSCA should document and report on human rights violations, deploy civilian liaison officers to areas where civilians are at serious risk, help people who have fled return to their homes, and enhance the logistics needed to rapidly deploy to areas of violence. MINUSCA should deploy adequate numbers of female peacekeepers and civilian staff to ensure that tackling sexual violence is a major priority of the mission.

“The attacks on civilians who are desperately seeking shelter in displacement camps is horrifying,” said Tineke Ceelen, director of Stichting Vluchteling. “MINUSCA needs to prioritize protecting these camps and ensure that humanitarian agencies can safely access the camps to provide much-needed food, water, and medical help.”

Many of the current 6,000 AU peacekeeping troops will be transferred to the new UN mission. The UN should adequately vet troops to ensure that no peacekeepers responsible for serious human rights abuses are incorporated into the new UN mission, Human Rights Watch and Stichting Vluchteling said.

On March 24, AU peacekeepers from the Republic of Congo were implicated in the enforced disappearance and suspected executions of at least 11 civilians, and possibly seven others, at their base in Boali. In Bossangoa, on December 22, 2013, Republic of Congo troops were believed to have tortured to death two anti-balaka leaders. The troops responsible were later rotated out of Boali, and two officers based in Boali and Bossangoa were suspended pending investigations. But no investigations of these episodes have been concluded and no arrests have been made.

“Peacekeepers are there to protect civilians, not to attack them,” Mudge said. “If the AU and the UN fail to complete an investigation into these crimes and integrate the peacekeepers into MINUSCA without adequate vetting, it will compromise the entire mission.”

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern that troops from the Democratic Republic of the Congo were to join the UN mission despite being listed in the UN Secretary General annual report to the Security Council as one of the few armies still using child soldiers.

Tackling impunity and re-establishing the rule of law is essential to improving protection of civilians, the groups said. No senior anti-balaka or Seleka leaders responsible for the violence have been investigated or arrested and the justice system has largely collapsed, though there have been recent attempts to restart it in Bangui and Bouar. In May 2014 the interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, formally asked the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to open a new investigation in the country.

“We cannot let MINUSCA fail,” Ceelen said. “UN member states, including The Netherlands, need to step up and ensure this peacekeeping mission has what it needs to do its job. The task ahead is huge, but we cannot stand by while tens of thousands of people are at risk of brutal violence.”