Displacement site at Yaloké, where 509 ethnic Peuhl Muslims are housed in government buildings in the town center in deplorable conditions.

(Nairobi) – United Nations Security Council members on a first visit to the Central African Republic beginning March 9, 2015, should publicly denounce ongoing attacks against civilians, including Muslims trapped in enclaves. The Security Council should remind all sides that those responsible for the crimes will be held to account.

“This visit is the moment for UN Security Council members to speak-up and tell those committing atrocities in the Central African Republic that their time is up,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Improving protection for civilians and ensuring justice for the brutal killings that have ravaged the country should be at the top of their agenda.”  

The UN Security Council delegation will spend close to 36 hours in the Central African Republic meeting with transitional government officials, senior staff of the UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSCA), and representatives of nongovernmental groups. UN peacekeepers took over from African Union peacekeepers on September 15, 2014, with a mandate to protect civilians and to facilitate the country’s political transition.

The Central African Republic has been in acute crisis since mostly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in 2013, in a campaign characterized by widespread human rights abuses. In mid-2013, groups calling themselves the anti-balaka rose up to fight the Seleka. The anti-balaka, who harbor hatred against Muslims, initially committed large-scale reprisal attacks against Muslim civilians and later against others. A transitional government was installed, but attacks on civilians remain alarming and widespread.

The deadly cycle of sectarian violence devastated western parts of the country in 2013 and 2014. It resulted in the mass exodus of an estimated 415,000, many of them Muslims, to neighboring countries. Since June 2014 the sectarian violence has spread to central and eastern areas. In and around the city of Bambari and in other parts of Ouaka and Nana-Gribizi prefectures, attacks against civilians are reported almost daily. A ceasefire between the parties to the conflict signed in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, in July 2014, has been largely ignored.

In September, Human Rights Watch documented the killing of at least 146 people since June in and around the towns of Bambari, Bakala, Mbres, and Dekoa. This figure represents only a fraction of the total since many reported killings were in remote areas that are difficult to reach. While UN peacekeepers have improved protection for civilians in the capital, Bangui, and in parts of the west, they have struggled to fulfil their mandate in central and eastern areas of the country.

Re-establishing the rule of law has been an immense challenge for transitional government authorities and UN peacekeepers. The national justice system has been ravaged by successive conflicts and lacks the resources and expertise to deal with the grave crimes. In September, on a referral from the transitional government, the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor opened an investigation into the crimes committed since January 2012.

The National Transitional Council, the country’s interim parliament, is expected to begin discussions the week of March 8 on a draft law to create a Special Criminal Court within the national judicial system that would include national and international judges and staff. The special court would complement the work of the ICC and try those responsible for grave crimes.  

“Addressing rampant impunity in the Central African Republic is critical for long-term peace,” Bekele said. “Security Council members should not only express their full support for the ICC, but should also ensure financial support for the innovative efforts by the transitional government to seek justice for the victims.”

Security Council members should also use their visit to raise the plight of hundreds of Muslim residents trapped in enclaves in western parts of the Central African Republic.

In the Yaloké enclave, an estimated 500 Muslim Peuhl herders live in deplorable conditions, with growing numbers of avoidable deaths. Since February 2014, at least 44 Muslim Peuhl, many of them children, have died from malnutrition, respiratory illness, and other diseases. Since December food distributions to the enclave have increased and some children have been reunited with their families. But there is still no solution for the majority of others. 

UN humanitarian agencies and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly called for the evacuation of the trapped Muslims, who have clearly expressed a desire to leave. Government authorities oppose any further evacuations of Muslims without their consent for fear of being seen as assisting ethnic cleansing.

 Interim government authorities and UN peacekeepers block them from fleeing abroad or provide no security assistance when they try to leave. The policy violates the right of Muslims citizens to freedom of movement in their own country and to seek asylum abroad.

“UN peacekeepers shouldn’t be complicit in preventing Muslims from leaving Yaloké or any other enclave and instead should assist them to leave with dignity and security,” Bekele said. “Security Council members need to warn government authorities to reverse policies that violate the rights of Muslims to seek safety abroad.”

The Security Council members should also look into accountability for abuses by AU peacekeepers. The Security Council should press for a speedy conclusion to investigations into the summary executions of between 11 and 18 people in Boali in March 2014 and the death of two anti-balaka fighters who were tortured in December 2013 by Republic of Congo soldiers deployed as part of the African Union peacekeeping mission before the UN took over.

“Ensuring justice for all crimes committed in the Central African Republic, whether by the armed groups or by peacekeepers, is crucial for future stability,” Bekele said.