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The "self-defense" program operates at two levels, a duality which risks increasing tensions in a highly polarized situation. On one level it offers urban residents--many of them Tutsi--the opportunity to learn to shoot and encourages but does not oblige them to organize patrols to protect their neighborhoods. On the other, it actively recruits--and in some cases coerces-Hutu who live in poorer urban neighborhoods and in the countryside to follow military training and to serve as Guardians of the Peace or as part of urban patrols.

By requiring unwilling participants to serve in the guardians or urban patrols, authorities have abused their rights through a system of ad hoc conscription. Not authorized or regulated by law, this system subjects them to arbitrary requirements to provide unpaid service for indeterminate periods of time. Although international law allows governments to raise armies and provide for the national defense, Human Rights Watch holds that conscription must be carried out in accordance with law and with a measure of fairness, rather than at the unfettered discretion of local authorities. Conscripts should know how long they must serve and under what conditions. Thousands of those required to serve in these programs are children in violation of provisions of international humanitarian law, which the Burundian government has agreed to observe.

Guardians of the Peace and members of urban patrols have committed many human rights abuses, generally with impunity. Whatever powers they exercise are not formally established or publicly known to other civilians. The ambiguity surrounding the status of participants, who are subject to no regulations specific to their service, makes it difficult to ensure accountability for any abuses. Because Guardians of the Peace and their urban counterparts remain "civilian," civilian authorities supposedly bear responsibility for monitoring their conduct. But final authority in security matters rests in the hands of the local military commanders. In such circumstances, it is unlikely that civilian authorities will demand accountability for abuses by "civilians" acting as adjuncts to the military and often at their direct order. Nor will members of the regular armed forces ordinarily take the initiative in ensuring that their auxiliaries be brought to justice within the civilian judicial system as is shown by some of the cases documented in this report.

In some instances, members of the regular armed forces used Guardians of the Peace or members of self-defense patrols to carry out politically-motivated or common crimes against the civilian population, a practice which could permit them also to escape from personal responsibility for the wrong done.

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