The human rights situation in the Central African Republic (CAR) is far better than it was at the height of the conflict in late 2013 and early 2014, but is still a cause of anxiety for both the country’s own inhabitants and the United Nations, the world body’s human rights chief said today.
“At the end of a fairly short visit, I will not attempt to cover all aspects of the human rights situation here, but I would like to focus on certain key areas where I believe there are opportunities that should be seized and a need for urgent attention,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein speaking at a press conference in the capital, Bangui.
CAR has been in the grip of a civil, political and humanitarian crisis with the latest UN figures estimating the number of internally displaced people at nearly 1 million. It began with a coup in 2013 by a rebel coalition known as Séléka that ousted President François Bozizé.
Although the Séléka disbanded and a transitional government has been set up, the country still faces major challenges from armed militias. In addition, the conflict has taken on a religious dimension with sectarian fighting taking place between Christians and Muslims.
Mr. Zeid, who arrived on 1 September for a four-day visit, said the transitional Government can claim a number of “baseline achievements,” including local consultations launched in January, which involved people from 16 prefectures, all eight districts of Bangui, and displaced people. In May, this process was taken to another level by the Bangui Forum.
“This produced an important set of recommendations […] for CAR to follow as it attempts to establish peace and security, justice and reconciliation – all of which are essential if the country is to make a definitive and durable break with its turbulent, poverty-stricken and at times exceptionally violent past,” the High Commissioner explained.
He also welcomed the decision of the Constitutional Court on refugees’ right to vote in upcoming elections, reversing a previous decision by authorities.
On the security front, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in CAR, MINUSCA, has amassed 9,200 troops and 1,580 police, in addition to a sizeable civilian staff. Mr. Zeid noted that this is the most significant effort by the UN in the history of this country, and that although “far from ideal” the security situation has nonetheless improved.
However, he described the country as still “gripped with fear”, after a conflict that tore apart the existing social, cultural, political and economic structures. Local civil society groups told the top UN official during a meeting that the UN and the Government “can and should do better.” Mr Zeid said he agreed.
“[Armed groups] may not be killing people on the scale they have done in the past, but they are still killing people from time to time,” he warned. “They are still looting civilian property and the country’s mineral resources, raiding and killing cattle, and preying on civilian populations in other ways as well. Their impact on the economy has been devastating.”
He insisted that the various anti-Balaka and ex-Séléka forces, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and the myriad other armed groups need to be shown that their “lawless behaviour” will no longer be tolerated by the Government and the international forces.
“Some members of the Government whom I’ve met this week have been very frank about the persistent weaknesses of the State, especially in the areas of justice and accountability,” Mr. Zeid revealed.
During his first official trip to CAR, the High Commissioner visited two of the most emblematic and worrying Bangui locations: the over-crowded and surrounded PK 5 neighbourhood, a Muslim enclave – the last major Muslim presence in the capital – and the Mpoko camp for internally displaced people abutting the main international airport.
“Their future, and the future of PK 5 are inextricably linked, as many of the almost exclusively Christian displaced people in Mpoko come from the 3rd District which includes PK 5, and are afraid to go back to what is now a mostly Muslim enclave, whose inhabitants are equally afraid of them,” Mr. Zeid explained.
He said the Muslims in PK 5 are often too afraid to leave the enclave, and as a result, they have nowhere to bury their dead, and are deprived of schooling and job opportunities.
Meanwhile, the Christians displaced to Mpoko also in most cases have nothing to return to, as most of their houses were burned to the ground, their water supply is contaminated by the presence of dead bodies in wells.
“For the Christians to return home, and for the Muslims to accept them, there must be strenuous efforts to bring about reconciliation, and greatly increased security,” the High Commissioner urged.
He said he was alarmed to hear that the Government has told the remaining inhabitants of Mpoko camp they must leave by 15 September.
“This would be a very dangerous step, as it could inflame the existing tensions among both groups, and would very likely end in violence,” he warned.
As for the upcoming elections on 18 October, Mr. Zeid said the conduct of those pools will be a crucial test of CAR’s progress towards peace and democracy.
In addition, following another alleged case of sexual abuse or exploitation by a foreign soldier yesterday, Mr. Zeid reiterated that there is “no excuse, no mitigating circumstances, nothing at all to justify the acts themselves or the failure to apply punishments that fit the crime.”
“We simply have to do better. And States must help us,” continued the High Commissioner, explaining that over the years, many proposals have been made to improve the way the issue “that so often bedevils peace-keeping operations” is handled – not least ways to deter and prevent these appalling acts against defenceless people we are supposed to be protecting – but unfortunately, UN Member States had “repeatedly refused to adopt proposed measures to radically reduce the occurrence of sexual abuse by peacekeepers.
“I believe it is high time to revisit these ideas, and to do so as a matter of urgency,” he said.
Echoing this message to the press was Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, the new Head of MINUSCA. Speaking to reporters, he said he had taken the leadership of the Mission to spearhead peace in CAR and champion collective efforts to end sexual abuse and exploitation by forces in the country.
The Head of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Hervé Ladsous, is scheduled to arrive tomorrow in Bangui for a three-day visit.