Urgent national and international action is crucial to prevent the Central African Republic (CAR) from plunging into full-scale sectarian conflict and protect civilians, particularly women and children, from atrocities that have already killed thousands and driven 750,000 others from their homes amid reports of rape and mutilation, United Nations human rights officials have warned.
"Given the serious nature of continuing violations in an environment of complete impunity, CAR is on the brink of descending into atrocity crimes," UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng said over the weekend at the end of a visit to the country, where a year-long conflict has increasingly turned into violence between Christians and Muslims.
"The worst case scenario can only be stopped if urgent measures are taken to stop the violence and those responsible are held accountable," added Mr. Dieng, who was accompanied on the visit by UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Leila Zerrougui, and Nancee Oku Bright from the office of the Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.
CAR has been thrown into turmoil since mainly Muslim Séléka rebels launched attacks a year ago and forced President François Bozizé to flee in March. A transitional government has since been entrusted with restoring peace and paving the way for democratic elections, but armed clashes have erupted again and the mainly Christian anti-Balaka movement has taken up arms.
All three officials warned of the especially disastrous effects of the conflict on children who have been killed, mutilated, subjected to sexual violence and recruited by armed groups since the beginning, and they stressed the crucial need to strengthen the capacity and resources of the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in CAR (BINUCA) and the UN system as a whole to ensure an adequate and efficient crisis response.
The conflict has forced children to abandon their homes, in some cases separating from their families. Their schools have been looted, teachers targeted, and classrooms occupied by armed groups. The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 2.3 million children are affected by the crisis, including thousands who have been recruited or re-recruited by armed groups.
"There is no excuse for failing the children of the Central African Republic," Ms. Zerrougui said. "I welcome the engagement of the international community to deploy forces, support the (UN-endorsed) African Union Mission (peacekeeping force), and provide humanitarian assistance, but the needs are enormous.
"We need to urgently protect children from harm, reunite former child soldiers with their families, strengthen monitoring and reporting on grave child rights violations and provide them with safe access to humanitarian assistance and education."
During a meeting with the three UN representatives, the head of the transitional government, Michel Djotodia, agreed to allow unimpeded and regular access to all cantonment sites in the country so that children found in the ranks of the ex-Séléka can be handed over to UNICEF and reunited with their families.
"Releasing children is an essential step," Ms. Zerrougui said. "I call on the international community to assist CAR authorities to implement a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process tailored to the specific needs of children."
The representatives, who also met the Transitional National Council, diplomats, religious leaders, civil society, women's forum, internally displaced persons, victims of human rights violations and humanitarian and UN officials, voiced alarm at numerous reports of deliberate attacks and retaliatory acts against the civilian population, mainly on the basis of religion.
Over the past two weeks Christians and Muslims have launched reprisal attacks against each other in and around Bangui, the capital, where some 210,000 people have been driven from their homes. Nearly 750,000 people have been displaced overall out of a total population of 4.6 million, 40,000 of them fleeing to neighbouring countries, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).
Ms. Bright stressed that conflict and displacement have heightened the vulnerability of women and children to sexual violence. "I am deeply concerned that in this highly volatile environment, rape, forced marriage, mutilations, and other egregious acts of sexual violence against women and children continue to be reported", she said.
"All parties to the conflict must cease these violations, while humanitarian partners must also ensure accessibility to crucial medical support and services for survivors of sexual violence."