United Nations officials today called for a stronger response to prevent further human suffering in the Central African Republic (CAR), which Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described as "a crisis of epic proportions."
"The CAR is in freefall," Mr. Ban told the special session of the UN Human Rights Council, in remarks delivered by Michael Møller, Acting Director-General of the UN Office at Geneva.
Mr. Ban's deep concern and call for action were echoed by the Council in a resolution adopted unanimously at the end of the session, which characterized the current situation in CAR as a total breakdown of law and order, and "strongly condemned continued and widespread violations and abuses of human rights perpetrated by all actors, and stressed that the perpetrators should be held accountable and brought to justice."
The 47-member Council demanded an immediate halt to all human rights violations and abuses and acts of violence by all parties, as well as the restoration of rule of law in the country.
The Council also urged the parties in the CAR to protect all civilians, in particular women and children from sexual violence, and emphasized the need for all sides to facilitate humanitarian access for the UN and other relief organizations for all persons in need of assistance.
In his statement, the Secretary-General said the situation has reached "epic proportions" and requires immediate and concerted action, with public service institutions having collapsed, security forces having disintegrated and fear enveloping the country.
The UN human rights office and other UN entities, he added, have documented "unspeakable and widespread" human rights violations. "These appalling abuses have divided Christian and Muslim communities that for decades have co-existed peacefully as neighbours and friends."
The deteriorating security situation has forced one-fifth of the population to flee their homes, and more than half the population now needs humanitarian assistance. Mr. Ban noted that the UN has scaled up its emergency response, but the humanitarian appeal remains woefully underfunded.
The UN and its partners urgently require $152 million to fund an emergency intervention plan, which aims to provide vital relief and protection to 1.2 million people across the country over the next three months.
"I call for an immediate end to the cycle of violence and retaliation before the divide between the communities takes deep root and sectarian violence escalates into further mass atrocities," he said, adding that religious tensions have not been part of the CAR's past and they must not become part of its future.
"By acting collectively and in unity, we can uphold our responsibility to protect the people of the CAR and help them move from destitution and despair to a more hopeful path," he stated. "We must act together - and act now - to pull the CAR back from the brink of further atrocities."
Thousands of people in CAR are estimated to have been killed in the crisis, which began when the mainly Muslim Séléka rebels launched attacks a year ago, and has recently taken on increasingly Muslim-versus-Christian overtones as militias known as anti-Balaka (anti-machete), who are mainly Christians, take up arms.
High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told the meeting that among the most urgent human rights issues in the country are the continued sectarian violence, including killings and looting, and the need to take swift and concrete action to defuse the spiralling inter-communal anger and resentment that is becoming dangerously entrenched.
Also of concern is the challenge for national authorities and foreign troops to respond adequately to the prevailing chronic insecurity; the continuing vacuum of legitimate State authority and the absolute impunity for human rights violations; and the dire situation of the displaced population, in the capital city of Bangui and other locations.
Ms. Pillay welcomed the repeated calls by the country's two most senior religious leaders for tolerance and respect within their communities.
"I urge them, and everyone with influence at both the national and international levels, to strongly encourage other religious, political and tribal leaders to join their efforts to defuse the inter-communal tensions and desire for revenge before they become totally uncontrollable," said the High Commissioner. "A strong and concerted nationwide effort is essential to stop CAR crossing the tipping point into an all-out sectarian conflict."
She highlighted that a human rights mission that visited the country last month documented "large-scale" human rights violations perpetrated in Bangui and other areas by the ex-Séléka and the anti-Balaka, and by Muslim and Christian civilians.
These include sexual and gender-based violence, enforced disappearances, torture, ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests and detention, widespread looting and property destruction, as well as instances of burning of churches and mosques.
"A more robust response to the crisis is urgently needed in the Central African Republic to protect civilians, prevent further violence, end impunity and promote reconciliation," stressed Ms. Pillay.
Speaking on behalf of the Council's human rights experts, Chaloka Beyani said it is time to act firmly and assertively to stem the ongoing atrocities in CAR. As an immediate step, he urged States to mobilize the necessary resources to provide for the urgent needs of the population.
He added that the creation of a country mandate by the Council, the convening of today's special session and the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry by the Security Council are positive steps and indicate the urgent need to put an end to the crisis.
As part of its deliberations, the Human Rights Council designated Marie-Thérèse Keita Bocoum of Côte d'Ivoire to serve as Independent Expert on CAR.