With brutality against children in the Central African Republic (CAR) reaching unprecedented levels as youngsters are maimed, killed and beheaded, and amid rampant sexual violence, the world community must use all the tools at its disposal to stop the conflict, the Security Council was warned today.
"This crisis has been looming for over a year and we have run out of time to prevent the violence from escalating," UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Leila Zerrougui told the 15-member body in a briefing on her visit to the impoverished war-torn country last month. "Our only option today is to scale up our response with robust, immediate and urgent actions."
Nearly half a million children are among the almost 1 million driven from their homes in 13 months of violence, as many as 6,000 children may currently be associated with various armed forces and groups, and "today, the country is trapped in a spiral of vengeance, which has destroyed the social fabric and undermined trust among communities for generations to come," she said.
Her testimony was the latest in a series of increasingly grim reports on CAR, which Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon two days ago called "a crisis of epic proportions."
Thousands of people are estimated to have been killed, and 2.2 million, about half the population, need humanitarian aid in a conflict which erupted when mainly Muslim Séléka rebels launched attacks in December 2012 and has taken on increasingly sectarian overtones as mainly Christian militias known as anti-Balaka (anti-machete) have taken up arms.
"I witnessed these communities pitted against one another; who have fled and sought refuge around churches and mosques," Ms. Zerrougui said. "They are living in fear of being attacked or even of burying their dead. Entire villages have been burnt and are burning down as we speak here today."
She noted that children have been directly attacked, maimed, killed and beheaded not only in Bangui, the capital, but also in the provincial towns of Buar, Bossangoa and Bozoum. "During my visit, I witnessed youth who have taken up arms. They have been manipulated by both sides and divided along religious lines. They have become both victims and perpetrators of the ongoing sectarian violence," she added.
"Schools and hospitals have been attacked and looted, medical personnel have been repeatedly threatened and brutally targeted everywhere in the country, leaving an already fragile social infrastructure and basic services in complete disarray."
Ms. Zerrougui stressed that the proposed reinforcement of the African-led International Support Mission to CAR (MISCA), the continued engagement of French troops, known as SANGARIS, and an urgent strengthening of the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the country (BINUCA), which she called at present "all too limited," are key to ensuring human rights monitoring and protection.
She said she is encouraged by the recent election of Catherine Samba-Panza as Head of the Transition in the CAR joined her in urging all parties to immediately stop the violence.
"We need to send a stronger signal to perpetrators of these atrocious crimes that they will be held to account," she concluded. "The international community should spare no efforts and use all the tools at its disposal. It is crucial to assist the transitional authorities to restore law enforcement and establish a judicial response to the ongoing violations. This is essential to deter further violence and start to re-establish trust among communities."
The Council was briefed by a number of other senior officials, including Adama Dieng, the Secretary-General's Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, and Kyung-wha Kang, UN Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator.
Mr. Ban's Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Hawa Bangura, whose Chief of Staff Nancee Oku Bright joined Ms. Zerrougui on her mission to CAR in December, told the Council that many of the worst predictions on the country have come true.
"Sexual violence continues to be pervasive in the conflict," she said, noting that between January and November 2013, the UN recorded at least 4,530 cases of such abuse perpetrated by armed men, largely believed to be Séléka, with fresh reports coming in during last month's attacks in Bangui.
"The team received reports of sexual violence used by anti-Balaka and Séléka during house-to-house searches and during retaliatory attacks," she said. "The mission also confirmed that forced marriages, sometimes involving children, were being contracted mainly by Séléka elements."
There are also numerous allegations that internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, most of which shelter elements of armed groups, are the scene of conflict-related sexual violence, with victims afraid to come forward due to the continued presence of these groups.
"The international community must improve the coordination of its efforts in the CAR," she stressed. "The establishment of simple tools such as emergency hotlines and coordinated rapid response mechanisms can save lives."