UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Friday called on all actors to take urgent measures to protect civilians in Cabo Delgado province, in northeast Mozambique, amid reports of an increasingly alarming human rights situation.
Attacks by armed groups, including the killing of civilians, and heavy clashes with security forces in different parts of northern Cabo Delgado province have increased over the last few weeks. Dozens of people have reportedly died and hundreds been forced to flee their homes and seek refuge in southern areas. More than 350,000 people have been displaced by violence in the last three years. Since 16 October alone, over 14,000 people have fled by sea and arrived in the provincial capital, Pemba. At least one boat has capsized, reportedly leaving some 40 people dead, including children.
Thousands more, including the most vulnerable, are believed to be trapped in conflict areas, with many hiding in the bush for days. Conflict and displacement have also exacerbated food insecurity. Public services, including schools and health facilities, have been destroyed or closed in the worst affected districts. Some areas have been deprived of any humanitarian aid for over six months, as many districts in the north have been effectively cut off from the rest of the province.
"The situation is desperate both for those trapped in conflict-affected areas, with barely any means of surviving, and for those displaced across the province and beyond," High Commissioner Bachelet said. "Those who remain have been left deprived of basic necessities and are at risk of being killed, sexually abused, kidnapped, or forcibly recruited by armed groups. Those that flee may die trying."
"It is paramount that State authorities ensure the protection of civilians inside and outside the conflict-affected areas and that humanitarian agencies are guaranteed safe, unhindered access to deliver life-saving assistance and protection," she added. "This is particularly crucial given the risk of cholera and the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic." Cabo Delgado is among the regions most affected by COVID-19 in the country.
Since 2017, armed elements and groups have committed grave human rights abuses and, more recently, violations of international humanitarian law, including killings and maiming, looting, destruction of houses and public and religious facilities, abductions and abuses of girls and women, as well as the possible forced recruitment of children. Over the past two weeks, there has been a string of attacks in several villages, and witness accounts indicate that several homes and public facilities were burned and dozens of people killed, including reports of beheadings of women, children and men, as well as kidnappings. Difficulties in accessing the affected areas makes it extremely hard to verify these reports.
There have also been reports of human rights violations committed by Mozambican security forces in recent years, including extrajudicial killings, ill-treatment, use of force violations, arbitrary detentions, including of journalists, and unlawful restrictions on the freedom of movement.
"People living in these areas whose rights have been violated are entitled to protection and remedy," Bachelet said. "All alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law and international humanitarian law committed by the armed groups and security forces must be thoroughly, independently and transparently investigated by the competent authorities. Those responsible must be held to account."
All parties to the conflict must strictly adhere to their obligations under international law, and the State must ensure that any forces under its control, including private military contractors, respect these obligations, the High Commissioner stressed.
"I welcome recent statements by the authorities committing to respect international law and their efforts to mobilize humanitarian assistance to help those displaced and the host communities," she said. "My Office remains committed to supporting the Government and the people of Mozambique in these endeavours."