The United Nations Secretary-General has asked parties to the conflict in the Central African Republic to end violations against children and abide by international humanitarian law and international human rights law.
In the fifth report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR), which covers the period from July 2019 to June 2021, the UN chief expressed concern at the “significant increase and scale” of grave violations against children committed by armed groups; the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) and Internal Security Forces (FSI); and bilaterally deployed and other security personnel.
“I call upon the signatories to the Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in the Central African Republic [signed on February 6, 2019] to uphold their commitments, including those pertaining to children, and urge the government and parties to the conflict to work with the United Nations to develop a national strategy to prevent grave violations against children,” Secretary-General António Guterres said in the report that was released in November 2021.
Some 1,280 children suffered one or more of the six grave violations that the UN listed. These include recruitment and use; killing and maiming; and rape other forms of sexual violence. The other violations are attacks against schools and hospitals; abduction; and denial of humanitarian access. The report said girls account for more than 40 per cent of all victims.
Between 2012 and 2020, armed groups recruited 845 children (598 boys and 247 girls), aged between seven and 17 years, including 292 below the age of 15. Some 35 girls were used for sexual purposes, 232 children were used as combatants, and 578 were used in support roles such as bodyguards, manning checkpoints, spies, messengers, porters, and carrying out domestic tasks. Some children received military training. The main culprits included ex-Séléka factions and Anti-Balaka groups. Ten boys were arrested and detained by the gendarmerie for their alleged association with armed groups.
Most children said they had joined the armed groups voluntarily to protect their communities from attacks by rival armed groups or for revenge. Some were in because of poverty.
Most of the children were released following the intervention of the Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting, which engaged in dialogue with the groups responsible. The task force is co-chaired by the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Some 155 children were killed (83) and maimed (72). Ninety-six of them were boys and 59 girls, and included babies, some only months old. Although the figure of child casualties decreased considerably compared to the previous reporting period (324), it was still high. Almost half the child casualties occurred during crossfire between unidentified perpetrators and in some incidents involved explosive remnants of war.
Under rape and other forms of sexual violence, the report said 249 girls, aged between four and 17 years, were attacked. Seventy-nine per cent of the violations were perpetrated by armed groups.
“Sexual violence continued to be underreported owing to fear of reprisals from parties to the conflict who live within communities, the climate of insecurity that prevailed in most of the country, a lack of access to medical assistance, and stigmatisation,” the report said, adding that Covid-19 and the related movement restrictions impeded verification work.
The main perpetrators were armed groups, including ex-Séléka factions, which were responsible for 59 violations; Anti-Balaka groups (28); LRA-Achaye (19); CAR Armed Forces (13); bilaterally deployed and other security personnel (4); and FSI and Chadian National Army elements (2 each).
Although most rapes were committed in communities with an increased presence of armed groups in towns and villages, the report said, 24 girls were raped in the context of abduction and recruitment and use. Twenty per cent of the victims (51) were gang-raped.
“Sexual exploitation and abuse of children by peacekeepers continued to be a concern in the Central African Republic,” the UN report added.
Some 72 attacks against schools (41) and hospitals (31) further weakened the already fragile healthcare and education systems. Most of the incidents occurred in December 2020 and the first half of 2021. The targeted schools were used as voting centres and the main perpetrators were CPC members, who wanted to disrupt the elections of December 27, 2020.
At least 15,300 children were deprived of their fundamental right to education when their school were attacked, buildings burnt down, school materials destroyed and looted, and threats issued against school personnel and students.
Some 16,200 children could not attend class when the CAR Armed Forces and bilaterally deployed and other security personnel used schools during military operations as their base. Although a total of 19 school were vacated following advocacy by the country task force and other reasons, 13 others continued to be occupied by June 2021.
Hospitals and other health facilities were not spared either, reporting 31 attacks during which they were looted, medical personnel and patients threated, and a healthcare centre burnt. Like the schools, attacks against hospitals increased during the fourth quarter of 2020 and the first half of 2021 as a result of the post-electoral crisis and counter-offensive by the Armed Forces and bilaterally deployed and other security personnel. In two cases, vehicles transporting patients to hospital were shot at and stopped.
Some 116 children (56 boys and 60 girls) were abducted for the purpose of recruitment and use (57 – 50 per cent), sexual purposes (29), ransom (7), and for unknown reasons (23). LRA-Achaye was responsible for 48 per cent of the abductions, affecting 56 children. However, 47 of them later escaped. Four of the girls had been used as wives/sex slaves, resulting in the birth of four children while in captivity.
A total of 226 incidents of denial of humanitarian access were verified. The incidents involved violence against humanitarian facilities and assets (204), carjacking (11), assault on humanitarian personnel (7), kidnapping (2), interference in the implementation of humanitarian activities preventing humanitarians from reaching beneficiaries and delivering aid (1), and killing of humanitarian personnel (1).
Some 41 incidents verified during the last two quarters of 2019 occurred in Ouham, Vakaga, Nana-Grébizi, and Haute-Kotto prefectures. In 2020, unidentified armed individuals and Anti-Balaka were responsible for most of the 103 verified incidents. During the first half of 2021, 82 incidents of denial of humanitarian access were verified, and were attributed mostly to CPC groups and unidentified armed individuals.
Due to the direct engagement of the country task force with armed groups, 653 children (451 boys and 202 girls) in 2019 (156) and in 2020 (497) were released. No children were released from armed groups in 2021 because of insecurity.
“Reintegration programmes were rolled out throughout much of the country, consisting of medical screening, family tracing and reunification, psychosocial assistance, and educational or vocational training. All released children entered reintegration programmes,” the report said.
Another intervention was the appointment, by decree, of a Minister Adviser to the President on Child Protection as the child protection focal point for the national disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme in September 2020.
President Faustin-Archange Touadéra promulgated the Child Protection Code on June 15, 2020. The code criminalises all the six grave violations against children and considers children associated with armed forces and groups as victims.
A presidential decree of April 24, 2020 led to the granting of amnesty to children detained for specific crimes to decongest prisons during the Covid-19 pandemic. An additional 10 children accused of association with armed groups were released in October 2020. Another group of 12 detained children in conflict with the law was released.
The country task force engaged in dialogue with parties to the conflict to prevent and end grave violations against children and used the Child Protection Code, the Safe Schools Declaration, the 2019 Political Agreement, and the ex-Séléka action plans as advocacy tools.
Efforts to extend dialogue to more groups and follow up on the action plans of those that had agreed to ensure the protection of children were hampered by the restriction of movement of personnel owing to the pandemic and poor communication infrastructure.
Covid-19 and the associated restrictions also impeded training programmes and sensitisation campaigns. Despite the challenges, MINUSCA trained 2,566 peacekeepers on child protection and delivered training of trainers for MINUSCA military and police components.
“Training on the protection of children during armed conflict and during the electoral process was delivered to 940 national stakeholders, including the Armed Forces (417), FSI (191), Unités Spéciales Mixtes de Sécurité (177), and members of the Political Agreement monitoring mechanisms (155),” the report said.
In addition, training and sensitisation were delivered to 29,559 community members and leaders, civil society organisations, local authorities, religious leaders, and members of armed groups as part of the ‘Act to Protect Children Affected by Armed Conflict’ campaign.
Guterres welcomed the establishment of a special commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of serious crimes and violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by the Armed Forces and bilaterally deployed and other security personnel between December 2020 and September 2021, and urged the government to investigate ongoing violations and hold culprits to account.
He also asked the donor community and the government to increase funding for “sustainable and appropriate socioeconomic reintegration for children, thereby enabling access for every affected child to appropriate support”.
UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Virginia Gamba noted that children are paying a high price in the renewed conflicts in the CAR.
“I call on the signatories of the Political Agreement to uphold their commitments, including those pertaining to children, and urgently put in place concrete measures to protect children from harm and prevent further violations.
“As countries around the world continue to focus on their response to the pandemic and roll out vaccination programmes, we need to stand ready to respond to the urgent needs of children, particularly in the regions where the situation is the most critical,” said Gamba.
She called on the CAR government and parties to the conflict to develop a national strategy to prevent grave violations against children.