afrol News, 14 December - Government-sponsored paramilitary forces known as "Guardians of the Peace" have committed many killings, rapes, and other crimes over the last four years in Burundi, the US based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) charged today.
In an eighteen-page report entitled "To Protect the People: The Government-Sponsored ‘Self-Defense’ Program in Burundi," Human Rights Watch called on the Burundian government to disband the paramilitary force, which has been responsible for many violations of international humanitarian law.
The Guardians, as well as similar patrols in urban areas, were established by the previous government as part of a "civilian self-defense" program to combat rebel forces in the eight-year-old civil war. A recently installed transitional government has so far continued the program.
- The government has a duty to protect its citizens, said Alison Des Forges, Senior Advisor to the Africa Division of HRW, "but it also has an obligation to ensure that all its armed forces obey the laws of war. Calling the Guardians ‘civilians’ does not change the facts: they are recruited, trained, and armed by the authorities. They act under military orders and, like soldiers, must be held accountable for any abuses they commit."
In many cases, authorities required unwilling participants to serve as Guardians or as members of similar patrols in the cities even though there was no legal process for conscripting them for such service, according to a HRW statement.
- Participants receive no pay and generally do not know how long they will be required to serve, the group claims. "They receive no uniform or insignia. Whatever powers they exercise are not formally established or publicly known to other citizens."
Human Rights Watch has found that Burundian officials recruited many children aged fifteen and younger for service in the Guardians and in urban patrols. Supposedly recruited to defend their own neighborhoods, many of these children were ordered into full-scale military operations far from their homes, HRW claims.
- Some officers saw the children as more expendable than better-trained adult troops and sent them into combat in the front lines, the group states. "Hundreds have died in military operations and from beatings suffered in the course of training."
All parties to the civil war reportedly have used children as soldiers. The government of Burundi has signed international conventions banning the use of children under the age of eighteen years in combat, and military authorities have ordered that children younger than that age not be recruited for military service.
The report underlined the danger of preaching "self-defense" in a region where ethnically-based violence has cost hundreds of thousands of lives in recent years. "Telling people that they may have to take up arms to defend themselves makes them more afraid and more open to manipulation by ruthless leaders," said Des Forges.
- If people think the government cannot or will not protect them, they will be far readier to attack others, he concludes.
Earlier this month, the UN Security Council called for all Burundian rebel groups to cease hostilities and to initiate negotiations with the transitional government, Ambassador Moctar Ouane of Mali, the Council President for the month of December, said in statement to the press. Council members "also call on countries of the region which have influence on the rebels to use such influence to that end," he said.
Expressing their concern at the gravity of the humanitarian situation in Burundi, UN Security Council members reiterated their appeal to all the parties to guarantee access by the humanitarian organizations to the populations in distress throughout the territory. The UN however made no special mention of human right violations commited by the government or government-sponsored troops.