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Atrocity Alert No. 190: Syria, Cameroon and Central African Republic

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MASS EXODUS AS SYRIAN CIVILIANS FLEE BOMBING OF IDLIB

Hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians continue to flee as Syrian government and Russian forces dramatically increase their aerial bombardment and ground offensive across southern Idlib governorate. On 4 February Jens Laerke, Spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, noted that, “there are no safe places in Idlib. Bombs fall everywhere and anywhere. Even those fleeing the frontline areas are not safe. There is just a sea of people moving in all directions as the airstrikes and shelling has continued.” The UN Refugee Agency estimates that 700,000 Syrians have been displaced in the northwest of the country since the start of December.

In response to the deadly escalation in violence, the UN Security Council convened an emergency session on 6 February. During the briefing, UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen warned that, “We are witnessing the humanitarian catastrophe that the Secretary-General has warned of.” Heavy shelling of civilian objects – including schools, markets, and medical facilities – has caused widespread civilian casualties and may amount to war crimes. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that over 186 civilians were killed during January, with an additional 49 killed in the first five days of February. The majority of victims were women and children.

The Syrian government’s campaign to wrest control of northwest Syria from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the National Front for Liberation, and other non-state armed groups has been ongoing since April 2019. As Syrian government and Russian forces pushed to capture the strategic M5 highway linking Damascus with Aleppo, they razed and emptied a number of civilian areas and recaptured strategic towns in the Idlib countryside, including Maaret al-Numan and Saraqeb. The civilian death toll since the start of the offensive has risen to over 1,500.

The dire situation facing civilians in Idlib demands immediate international action. The international community must compel the parties to the conflict to cease attacks on civilians, prevent further escalation and ensure that mass atrocity crimes do not continue to go unpunished.

PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS IN CAMEROON LEAD TO A SURGE IN VIOLENCE

The conflict between government forces and armed separatists in Cameroon’s Anglophone north-west and south-west regions has intensified since December. Over the past weeks clashes between the two sides, as well as increased attacks on villages, has led to dozens of killings, abductions and increased civilian displacement. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that as of 31 January at least 679,393 people have been internally displaced in the north-west and south-west regions, while 51,000 have fled to neighboring Nigeria.

The latest violence took place in the run-up to parliamentary and municipal elections that were held on Sunday, 9 February. To ensure the elections went ahead in the disputed Anglophone regions, the government announced numerous security measures and significantly expanded its military presence. However, the security forces have been accused of burning several Anglophone villages and of indiscriminately shooting civilians. According to Fabien Offner, Lake Chad Researcher at Amnesty International, “in recent weeks, brutal military operations have been conducted while crimes committed by armed separatists continue unabated. Civilians are finding themselves trapped in a spiral of violence.”

Since December armed separatists have also attempted to sabotage the election process, including by abducting candidates. The separatist Ambazonia Governing Council declared Sunday’s elections illegal and announced a six-day lockdown between 7 and 12 February. Separatists reportedly issued threats against any civilians who did not observe the lockdown or attempted to vote.

Following a national political dialogue last October, President Paul Biya granted “special status” to the two Anglophone regions. However, separatist groups refused to participate in the government-led dialogue and power is still concentrated in the Francophone administration in Yaoundé. Sunday’s municipal elections were the first to be held in seven years and were supposed to be a step towards greater regional autonomy.

In order to resolve the ongoing armed conflict in Cameroon, the international community – particularly the African Union and the Economic Community of Central African States – should ensure that President Biya organizes genuine peace negotiations that include representatives of all Anglophone groups. Meanwhile, government forces and armed separatists must immediately end all extrajudicial killings of unarmed civilians and ensure that the human rights of all Cameroonians are equally protected, regardless of language, cultural identity or political affiliation.

JUSTICE FOR ATROCITIES IN THE CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

On Friday, 7 February, the Bangui Court of Appeal in Central African Republic (CAR) sentenced 28 members of a mostly Christian “anti-Balaka” armed group to prison for crimes committed during a massacre in the southeastern town of Bangassou. In May 2017 anti-Balaka fighters and other armed elements attacked civilians in Bangassou, particularly targeting Muslims, resulting in the deaths of 75 civilians and the displacement of thousands. Ten UN peacekeepers were also killed and the Bangassou field office of the UN Mission in CAR (MINUSCA) was attacked, preventing peacekeepers from protecting civilians.

According to the Minister of Justice, Flavien Mbata, Friday’s verdict constitutes the first time a national court in CAR has handed down a sentence for crimes against humanity. The Head of MINUSCA, Mankeur Ndiaye, applauded the Court’s decision, stating that the verdict “testifies to the will of the Central African State to fight against impunity through its judiciary system… it is important for the populations, in particular the victims, to know that they have not been forgotten.”

Last week’s sentences constitute an important step towards justice for atrocity crimes in CAR. A hybrid judicial mechanism, the Special Criminal Court (SCC) was established in 2015 to try war crimes and crimes against humanity. The SCC opened its first session in October 2018, but continues to face serious operational difficulties, including providing adequate protection for victims and witnesses. A historic peace agreement, signed in February 2019, also failed to clarify steps towards post-conflict justice and accountability, raising concerns about ongoing impunity.

This Thursday the UN Security Council will hold an open debate on transitional justice in conflict and post-conflict situations. The debate will provide an opportunity for UN member states to discuss how the Council can contribute to accountability, justice and reconciliation in countries that have experienced atrocities. Such processes not only ensure that perpetrators are held accountable, but may also have an important deterrent effect and help prevent the recurrence of atrocity crimes.