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Atrocity Alert No. 223: Nagorno-Karabakh, Central African Republic and Sudan

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Indiscriminate bombing of civilians as Nagorno-Karabakh conflict intensifies

Since armed hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia escalated in the Nagorno-Karabakh region on 27 September, there have been widespread reports of forces indiscriminately shelling and using other explosive weapons against civilian populated areas. According to the UN, at least 40 civilians have been killed and more than 200 wounded, although the intense fighting has prevented monitors from verifying casualty figures. Thousands of civilians have also attempted to flee the area, while others have taken shelter underground in basements due to shelling and drone strikes.

Civilian homes and essential infrastructure, including hospitals and schools, have already been damaged or destroyed by the fighting. The capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, has endured heavy and sustained shelling, while the city of Ganja in Azerbaijan was also attacked. On 4 October the International Committee of the Red Cross released a statement noting that, “the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area against military targets in populated areas may violate international humanitarian law [IHL], which prohibits indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks.”

Amnesty International has also corroborated video footage showing that Israeli-made cluster munitions appear to have been fired by Azerbaijani forces on residential areas of Stepanakert. The use of cluster munitions is banned under IHL and the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of such weapons is prohibited under the Convention on Cluster Munitions. These illegal weapons have “wide area affects” and leave explosive remnants that indiscriminately wound and kill both combatants and civilians.

There are also credible reports that Turkey is sending Syrian mercenaries to support Azerbaijani forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims that at least 72 Syrian fighters have already been killed. Turkish military involvement in the conflict also threatens to heighten religious and ethnic tensions, especially given the history of the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire during World War One.

The expansion and intensification of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh poses a grave threat to all civilians within the conflict zone, as well as to those in nearby cities of Armenia and Azerbaijan. All parties to the conflict should heed the calls of the Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group and accept an immediate ceasefire as a prelude to negotiating a permanent resolution of the conflict. All parties must also uphold their obligations under IHL and protect civilians.

Human rights violations threaten elections in Central African Republic

Although fighting in the Central African Republic (CAR) has generally decreased since the signing of a peace agreement between the government and 14 armed groups in February 2019, attacks against civilians continue. During an interactive dialogue at the UN Human Rights Council on 2 October, the Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in CAR, Yao Agbetse, warned of growing violations, including the recruitment of child soldiers, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, conflict-related sexual violence, as well as abductions and murder committed by armed groups.

According to the Independent Expert, armed groups that are signatories to the peace agreement were responsible for at least 80 percent of recent violations and abuses of human rights and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and operate with impunity. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, predatory armed groups also continue to occupy or attack hospitals, depriving populations access to life-saving health care.

Agbetse stressed that these violations may undermine the upcoming elections, scheduled for 27 December, as armed groups remain in control of approximately three quarters of the country. Insecurity has already resulted in the postponement of the deadline for finalizing electoral lists, and some armed groups have blocked voter registration by threatening and assaulting members of the National Electoral Authority. Sidiki Abass, leader of the Retour, réclamation et rehabilitation (3R) armed group, has reportedly banned security forces and electoral teams from entering “his” territory.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres emphasized the “historic responsibility” of Central African authorities to carry out transparent, credible and inclusive elections. Guterres noted that, “the presidential, legislative and local elections represent a unique opportunity for national reconciliation and the consolidation of peace, as well as the constitutional order and democratic gains of the country.”

All signatories to the February 2019 Peace Agreement must abide by its conditions and strictly adhere to IHL. The African Union, which is a guarantor of the agreement, should ensure that no candidate or political party is able to use the election to incite further violence and foment instability. The UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSCA, must intensify efforts to protect civilians during the electoral period. MINUSCA and the government should work together to combat impunity and hold all perpetrators of atrocities accountable.

Sudan’s government and armed rebels sign historic peace deal

On 3 October Sudan’s transitional government and several armed groups signed a peace agreement during a ceremony in Juba. The agreement presents a historic opportunity to end almost two decades of armed conflict and atrocities in the Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan regions. UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, “ensuring successful implementation will require sustained commitment and collaboration of all parties for the well-being of the people of Sudan.”

Although the agreement represents a political breakthrough, the peace process remains fragile. Notably, two armed groups – the Sudan Liberation Army Abdul Wahid Al-Nur and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement–North Abdelaziz Al-Hilu – did not sign the agreement. In addition, a recent increase in inter-communal violence in the Darfur region has killed hundreds of people and led to widespread civilian displacement.

Since the beginning of July, thousands of people in Darfur have also protested against the government’s inability to provide adequate protection against ongoing attacks by armed groups. The Rapid Support Forces (RSF), who have a long history of brutality in the Darfur region, have been deployed by the Sudanese authorities to confront inter-communal violence. General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, or “Hemedti,” who helped negotiate the peace deal on behalf of the transitional government, has previously been implicated in atrocities during the rule of former President Omar al-Bashir. Hemedti continues to command the RSF.

Despite the ongoing threat facing civilians in Darfur, the UN Security Council will decide on an exit strategy for the UN-African Union hybrid peacekeeping operation in Darfur before the end of the year. A newly established Integrated Transition Assistance Mission, UNITAMS, which is mandated to assist the government during the transition to democracy, will have no uniformed personnel to protect vulnerable civilians against attack.

Juliette Paauwe, Senior Research Analyst at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said that, “the signing ceremony is just the beginning of a long process. It is essential to rebuild trust between the government, armed groups and vulnerable populations of Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan. There can be no lasting peace without justice in Sudan.”