NAIROBI, 25 April 2011 (IRIN) - Violations of human rights are on the increase in northeastern Central African Republic (CAR), with aid workers expressing concern for protection of civilians amid renewed clashes between government troops and the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP) rebels - one of the few groups that has not signed a peace agreement with the government.
"Killings, arbitrary arrests, burning and looting of villages, forced disappearances and abductions are frequently reported, in particular in conflict-affected areas in the north and in regions where CPJP and LRA [Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army] are present," Fornelle Poutou, the secretary-general of the Association of Women Lawyers of Central Africa (AFJC), told IRIN. "People are afraid to [go] to the police because they have no confidence in them, fear repercussions or simply do not know their rights.
"The 12 April attacks in Ndélé, in the Bamingui Bangoran prefecture, displaced hundreds of people. Part of the administration was paralyzed and people live in fear because of lack of security."
Know your rights
In 2010, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), with the AFJC, set up a legal aid programme for survivors of gender-based violence (GBV), offering sensitization and awareness training on human rights, particularly for women.
Legal clinics integrated into the strategy of the Ministry of Justice to promote people's access to justice have been built in several rural areas in the northeastern prefectures of Ouham, Ouham Pende and Bamingui Bangoran, areas that have experienced significant population displacement since they have the highest presence of armed groups.
Alberta Santini, a protection officer for the council in Bangui, the capital, told IRIN: "Promoting a culture respectful of human rights in contexts marked by long-term conflict, lack of knowledge of legal protection tools and negative female archetypes is a great challenge."
Clinics in Ndélé, Paoua and Batangafo are managed by an AFJC lawyer, with the help of three to four paralegals, all volunteers, familiarizing communities on women's rights and strengthening their capacity to assert themselves.
The team also takes GBV survivors through a series of integrated care systems, including medical care, psychosocial support and eventual social reintegration.
"The great difficulties [stem] from the very nature of the judicial system," Santini said. "A system that does not properly develop the skills and knowledge of people working in the legal and judicial system, lack of human and material resources to implement it in the remote areas and a generalized lack of confidence of the people in the respect of their rights."
The clinics provide education, legal consultations, mediation, guidance and support to local populations. However, said one volunteer: "Due to insecurity, people often cannot leave their villages to report violence cases to the CAR army. But with all the complaints of violence and other abuses against the [army] itself, many say they would not report to them anyway even if [they] had to."
Since their establishment, the clinics have become centres for counselling on female genital mutilation/cutting, early marriages and early pregnancies as well as legal consultation for domestic violence, parental responsibilities towards children, responsibilities to husbands or wives and forced marriage.
Some 5,461 people, 11 paralegals and 55 focal points have been trained and 1,395 people across the country have been sensitized to human rights and protection issues.
In Ndélé, 1,260 people were trained, mostly women, including four paralegals and 20 focal points.
Awareness-raising was also conducted among local authorities, chiefs, imams, community leaders, security forces, staff of international NGOs, and other economic and social groups.
Since December 2010, counselling and mediation sessions have reached about 100 people, according to Santini.
Potou told IRIN: "Through legal clinics, we try to sensitize people to know their rights and refer to [the] justice system. Our biggest success is to see many women visit the clinic and tell us about the violation of human rights and report violence cases or to get advice.
"Because of the presence of armed groups in Ndélé, the population keeps on living in fear of violence and human rights abuses. There is still a lot to do to get people to know their rights and claim them.
"But the government should also do its part to support the knowledge of the legal system and ensure that justice takes its course," Potou said.
In Bamingui-Bangoran there are no resident judges because of the instability.
"I see behavioural changes in our communities ever since sensitization programmes have started. But we need judges to come here. How can we believe in justice if judges themselves refuse to come to Ndélé?" a beneficiary of the legal clinic asked.