Plight of civilians caught up in Boko Haram fight flagged

In many instances, governments justify repressive laws and human rights violations by claiming that these are the only ways to protect citizens from the likes of Boko Haram. (AFP)

In many instances, governments justify repressive laws and human rights violations by claiming that these are the only ways to protect citizens from the likes of Boko Haram. (AFP)

Countries getting involved in the fight against Boko Haram should make sure their military forces respect international law and refrain from committing war crimes and human rights abuses.

This was the message this week from human rights group Amnesty International, which released its annual report in Johannesburg on Wednesday.

The report paints a grim picture of human rights worldwide. In 2014, 131 of the 160 countries documented in the report tortured or ill-treated civilians; in 93 countries, unfair trials were conducted; and, in at least 18 countries, war crimes took place.

In many instances, governments justify repressive laws and human rights violations by claiming that these are the only ways to protect citizens. War and insecurity exacerbate the situation.

Suffering of civilians
“From Iraq to Nigeria, human rights violations are driven by conflict,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s regional director for southern Africa.

Netsanet Belay, its Africa director for research and advocacy, said the suffering of civilians at the hands of Nigeria’s Boko Haram and the failure of the Nigerian government to protect them had been of the utmost concern to the organisation in the past months.

“We have repeatedly called upon the Nigerian authorities to step up attempts to make sure civilians are protected against Boko Haram,” he said.

Amnesty International is also sounding a warning about the mandate of the new joint military task force set up by the African Union (AU) to fight Boko Haram because of the bad human rights track record of some of the countries contributing troops.

Execution of detainees
Amnesty has documented abuses by the Nigerian military, including the summary execution of more than 600 detainees who last year had escaped and then was recaptured in Maiduguri, Borno state. This followed the attack by Boko Haram on the Giwa military barracks in the city.

Research shows that this kind of action by governments faced with terror groups drives radicalism and a desire for revenge on the state by some people.

“We have repeatedly urged authorities to conduct independent investigations into the allegations of violations against the military,” said Belay.

Calls by Amnesty International for the Nigerian government to bring those responsible for the abuses to book have so far been unsuccessful.

Accused of war crimes
Belay said some of the other Lake Chad Basin Commission countries, now involved in the regional fight against the sect, also had a bad human rights track record.

Chad, which is at the forefront of the response by Nigeria’s neighbours, was accused of war crimes during the recent conflict in the Central African Republic. Chad intervened as part of the AU Mission in the country, but eventually had to withdraw its troops.

The central African country, led by regional strongman Idriss Déby, has pledged 3?000 troops to the 8 700-strong planned task force against Boko Haram, mandated by the AU at its summit in Addis Ababa last month.

International law
Concerns about the mandate of the force and the risk of civilian casualties were high, Belay said.

“Amnesty International calls on the AU, troop-contributing countries and eventually the United Nations to ensure that this force primarily protects civilians. Its mandate has to be clear that this is at the heart of its operations,” he said.

The mandate of the force should also stipulate that states “should conduct their operations strictly according to international humanitarian law”, he said.

The AU Peace and Security Council was to review the operations of the task force this week in Addis Ababa, after which it will be submitted to the UN Security Council. The AU wants the UN to approve the force and organise a funding conference to pay for the effort. But this could take many months.

Need for quick results
Meanwhile, the armies of Chad, Niger and Cameroon are involved in fighting Boko Haram almost daily. It has multiplied its attacks on towns and army bases in northeastern Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger. A town in Chad was overrun by Boko Haram last month.

The Nigerian government is under pressure to show rapid progress against the group, following its decision to postpone elections from December 14 to March 28.

The government of President Goodluck Jonathan and its military hierarchy had told the Independent Electoral Commission that significant gains could be made to ensure greater security in the northeast of the country in the few weeks before the new poll date.

Belay said Amnesty was worrying that fighting was taking place before any human rights oversight mechanism for the force had been finalised.

Countries such as France and the United States, which are helping to support and train the regional countries to fight Boko Haram, are also turning a blind eye to the abuses by state forces.

Distraction from repression
The involvement of Chad has drawn attention away from the internal political repression by Déby, who has ruled Chad for 25 years with an iron fist.

This week, French Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius visited Cameroon, Chad and Niger with a message of support for the countries helping to fight Boko Haram.

France has an important presence in Chad, where its Operation Berkhane to help fight terrorism in the Sahel is based. Fabius emphasised that France was not getting directly involved in the regional task force, but was assisting with logistics and co-ordination. 

But it has sent 15 soldiers to the town of Diffa in Niger, on the border of Nigeria, to help the military fend off Boko Haram attacks.

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