As the 8,750 strong Multinational Joint Task Force made up of soldiers from Chad, Niger Republic, Cameroon and Benin plans to start its offensive against terrorist group, Boko Haram, in North Eastern Nigeria and surrounding border communities, Human Rights Watch has called on the force to make the protection of civilians and the respect of prisoners’ rights their primary objectives.
Boko Haram killed an estimated 3,750 civilians in 2014 alone and has recently spread its campaign of terror into Cameroon and Niger, attacking towns and villages, abducting civilians and using them as human shields during battles.
HRW called on the multinational force to abide by international human rights and humanitarian laws in their campaign against Boko Haram. It said this was important as it not only satisfied the obligations of African Union membership nations, but also said that abuses committed in the name of fighting Boko Haram were likely to increase the group’s appeal among residents inside and outside the country.
“The regional force needs concrete measures to make sure civilians in the region are protected, along with the hundreds of abductees and child soldiers,” said the Africa director at Human Rights Watch, Daniel Bekele.
“Respect for human rights, including the rights of prisoners, must not be lost in the urgency of the growing regional threat posed by Boko Haram.”
HRW said past abuses committed by some of the forces participating in the regional task force raised serious concern about the need to “minimise harm to civilians and ensure the humane treatment of all prisoners, in accordance with international humanitarian and human rights law”
It said since its war against Boko Haram in 2009, Nigerian forces have been accused of using excessive force, burning houses and properties in communities thought to be hiding members of the group as well as torturing and detaining thousands of suspects.
HRW said Chadian forces were also suspected of indiscriminately attacking a market in the Central African Republic capital, Bangui in March 2014 killing 30 people and injuring several hundreds others.
It said this is even more so as Boko Haram is believed to use child soldiers, many of whom were originally abductees that were later conscripted to participate in its campaign of terror.
“We know that hundreds of men, women, and children have been abducted by Boko Haram and are in communities under the group’s control,” Mr Bekele said.
“The regional powers carrying out military actions need to take all feasible steps to protect these and other civilians,” he added.
“Under international law, civilians may never be the deliberate target of attack unless and only for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities; and warring parties are required to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects. Attacks that fail to discriminate between combatants and civilians, or that would cause disproportionate harm to civilians, are prohibited. Abuses of civilians and captured combatants such as murder, torture, and other ill-treatment may amount to war crimes.”
HRW said as the participating government and the African Union draw up the task force’s operational plan, they should:
• Include lawyers with experience of applying the laws of war in non-international armed conflicts, war crimes, and command responsibility;
• Include military police – or those exercising the provost marshal function – mandated to respond to disciplinary lapses by soldiers;
• Include in the mandate of the international force the need to develop and publish rules of engagement that prioritize minimizing harm to civilians and civilian objects during military operations;
• Include a strong and well-staffed AU human rights monitoring team to work alongside the regional military force to monitor adherence to international humanitarian and human rights law by all parties, and report publicly and regularly to the AU Peace and Security Council or the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on its findings and recommendations;
• Ensure that all credible allegations of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by any party are promptly, thoroughly, and impartially investigated, and that those responsible for crimes are appropriately prosecuted. The investigators, prosecutors and judges should be outside the military chain of command;
• Establish a strategy to improve the treatment of combatants, many of whom have been abducted and pressed into service by Boko Haram, after they defect or surrender, including establishing reception points for these combatants;
• Ensure that any children captured or escaped from Boko Haram custody are promptly transferred to the care of UNICEF, or appropriate Nigerian or nongovernmental organizations, and reunited with their families as soon as possible, taking the best interests of the child into account; and
• Draw on and integrate expertise from relevant UN sources regarding human rights and civilian protection challenges, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict, and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict.