After more than one year of worsening religious and ethnic-strife in the Central African Republic, recent months have seen wider international attention to the conflict and authorization of a United Nations peacekeeping operation. In this month’s guest post, Dominique Fraser analyzes the latest developments in CAR, including application of the R2P norm to this troubled landlocked state. Ms. Fraser received her Bachelor of Arts with a major in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Queensland in 2013. She was president of the R2P Student Coalition at her university in 2012 and upon graduating undertook an internship at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, where she worked in the areas of research, advocacy and country monitoring.
The crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR) has now entered its second year and while it is becoming more sectarian in nature, the international community is finally starting to take not only notice, but action as well. A coup in March 2013 saw a group of mainly Muslim ‘Séléka’ rebels take control of the country and commit atrocities against communities; in turn some Christian communities formed so-called self-defence groups, the “anti-balaka” (anti-machete). Since September 2013, the anti-balaka have been engaged in a program of ethnic cleansing, which many fear may develop into a full-fledged genocide. African Union troops, as well as France and now the EU, have been in the country for months trying to establish stable conditions, but due to a lack of troops and resources, many have called for the establishment of a UN peacekeeping operation (PKO) which was only recently approved.
Over its more than two-year course, the conflict in CAR has displaced over one million people (almost a quarter of its population) and has killed over 2,000. In February this year, reputable human rights organizations Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have stated that the atrocities committed against the Muslim population in the west of the country amount to ethnic cleansing. Several UN officials have adopted this language, with Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon calling the conflict “ethno-religious cleansing” and has warned against the dangers of a de-facto partition of the country, which is increasingly being discussed by CAR residents. Virtually all Muslims have been driven from the capital Bangui, as well as the western city of Bossangoa, and others from all over the country are seeking shelter in the northern parts of CAR or trying to cross the border into Chad and Cameroon. Along the way, refugees have been attacked with machetes and firearms. Additionally, over half the country’s 4.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, but the international community is slow in providing much-needed financial aid.
The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has been developed to respond to exactly the kind of crisis now occurring in CAR. In 2005, world leaders agreed that states must protect its people from war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and ethnic cleansing. If a state fails or is unwilling to do so, then that responsibility falls on the shoulders of the international community. At the end of 2013, Philippe Bolopion from HRW said that “the handling of the CAR crisis will certainly become a test case for R2P.” And he was right. That the violence in CAR has not led to heated discussions around RtoP—as it has with Syria—demonstrates the norm’s power in relation to the current situation: RtoP has been mainstreamed into the international response, without needing to be discussed and defended by its advocates.
UNSC resolution 2127 from 5 December 2013 authorized the deployment of MISCA (the African Union’s International Support Mission in the Central African Republic) and French peacekeepers, giving them the mandate to use “all necessary measures” to protect the population. The resolution also spoke of “the primary responsibility of the Transitional Authorities to protect the population.” This so-called “first pillar responsibility” was also reiterated by UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng on 22 January 2014. However, interim President Catherine Samba-Panza has little hope of establishing peaceful conditions in her country, with both rebel groups receiving financing for weapons through the illicit trade in diamonds and ivory. Adama Dieng, therefore, highlighted second and third pillar responsibilities in saying that “the transitional authorities have neither the capacity to protect the civilian population nor to exercise control over the armed elements …, [so] the international community must take concrete measures to assist the State to stop the abuses and protect the civilian population.”
What the international community has done so far simply has not been enough. In mid-2013, the African Union set up MISCA, asking the UNSC for one year to prove its ability to undertake an extensive peacekeeping mission with Chad promoting “an African solution to an African problem.” However, despite the assistance of almost 2,000 French peacekeepers under Operation Sangaris and now with EU peacekeepers who have taken over security of the airport in Bangui, MISCA has been unable to keep the peace due to limited resources and so the situation continues to spiral out of control.
On 10th April, the UNSC finally authorized a UN PKO—the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA)—with a troop size of up to 12,000 under Resolution 2149, which again reiterated the primary responsibility of the CAR authorities to protect the people. The resolution authorized the mission to protect civilians, support a democratic transition and deliver humanitarian aid. The international mass atrocity prevention community sighed in relief, hoping the UN PKO would be able to avert an even bigger humanitarian disaster. However, the mission won’t be deployed until 15th September this year and if it encounters similar funding issues as the humanitarian aid effort, it might turn into a dog that cannot bark. In the meantime, violence is spiraling out of control. The UN now needs to find a way to bridge the time until UN peacekeepers can be deployed in September.