Imagine that, at the
start of last year, a group of armed men ravaged your community, killing your
family and destroying your town. And imagine that, once they reached the capital
of your country, this group installed their leader with the support of even more
armed men. Now imagine that a year later, after they lost power, you witnessed
some of those same men don the uniform of peacekeepers, as world leaders
informed you that these men would now be responsible for your protection.
It sounds like a
nightmare, but according to the draft findings of a United Nations Commission
of Inquiry (COI), it is exactly what has taken place in the Central African
Republic (CAR). If the report is right, it means the one operation that Central
Africans should be able to trust in the midst of the horror unfolding around
them has had its neutrality fundamentally compromised.
The COI report, expected
to be released on Thursday, finds that Chadian officers who operated as part of
the Séléka movement -- a predominantly Muslim coalition of militias responsible
for atrocities against Central Africans before, during, and after its leader,
Michel Djotodia, seized the CAR presidency
last year -- returned to CAR as peacekeepers after Djotodia was forced to step
The Chadian officers went back to CAR as part of an African Union-led
peacekeeping operation, the International Mission for Support to the Central
African Republic (MISCA). The mission was deployed under the auspices of the
United Nations in December, following more than a year of political and sectarian
violence that began with the Séléka's
brutal campaign to remove President François Bozizé from power in late 2012.
installed Djotodia as president in March 2013, making him the first Muslim to
lead the predominantly Christian nation. But under pressure from the
international community that September, Djotodia tried to disband the militias.
Soon after, Christian self-defense "anti-Balaka" (meaning
"anti-machete" in the local Sango and Mandja languages) groups, which
had formed to defend against Séléka
attacks on their communities, began a campaign of revenge attacks against
Muslims. At the height of the sectarian clashes in early December 2013, an estimated
300 people were killed in just two days. By the end of 2013, nearly one million Central Africans had been displaced.
In an attempt to
stanch the violence, the U.N.
Security Council tasked MISCA with
intervening to contribute to
"the protection of civilians and the restoration of security and public order."
Segments of the
Central African population were vocally skeptical of the plan.
In late December, less than a month after the Security Council's authorization,
scores of people crowded into the streets of the capital to protest the
deployment, accusing Chadian peacekeepers of siding with the Séléka. The
Chadians shot into the crowd, killing one of the protestors.
Then, in late March,
Chadian soldiers again fired into a crowd of unarmed civilians, this time
killing around 30 people, according
to findings by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. After publicity
about the incident, the Chadian foreign ministry decided to withdraw its
soldiers from the peacekeeping operation, stating that "Chad and Chadians have been
targeted in a gratuitous and malicious campaign." The problems with MISCA, however, go
deeper than the Chadian peacekeepers that were once part of the Séléka.
In March, Congolese
peacekeepers from MISCA took 11 people from a home north of the capital, Bangui, after a fellow peacekeeper
was killed in the area. The group of captives, including four women, has not been heard
from since. "The African Union needs to say what happened to the
group that was detained and taken by the Congolese peacekeepers," says Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at
Human Rights Watch. "The peacekeepers are there
to protect the civilian population, not to abuse them."
Yet as much as allegations against the MISCA peacekeepers are
an African Union problem, they are also a United Nations problem. After all, the buck stops with the U.N.
The Security Council authorized
MISCA's deployment at the end of last year on the
heels of warnings about the risk of genocide in the CAR. With the "g-word" suddenly in play and the crisis
finally gaining front-page coverage, council members scrambled for a rapid
response. Because a full U.N. operation takes so long to deploy, outsourcing
the protection of civilians to an AU-led mission, with additional support from
French troops, was the only time-sensitive option.
In authorizing MISCA, the Security
Council stated that the peacekeeping operation "must be in full compliance with the
United Nations Human Rights and Due Diligence Policy on U.N. support to non-U.N.
Security forces." That policy exists to counter a systemic problem, extending
beyond the CAR crisis, of human rights violations perpetrated by actors to whom the U.N.
has outsourced its operations.
The U.N. outsources
when it cannot do the job itself directly, often because of a lack of political
will, or because the urgency of the situation demands a more rapid deployment
than the U.N. can muster. Organizations based in the region where the crisis is
occurring tend to have political incentives to respond, because if the crisis
escalates, it could spill over into neighboring states. And being
closer to the scene of the action, these groups are also likely to be able to respond
Yet these same factors of proximity
and associated vested interests that make regional organizations prime first
responders can also create a greater propensity for human rights violations.
The crises that
require the deployment of peacekeepers often occur in regions that are already
unstable. The CAR is a case in point. The landlocked nation has porous borders that
butt up against the ongoing conflicts in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of
Congo, as well as continuing unrest in Chad. Soldiers deployed to peacekeeping
operations from these neighboring states do not come from militaries that are
well-trained in international humanitarian law. Indeed, as with some of the
Chadian soldiers in MISCA, they may have already been involved in the crisis as
a party to the conflict.
While the U.N. should
be applauded for having a clear policy against sponsoring human rights
violators, the policy is only as good as its implementation. And implementation
is a challenge because the heads of outsourced operations know that, even if
they do nothing to investigate and remedy allegations of abuse, the U.N. has
virtually no choice but to continue to support their efforts.
For those needing
protection in CAR, however, there is a window of opportunity on the horizon. In
April, the Security Council decided that MISCA would transition to a U.N.-led
operation in September of this year. Such transitions typically involve
minimal personnel changes, with existing peacekeepers simply switching into the U.N.'s blue helmets. But this
does not have to be the case: If the U.N. wants to show the people of CAR that it is
serious about their protection, this transition is the time to do the screening
of peacekeepers that clearly has not been done to date. "Properly and very carefully vetting the
peacekeepers will be the highest importance for the mission" said Philippe
Bolopion, United Nations Director at Human Rights Watch.
Whether or not the U.N.
will take the time and resources needed to properly vet peacekeepers in advance
of the transition to a U.N.-led force remains to be seen. But if the quality of
the COI report is any indication of the U.N.'s commitment to the crisis, then
prospects do not look good. Other than the conclusion that there is enough
evidence to find that Chadian soldiers who were previously part of the Séléka were
deployed in MISCA, the COI report contains little in the way of information
that will be new to anyone who has been following the situation in CAR closely.
Evan Cinq-Mars, a research analyst with the Global Center for
the Responsibility to Protect, a New York-based advocacy group, says the report
was disappointing. "It should have been far more substantive in thoroughly
documenting the abuses perpetrated since the outbreak of the violence and
providing concrete recommendations to hold actors accountable for
To be sure, the commission was operating under difficult circumstances. As aid workers and
journalists operating in the CAR know, moving outside of the capital Bangui is can
be life-threatening, with the result being that aside from
the reports of a few intrepid souls, we have very little clue about just how bad things are for civilians in the majority of the
country. But even when compared to recent Commissions of Inquiry in similarly
challenging circumstances, the CAR report is decidedly flimsy.
The U.N.'s Commission of Inquiry for Darfur produced a comprehensive 176-page
analysis in just three months, which included detailed first-hand reporting on
crimes committed, a dense analysis of the international laws violated, and a classified
annex identifying those most responsible for the atrocities. By contrast, the
three-person CAR Commission and its two investigative teams had six months to
complete their work and produced a 23-page report, containing less than four
pages of findings on violations committed to date, fairly generic summaries of
the international law at issue, and a paucity of recommendations on the way
As is invariably the case, the atrocities in the CAR are
occurring at a time when there are competing foreign policy crises for the U.N.
and its member states to deal with. But we know from the world's abysmal record at
responding to mass violence that, in hindsight, we always regret not putting the
protection of civilians at the top of a crowded agenda. The U.N. can and must
do a better job in the CAR.
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