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Are We Finally Getting it Right in the Central African Republic?

BY: ANTHONY DiROSA

On August 25th, 2013, I wrote about the slowly disintegrating situation in the Central African Republic in an attempt to join a growing chorus of voices seeking to sound the alarms that apparently weren’t being heard by the international community. Since then, as the crisis has grown more desperate, the world has started to take notice.

In November, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that “this cycle, if not addressed now, threatens to degenerate into a country-wide religious and ethnic divide, with the potential to spiral into an uncontrollable situation, including atrocity crimes, with serious national and regional implications.” Adama Dieng, UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, added:

“We are seeing armed groups killing people under the guise of their religion. My feeling is that this will end with Christian communities, Muslim communities killing each other which means that if we don’t act now and decisively I will not exclude the possibility of a genocide occurring.”

The concern so many had about the simmering risk of large-scale mass atrocities has unfortunately been realized in the last month. A new and dangerous dynamic of inter-religious hatred and violence has taken off in CAR that has catalyzed a brutal cycle of atrocities and targeting of civilian populations. Around half of the country’s population is Christian while about 15% is Muslim. The Christian majority and the Muslim minority have historically co-existed peacefully. In recent months, Muslim Seleka rebels, who ousted former CAR President Francois Bozize in March 2013, have reportedly attacked Christian communities all over the country. “The danger is that this polarization has taken place along religious lines, which has never really happened in the past and that people are self-arming themselves and carrying out back and forth attacks against each other,” said Kyle Matthews, the Senior Deputy Director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies.

In response, Christian militias have formed in an effort to fight back against Seleka militias. Due to newly formed fissures in CAR’s society, anti-Seleka Christians are targeting local Muslims whom they suspect are naturally aiding Seleka rebels. Furthermore, the conflict has attracted foreign jihadists from Chad and Sudan, set off targeted retribution by Christian militias on Muslim villages, caused the collapse of civilian authority and resulted in massive dislocation and food shortages.

Human Rights Watch reports that both sides are responsible for wonton acts of murder, rape, and looting. United Nations officials and the international community are deeply troubled by the sectarian tenor of the conflict, which is reminiscent of the early stages of past genocides in the region. In a briefing to the Security Council, the deputy secretary general, Jan Eliasson, called it “a vicious cycle that could very easily turn into mass atrocities.”

Reports out of CAR in the last several weeks have been so worrisome that international action became unavoidable. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 2127 last week, authorizing a joint French/AU operation in the Central African Republic. This will help strengthen an intervention force of up to 6,000 African troops, to be aided by 1,600 recently deployed French soldiers with support from the African Union. In the medium term, a UN Security Council-approved peacekeeping mission with up to 9,000 troops operating under “robust rules of engagement” could be necessary, according to Ban Ki Moon. “Member States of the United Nations now have the opportunity, and I firmly believe the responsibility, to prevent what has the high potential to result in widespread atrocities,” said Ban.

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This sudden disbursement of support to CAR comes amidst an apex of violence in Bangui since the crisis unfolded earlier this year. Fighting in Bangui since last Thursday claimed at least 400 lives, according to Amnesty International. But the accuracy of these estimates is unverifiable; as many as 1,000 people may have been killed with many bodies being buried and taken away before they could be counted. Furthermore, on December 10th, two French soldiers were killed after a gun-battle ensued following attempts to disarm several Seleka rebels. Most of the foreign press and journalists are reporting from the capital region, Bangui, where over 30,000 civilians are holed up in the city’s airport, too afraid to leave its grounds. Tens of thousands may have already died in the more remote parts of the CAR, a country the size of France, according to independent journalist Gwynne Dyer.

Western countries have begun to step up their efforts. The US recently pledged $40 million for Central African peacekeepers and its armed forces will deploy military planes to help transport international peacekeepers from Burundi to Bangui in order “to prevent the further spread of sectarian violence,” said a Pentagon spokesman. The UK also pledged support by lending supply planes to the French and earmarking $25 million to CAR for humanitarian aid. The European Union has also contributed $50 million.

Despite these crucial immediate measures, it’s doubtful that 1,600 French soldiers will be able to restore long-term stability in the Central African Republic. These measures are at best a stopgap measure that represents a minimum commitment to restoring security in the short-term. The French mission, will at the very least, help reinforce the poorly equipped AU’s International Support Mission in the Central African Republic (MISCA) as it struggles to bring order back to the streets of Bangui. The latest reports claim that the French forces had indeed restored some stability in the capital in recent days. The French, who have already intervened in a similar fashion in Mali this year, also hope that the UN will send additional peacekeepers as quickly as possible. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon recommended 6,000 to 9,000 men to be added as soon as possible.

Many groups and organizations, such as the International Crisis Group and Amnesty International, have laid out potential next steps in CAR that will help ensure short-term and long-term stability (as well as critiques of recent UN efforts). The general consensus is that more needs to be done both in the short-term and long-term to secure CAR’s future. According to Human Rights Watch’s United Nations Director Phillippe Bolopion, “If the post Rwanda and Bosnia ‘never again’ means anything, the U.N. Security Council needs to go all in to halt the spiraling killing in the Central African Republic.” Hinting at the need for further UN forces in CAR, Netsanet Belay, Africa Director at Amnesty International, said that “Before it’s too late to make a difference, the UN Secretary General must speed up his assessment of the peacekeepers’ impact on the ground — within weeks, not months — he must immediately start preparations for the deployment of a robust UN peacekeeping force to step in if and when needed.”

Others in the international community are also pessimistic about both the ability of the AU-French mission to alleviate the risk of mass atrocities and the willingness of the world’s powers to commit the necessary resources. Ty McCormick at Foreign Policy believes that “Even if a more robust international presence can bring the fighting under control—a prospect that is far from certain in a country roughly the size of Texas, much of which is densely forested — rebuilding a semblance of state authority will likely take years, if not decades.” The challenge ahead for the international community in CAR is undoubtedly daunting. Former US Ambassador to CAR, Lawrence D. Wohlers, believes that the “difficulty will be what happens next; the CAR government structures have been largely destroyed, so a robust peacekeeping force will probably be necessary for years. This will be costly.”

With the United Nations already carrying out 15 peacekeeping missions worldwide and Western militaries more focused on counterterrorism missions in the region, it’s hard to imagine that the necessary financial and political commitments will be made quickly enough to get CAR the support it needs. And as we learn at the Auschwitz Institute’s Lemkin Seminar, time is of the essence in situations where there are ongoing mass atrocities. “In societies with histories of ethnic violence, the cycle of killing will eventually spiral downward into the vortex of genocide,” warns Gregory Stanton in his article, “The Eight Stages of Genocide.” UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow said six years ago that she felt CAR’s citizens were “the most abandoned people on earth.” If the proper short-term and long-term measures to bring CAR back from the brink aren’t made quickly and robustly, the observations Farrow made then will continue to ring true.

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