The Crisis in the Central African Republic: Will a Woman at the Helm Be Enough?

Renewed international attention to the situation in the Central African Republic (CAR) and the change of leadership in the violence-torn country bring new hopes of putting an end to the CAR’s spiraling sectarian violence that wracked the country during the disastrous ten-month tenure of former interim president Michel Djotodia. The election of Catherine Samba-Panza, the country’s first female president, who was sworn in on January 23 to lead the second transition after the military coup that toppled former president François Bozizé in March 2013, constitutes a singular and historic choice for the central African nation.

For the Central Africans, the election of a woman to the highest office in the land permits fresh hopes for a better future, notwithstanding the country's unprintable woes. However, despite widespread declarations of support by her fellow CAR nationals, regional actors, and the international community, the newly-elected interim president faces an insurmountable task, should these well-wishers not follow through with concrete actions. 

Key Conclusions

  • Given the potential of central African women to be actors for peace, and the new president’s commitment to gender parity, every effort should be made to ensure that these women are enabled to actively participate in the next elections as informed voters and motivated candidates.
  • Disarmament of the various armed groups is a priority for the new president. However, for this effort to be sustainable, it must be accompanied by a credible job creation program and vocational training activities, targeting in particular the radicalized youth among these groups.
  • Addressing the dire security, human rights, and humanitarian situation is urgent. Equally urgent is the rebuilding of key state institutions and the restoration of basic social services to the population. Unless concerted regional and international efforts, combined with a clear, unified and effective engagement by all national actors, quickly materialize in support of the new and acclaimed female leader, these challenges will remain insurmountable.


In her first brief and improvised statement shortly after being elected as the first interim female president of the embattled Central African Republic (CAR) on January 20, Catherine Samba-Panza had this to say: “I would like as a mother to be able to pacify the minds… I could detect a lot of hatred in your hearts… a great deal of rancor… Only a mother has the capacity to bring her divided sons and daughters together…” The announcement of her election brought rare cheers among Christians and Muslims alike who have known her as the indefatigable, incorruptible mayor of the capital city Bangui during the height of the sectarian strife that continues to pit their communities against each other. As she outlined the priorities for her devastated country, women across the various divides hailed her election as honoring the female population that constitute nearly 51 % of the country. “I am happy,” one was heard saying. “Men have failed...from now on, women will manage the country.”

Could Syrian Civil Society Tilt the Odds in Favor of Peace?

Syrians outside the Syrian peace process discuss the need for the participation of women and civil society in the talks, Geneva, Switzerland, January 17, 2014. (UN Women)

Despite the data demonstrating that peace deals that include civil society groups are 64 percent less likely to fail, the Geneva II peace talks appear to be falling into the trap of exclusion. The vast middle ground in Syria, including human rights groups, religious groups, and the mosaic of unarmed actors that are already working for peace, is not represented in the Geneva process that got underway this week. And international actors’ efforts to get Syrian women a seat at the table have so far failed.

A gathering of women from Syrian civil society groups issued a call for participation in the talks at a conference convened by UN Women and the Netherlands in Geneva last week. This call was taken up by EU foreign secretary Catherine Ashton and British foreign minister William Hague, among others, in their official speeches at the opening of the talks in Montreux on Wednesday. Hague appealed for a “formal role” for Syrian women’s groups and civil society at the meeting. “There can be no lasting settlement in Syria that does not involve Syria’s women at every stage of the process,” he said. 

Hague’s was one of 40 or so speeches made by foreign ministers as part of the process. The talks’ organizers are rightly concerned about including a diverse spectrum of international actors to give the process international legitimacy. As the heated dispute over Iran’s participation demonstrated, they also consider the presence of key regional actors to be vital for securing regional buy-in for any outcome in what has clearly become a proxy war. 

When it comes to buy-in within Syria, however, only two Syrian sides are thus far represented at the talks. And both suffer from tenuous legitimacy at home. The Western-backed Syrian National Coalition representing the opposition is present on the basis of shaky links with rebel groups on the ground in Syria. At the other side of the table, the Syrian regime faces new evidence of gruesome torture and killings on an “industrial” scale, released by a team of international prosecutors just before the talks began. 

Deadly Mosquitoes Add to Social Tensions and Security Concerns in Rio

The inauguration of the 18th Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) in Mangueira, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, March 11, 2011.
(André Gomes de Melo/SEASDH/Flickr)

While Rio de Janeiro gears up to host the 2014 World Cup and 600,000 foreign tourists, health disasters such as the dengue fever epidemic in 2007 and 2008 loom large over discussions of human security. The epidemic totalled about 300,000 cases of this mosquito-borne illness, including 240 deaths, and I witnessed first hand how inundated hospitals closed their doors and left sick people to seek treatment at ad-hoc hydration tents scattered throughout the city. 

The calamidade, or calamity, as locals called it, inflamed anxieties about personal health and safety in the city. Dengue fever, also called “breakbone fever” for the excruciating muscle, joint and bone pain it causes, is the world’s most rapidly spreading mosquito-borne viral disease. The number of dengue cases in Rio in 2013 was double that of 2012, and in 2014 the city is headed for a “situation of risk” for a dengue epidemic, according to Brazil’s minister of health. 

It also exposed long-standing social cleavages: middle-class residents blamed the scourge on inhabitants of favelas from which waves of dengue supposedly emanated. State health agents with tools to stem the tide of infections either could not or would not access favelas controlled by outlaw regimes of narcotraffickers. The impasse exemplified how decades of political abandonment of Rio’s poor crippled the state’s ability to maintain order in favelas and hindered public health responses to serious disease threats. 

Yet Rio’s dengue crisis also signaled an inflection point in the government’s stance towards favela communities. At the height of the epidemic, authorities ushered in new assemblages of public security in favelas in the form of Pacification Police Units (UPPs). With UPPs, Rio pivoted from a policy that historically neglected favelas, to one that intensely engaged them. Today, as the UPP project enters its sixth year, its public relations campaign circulates images of a friendly police force and claims that UPPs benefit more than 1.5 million residents in the pacified areas. 

Critics dispute these numbers, however, and pacification policing is increasingly controversial. Nevertheless, UPPs reconfigure established practices of managing social difference in resource-poor settings of Rio de Janeiro, and offer a window into cultural assumptions about collective health, social control and the social worth of the poor in a post-authoritarian democracy.  

Key Conclusions

  • While threats to public safety in the favelas often capture the limelight, public health concerns are also contributing to high levels of human insecurity. Middle-class Brazilians have been able to fortify their houses against violence, but not against mosquito-borne illnesses.
  • Improvements in sanitation, healthcare, and social services appear more likely in favelas where Rio’s new Police Pacification Unit (UPP) project is underway. The project aims to re-establish state access to politically abandoned urban areas, so that state authorities can deliver social services while also addressing the cycles of violence in these urban areas. 
  • Healthworkers say UPPs makes their job easier, and other services such as trash disposal have improved in these areas, yet claims are on the rise of human rights abuses at the hands of UPP officers. The presence of the officers is also creating new social disparities.
  • The UPP unit does not address the larger issues of entrenched inequality, health problems, and other fundamental causes of human insecurity, and Brazil must face the limits of militarized approaches to addressing urban fragility and the gamut of human security concerns it encompasses.


Twenty percent of Rio’s 6.3 million residents, or approximately 1.3 million people, live in the city’s poorest, most densely populated communities, known as favelas. For the most part, the communities are tight-knit and vibrant, though many middle-class residents of Rio regard them as hives of disease and drug-related violence. This is because in the early 1980s, the Andean drug trade expanded into Brazil, and drug traffickers began competing with established favela resident associations, which for many years had secured votes for politicians in exchange for state services. As narcotraffickers consolidated their power in favelas—in part by employing local residents and helping the poor—hundreds of favelas across Rio became no-go zones for ordinary police.

As violence increased, a chronic sense of vulnerability pervaded favelas. Innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire during gunfights between Rio’s Special Police Operations Battalion (BOPE) and traficantes practically constituted an epidemic: stray bullets hit an average of one person per day in Rio in January 2007. 

What Comes After the Bombs Stop Falling in Syria?

Syrian refugees watch news about the Geneva II peace talks from inside a makeshift tent home in an unofficial refugee camp on the outskirts of Amman, Jordan, January 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

Representatives from Bashar al-Assad’s government and the Syrian political opposition gather in Montreux, Switzerland, today for second-stage peace talks to end the conflict in Syria and agree on the broad parameters of a political transition. 

Expectations are low for the Geneva II peace conference, and it is in fact off to a rocky start. Although discussions are likely to focus on ending the current conflict, improving the delivery of humanitarian aid, and on whether and how the current regime will participate in political reform, it is not too early to give some thought to what needs to happen in Syria’s social and economic sphere for a peaceful transition to take hold. Lessons from previous Middle East transitions can offer some insights here.

Key Conclusions

  • While some elements of the Syrian regime may need to be dismantled, a robust Syrian state and strong institutions will be needed to promote stability and economic growth in a postconflict Syria.
  • Some will push for rapid privatization in Syria, but this would likely come at the cost of stability and sustainability in the country’s economy and economic institutions.
  • Where other political transitions have institutionalized sectarianism, Syrians should focus on establishing a cohesive national identity.
  • Regional cooperation and action will be essential to supporting Syria’s 2.4 million refugees and critical to long-term security and stability in the Middle East more broadly.


The architects of the Geneva Commuique and what comes after it need not look far for inspiration and important lessons as to how to reconstruct Syria peacefully and sustainably.  There are many recent examples of postconflict transition in the Middle East, and particularly in places of complex socio-religious composition and high international strategic interest: immediate postconflict reconstruction in Iraq (2003–2005), the Taif Agreement in Lebanon (1990), and the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative in Yemen (2011). 

In a recent paper, Planning Ahead: Lessons for a Post-Conflict Syria, I drew lessons from these experiences to inform policymakers’ efforts to support political transition in Syria—particularly when it comes to shoring up the state, revitalizing the economy, rebuilding the lives of those marginalized or displaced, and fostering regional cooperation.  

While Key Players Seek Peace, Some Communities Build It Themselves: Interview with Fleur Just

The Peaceful Change Initiative hosts a meeting in Benghazi, Libya. (David Wood/

Modern conflicts involve many different fighting parties, yet peace processes often focus only on the key players, leaving communities with unresolved conflict, said Fleur Just, Director of Impact and Learning at the Peaceful Change Initiative.

Ms. Just, who has worked in Libya, Syria, South Caucasus, Liberia, and Sudan, among others, said it takes community-based approaches to really address the multiple conflicts that are occurring.

And community-led processes, she said, can benefit the state at large. For example, Libya is suffering grave security problems, but at the community level, “it is possible to find [human security] solutions on a case-by-case basis.” She said these changes make a big difference in people's everyday lives, and “ultimately [can] actually start shifting the overall security picture within the state, and therefore create more room for addressing the national security issues.”

Ms. Just has seen that all communities want the same thing: an end to the violence, and “some kind of transition to stability, to democracy, to justice, human rights, and so on.”

She said she has often seen communities distrust processes that are led by the international community or a civil society that is external to the setting, causing a sense within the affected community of “we want to do it our own way and on our terms.” 

However, she said, many actors at the community level feel stuck. “They know that they want to reach out; they know that they want to be, for example, in dialogue with the other side. But they don't know how.” She said the international community can play a very useful role in these situations by providing a space for people in conflict to have a conversation with each other. 

Ms. Just said that one of the challenges she has seen—and this has been a personal challenge for her—is that “sometimes people in conflict arrive at solutions that seem very strange,” but “because they make sense at a local level, they are probably more likely to hold and more likely to be respected and implemented than solutions that I could have offered that were textbook.” 

“This is what the processes of reconciliation are and should be. So, it’s about leaving space, I think, for local imagination.”

The interview was conducted by Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Visiting Fellow at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):


Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: I'm here today with Fleur Just, Director of Impact and Learning at the Peaceful Change Initiative, an NGO that works on change management and peacebuilding in the South Caucasus region as well as in Libya and Syria. Over the past decade, Fleur has worked on reconciliation and peacebuilding in many parts of the world, from Liberia and Sudan to Georgia and Timor-Leste. She is currently mapping community-level “peace resources” in Syria to enhance the participation of communities in Syrian peace processes.  

Fleur, community-based approaches to security and peacebuilding are increasingly recognized as important for stability and sustainable peace. What do local peacebuilding activities bring that may be lacking in national and international processes?  

Fleur Just: I think community-based approaches to peacebuilding enable the peace processes to really respond to the needs of people who have been at the front of the conflict. What we often see in modern conflicts is that it's not just a conflict between a state party and a rebel group or between two rebel groups. Often there are multiple conflicts taking place actually within a conflict. And so if you have a process that just involves the key fighting parties, you might get an agreement between those, but that agreement will not necessarily address all the other conflicts that are actually occurring on the ground. And so you do need community-based approaches to really address the multiple conflicts that are occurring.

2014 Top 10 Issues to Watch in Peace & Security: The Global Arena

Francesco Mancini, Senior Director of Research at the International Peace Institute, has compiled a list of ten key issues to watch that are likely to impact international peace and security in 2014. This list will be published in two installments: (1) the top ten issues to watch in 2014 at the global level (below), and (2) the top issues to watch in each region of the world.

1. Regional spillovers of crises
With no political solution on the horizon, Syria’s almost three-year conflict will likely cause more instability and violence in the region. Terrorist attacks will continue in Lebanon, while the economic and social pressure from refugees in Jordan will further drain that country’s limited resources—the United Nations has estimated that Jordan will need $5.3 billion by the end of 2014 for this humanitarian crisis. Regional extremist groups will continue their cross-border operations, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has taken up arms against Baghdad but also against Damascus. 

Another source of concern is Afghanistan, where the drawdown of coalition forces by the end of 2014 and the presidential elections in the spring threaten to increase the level of violence and exacerbate instability across the border into the FATA region of Pakistan. 

A third region at risk of a spillover crisis is central Africa. The weak Central African Republic (CAR) government has collapsed, triggering a serious humanitarian crisis, with 400,000 displaced and nearly half the population in need of assistance. Horrible violence has been taking place, and some UN officials have described the situation as ripe for genocide. The crisis is more political than religious, but since Christian militia were the ones who organized revenge attacks against the mostly Muslim rebel coalition Seleka as retribution for killings and looting, religious extremism might be further reinforced in the region. Instability has already spilled over the Cameroon border, and CAR’S porous borders with the Democratic Republic of the Congo are a guarantee for continuing flows of weapons in both directions. 

2. Iran-US: BFF?
2014 will tell if Iran’s talk on the nuclear issue can produce tangible results, and it has the potential to redraw the geopolitics of the Middle East. The stakes are high. Some have emphasized the dangers in the Obama administration’s bet, saying a failure in the negotiation could cause a spike in oil prices, or worse: a shift in power toward hardliners in Iran and a consequent acceleration of the Iranian nuclear program, which could lead to a greater threat of Israeli military strike and Saudi’s search for nuclear capability. 

Others, such as Gary Sick of Columbia University, are more optimistic. “Reduced hostility between the United States and Iran could potentially have a constructive influence on virtually every major issue in the region,” wrote Sick. The most obvious is Syria, but other areas of mutual interest include stability in Afghanistan and Iraq; the defeat of al-Qaeda-affiliated extremist groups; access to new energy sources; and countering drug traffic. 

The more likely scenario will be a “messy middle.” Progress may be made on the nuclear side, but many difficult issues will remain open, such as the Iranian support for Hezbollah and its fierce anti-Israel stance. Opposition to a final deal will come from hardliners in Iran and in the United States. Israel and Saudi Arabia, so far the closest allies of the United States in the region, will remain the strongest opponents to any deal that would “rehabilitate” Iran and lift sanctions.

In Zimbabwe, Human Rights in Constitution, But Are They on the Horizon? Interview with Beatrice Mtetwa

In the South African border town of Musina, a billboard encouraged Zimbabweans who left to go back and vote. (Sokwanele/Flickr)

“Do I believe rule of law will be restored? Absolutely, I do,” said Zimbabwean human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa about her home country, which in March 2013 passed a referendum on a constitution that includes more human rights, though there is little political will to implement it. 

She said, “if the people of Zimbabwe agitate for respect for that constitution”—94% of whom voted in favor of the referendum—“the rule of law ought to be restored in my lifetime.”

But she also spoke of another obstacle besides political will: money. The constitution, she said, “has all these grand rights where people are entitled to all kinds of economic and social rights, but these are rights that cost money.” And unless Zimbabwe is able to convince multilateral agencies to give them assistance, it would be impossible to give people those rights, “because the money simply isn't there.”

Zimbabwe has long been one of the worst countries for human rights, and Ms. Mtetwa has long been an ardent defender of those rights, often at her own peril. She has been assaulted by police and arrested, which she said is what happens to human rights defenders in Zimbabawe. “Generally, there is harassment—we do get beaten up from time to time, we've faced arrests from time to time, and generally it has been made very, very difficult for us to do our work as freely as we ought to be able to.”  

This year, she stood trial from June to September, before she was acquitted on charges of obstructing justice and being unruly to police officers. She has been locked up in a women’s prison, and described what happens when there is an appalling lack of toilets, clothes, and beds—people are dehumanized.

Ms. Mtetwa said human rights defenders are often lumped in with their client’s causes. “The fact that you may have your own opinions, but believe that the person is entitled to legal representation because what they are doing is allowed by the law, completely escapes those in power,” she said. 

She said the judge who ordered for her to be released “was immediately attacked, he was harassed, he was threatened with an inquiry into his conduct.”

 “So, what it means is that a judge who gets a case like mine will be afraid to do the right thing because they are scared of being attacked themselves. And for that reason, we really now require political will for the judges to be able to do their job the way they're supposed to.” 

“Probably like everywhere else in Africa, when you are a human rights defender, you're generally perceived as an enemy of the state,” she said.

The interview was conducted by Priscilla Nzabanita, research assistant in the Africa program at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):


Priscilla Nzabanita: At the Global Observatory today we are pleased to have Zimbabwean human rights lawyer and activist Beatrice Mtetwa. 

My first question for you is: you've dedicated your life to defending those who speak out against infringements of the rule of law and human rights by those in authority. Can you tell us what challenges you face as a human rights defender in Zimbabwe and in general? 

Beatrice Mtetwa: Well, probably like everywhere else in Africa, when you are a human rights defender, you're generally perceived as an enemy of the state. So, you do face those challenges of being seen to be fighting the state, when in fact all you're doing is to try and ensure that people enjoy basic rights that are usually guaranteed even by the country's own laws. 

The problem that we face in Zimbabwe as human rights defenders is just the space—we do not have the freedom to do our work the way we're supposed to. Generally, human rights defenders, who are lawyers, in particular get identified with the causes of their clients. If you represent certain persons, you're perceived to be approving of whatever they are doing. The fact that you may have your own opinions, but believe that the person is entitled to legal representation because what they are doing is allowed by the law, completely escapes those in power. 

Generally, there is harassment—we do get beaten up from time to time, we've faced arrests from time to time, and generally it has been made very, very difficult for us to do our work as freely as we ought to be able to. 

EU Troops Likely in Central African Republic, But Is it Too Little, Too Late?

The Central African Republic (CAR) is poised to become the next theater of operations of a European Union (EU) military mission.  On January 10, a month after the outbreak of inter-religious atrocities in the chronically unstable African country, EU diplomats granted preliminary approval for the deployment of a joint contingent of up to 1,000 soldiers aimed at restoring security. The decision comes following intense diplomatic pressure from France, which is so far the only European country with boots on the ground.

If endorsed by EU foreign ministers in Brussels on January 20, the proposed deployment will provide some respite to 1,600 French troops and a nearly 4,000-strong African contingent struggling to contain the violence.  However, the EU operation is likely to face a delayed launch and acute strategic and operational constraints once deployed, meaning that it may not necessarily alter the situation on the ground in a decisive fashion.

Key Conclusions

  • The belated launch of an EU mission to the Central African Republic in support of current French-African military endeavors is a necessary but likely insufficient step to contain widespread violence.
  • In general, the size and possible scope of the EU mandate relative to the complexities of protecting civilians and the scale of the crisis indicates that it is unlikely to have a decisive impact on the overall conditions on the ground.
  • EU reinforcements may help to de-escalate fighting in the capital but will likely do little to deter large-scale sectarian mayhem across the country.
  • The EU force could have more relative impact in the medium term if it performs as a stand-by force in the likely event that a UN peacekeeping operation is deployed.


Too late?

The EU contribution to stabilization efforts in CAR is not the equivalent of a rapid reaction force.  Draft proposals envisage that a military operation "would deploy rapidly." However, EU policymakers’ scant appetite for military action so far and the political obstacles likely to stand in its way even once formally approved are not suggestive of swift action. Following the outbreak of systematic atrocities perpetrated by Muslim rebels (the Séléka group now formally disbanded) and self-defence Christian militias in which over 550 people were killed in the country’s capital Bangui in early December 2013, the EU skirted around the idea of sending armed personnel. UN Security Council Resolution 2127 of December 5 authorized a one-year deployment of the African-led Support Mission (MISCA), to protect civilians, to be backed by a French force, but was silent on any possible EU troop deployment.  The military dimension of the EU’s response was essentially limited to the provision of up to €50 million for MISCA and a pledge to “examine the use of relevant instruments to contribute towards the efforts under way.”

Exploratory talks aimed at fulfilling this commitment started last week with a draft concept presented by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton.  The approval in principle of force deployment is a positive step. However, grounding personnel in areas of active fighting would be significantly more complex and riskier than performing military training and policing (as is the case of the EU military missions in Mali, Somalia, Bosnia and the Horn of Africa).  The real prospect of confrontations in CAR makes it difficult to generate political will. The withdrawal of the 850-strong Chadian contingent (MISCA’s largest) from the capital on January 14 after they allegedly fired on demonstrators has reminded EU politicians of just how daunting involvement would be.

But with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noting that “without serious intervention, further attacks—including massive violations such as those that took place on December 5—may well reoccur,” the pressure is on. Foreign ministers will conduct an initial review of the proposal for a joint force on January 20 and are likely to consent in response to this international pressure and the promise to consider possible (military) engagement in mid-December.

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What to Watch in 2014

Key Global Events in August
A list of key upcoming meetings and events with implications for global affairs.

2013-multilateral-602014 Top 10 Issues to Watch in Peace & Security: The Global Arena
A list of ten key issues to watch that are likely to impact international peace and security in 2014, compiled by IPI's Francesco Mancini.