How Can the UN Curb CAR’s Spiral of Violence and Ethnic Cleansing?

UN peacekeepers patrol outside Bria, Central African Republic, following violence that the UN said had sent an "uninterrupted stream" of residents toward makeshift camps. May 26, 2017 (Cassandra Vinograd/Associated Press)

Earlier this month, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien issued an alarming call to address early warning signs of genocide” in the Central African Republic (CAR). The nature and dynamics of the conflict affecting the country have dramatically evolved in the past few months, and recent episodes of violence have amounted, at a minimum, to ethnic cleansing. What seemed to be a contest between armed groups for economic and political gains has increasingly been entangled with renewed inter-communal, inter-ethnic, and inter-confessional hatred, especially in the central and eastern parts of the country.

The conflict that pitted the Séléka coalition, mostly composed of Muslims fighting for improved consideration of their community, against anti-Balaka militias, mainly composed of Christian self-defense groups, had decreased in intensity with the promise of an inclusive dialogue, the Bangui Forum, and the organization of elections. The Séléka was disbanded, and the groups that composed the coalition have been waiting for substantive negotiations with the elected government, while holding control of parts of the northern and eastern parts of the country. The anti-Balaka also committed to disarm, with some joining community violence reduction programs supported by the UN Mission for Stabilization in CAR (MINUSCA).

However, that status quo failed to develop into a sustainable reconciliation and peace process. After his election in 2016, President Faustin Touadera made disarmament of armed groups a condition for opening negotiations, which raised frustration among ex-Séléka groups and prompted attempts to reorganize the Séléka coalition by the Popular Front for the Renaissance of the Central African Republic (FPRC). The FPRC achieved only mixed success in this initiative: Unlike the Central African Patriotic Movement (MPC) and the Assembly for the Renaissance of Central Africa (RPRC), the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC) refused to coalesce, and the Séléka movement has been marked by deepening fractures along ethnic lines.

The Arab faction of the FPRC increasingly operates autonomously in the town of Bria, and a rift between the communities of Runga and Gula has grown significantly. The anti-Balaka, meanwhile, have intensified their activity in the past few months. In addition to the Mokom and Ngaissona wings, a third movement has arisen in the eastern and central parts of the country, composed of a new generation of self-defense groups, even more disorganized and brutal. These acephalous groups have been clashing with ex-Séléka groups, targeting Muslim civilians, as well as UN peacekeepers. Their modus operandi has been based on the manipulation of local communities, by instilling fear of Muslims and inciting preparations for war with “foreigners.”

The city of Bangassou has recently raised alarm on the scope of inter-communal tensions in CAR. Bangassou was considered a model of social cohesion, and had not been affected by violence during the past conflict. A series of attacks carried out in May by anti-Balaka groups against the Muslim neighborhood of Tokoyo put an end to this image: 115 people were killed and 64 injured; the local mosque, houses, and shops were looted and burned down; and anti-Balaka have constantly threatened the internally displaced persons (IDP) site around the cathedral where Muslims had sought refuge, including by trying to deprive them of resources including water. While they stated their objective of building a prefecture free of Muslims, anti-Balaka have made a brutal advance eastward along the Congolese border toward the towns of Rafai and Zemio, where they again targeted the Muslim community.

The events in Bangassou spilled over and triggered a spiral of violence in Bria, where reprisal attacks against Muslim and Christian civilians have been conducted after clashes between anti-Balaka and ex-Séléka in May. In the past three months, 160,000 people have been displaced in CAR, and the escalation of ethnic and sectarian violence is alarming.

In addition to targeted killings, other developments indicate a clear deterioration of inter-confessional relations, and signal ethnic cleansing crimes. Local Bangassou authorities have not condemned the violence, and have even sometimes themselves participated in inflammatory speech. The local media have contributed by depicting Muslims as threats and by relaying messages of hatred, including a radio program calling for a ban on selling food to Muslims in Zemio. Attempts to deprive Muslim communities from humanitarian aid, basic resources, and access to MINUSCA’s protection, as well as violent attacks forcing their displacement from certain towns and prefectures, amount to ethnic cleansing.

In this context, the UN peacekeeping operation, which is mandated to use all necessary means to protect civilians, has faced incredible challenges to carry out its operations. Anti-Balaka have been reported to be hampering MINUSCA’s freedom of movement and action, by erecting barricades, or by ambushing peacekeepers. Attacks against the mission’s troops trying to protect civilians have become particularly frequent in the Bangassou area since the ambush on May 8 that killed five and injured 10 peacekeepers. Most recently, MINUSCA’s Moroccan contingent lost three soldiers in incidents on July 23 and 25. In the town of Zemio, Moroccan peacekeepers came under fire on several occasions while trying to secure civilians, in separate attacks in June, July, and August.

MINUSCA has been the deadliest mission for the UN in terms of malicious acts this year, with 13 fatalities. On the humanitarian side, UN agencies and NGOs have also been denied passage or prevented from providing basic needs such as water to Muslim IDPs in Bangassou, and the attack against the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Zemio precipitated the departure of aid workers from the area. Earlier this month, the killing of six Red Cross volunteers further raised concerns over humanitarian access in the prefecture.

In addition to regular threats by anti-Balaka, MINUSCA suffers from a lack of legitimacy and credibility among the local population, due to widespread perceptions of partiality. The Mauritanian peacekeepers on the Muslim side of Bambari and the Moroccan contingent in Bangassou are particularly seen as colluding with Muslims. As a consequence, anti-Muslim discourse in the country has been increasingly coupled with campaigns against MINUSCA, leading to rumors of a Muslim conspiracy to take over the country with the support of the UN mission.

The fact that MINUSCA did not evict the UPC from the mining area of Nzacko when the group took over the town in February 2016 was seen as a biased passivity, allowing ex-Séléka groups to deprive Christians access to the country’s wealth. These sentiments worsened when ex-Séléka dissidents sought refuge at the UN base of Bambari, after they had been defeated by the UPC. The withdrawal of Congolese troops from the mission due to their implication in allegations of sexual abuse also nourished perceptions that the UN was replacing its Christian battalions with Muslim ones. Similarly, a UN arms embargo is largely perceived as stalling deployment of CAR’s national army, which is mostly composed of Christians. This hostility and accusation of bias against MINUSCA has greatly undermined its operations.

How Can the UN Mission Restore Peace?

The mandate of MINUSCA will be renewed in November, and the UN is currently reviewing options for the process. Three essential points will need to be addressed to better equip the mission to face the challenges of sectarian violence in the country: the troop ceiling and military posture required to protect civilians; the role of the mission in extending state authority and rule of law; and the implication of the UN in mediation and social reconciliation. These three pillars should be the cornerstone of an integrated, thorough, and robust political strategy for the UN mission to restore peace.

First, increasing the troop ceiling for MINUSCA is essential to enable a substantial deterrent capacity. With the end of the French Sangaris operation in 2016, the departure of Ugandan troops of the African Union task force and of their US special forces support from the east, as well as the withdrawal of the Congolese battalion for conduct and discipline issues, the UN mission has a critical need for reinforcement to uphold its responsibilities and strengthen its ability to protect civilians and reduce the presence of armed groups. As seen in Bangassou recently, sending troop reinforcements contributed to stopping the violence and forced anti-Balaka groups to adopt a low profile among the population.

The mission’s sole quick reaction force—comprising 160 Portuguese army light infantry—has proven useful in regaining temporary control of deteriorating situations, but insufficient to provide longer-term pacification, since it can only be deployed for one month at a time. The UN Security Council should thus consider adding a minimum of one battalion, as well as an additional quick reaction force able to intervene longer in a given hotspot, in order to show deterrent force on the ground and be able to send reinforcements to trouble spots in a more flexible manner, while other mediation and confidence building measures are implemented.

However, strengthening the military component is far from a panacea, especially in the context of the poor perception of the mission, which greatly limits its impact and ability to operate in hostile communities. More boots on the ground, if they continue to be perceived as aligned with one party or segment of society, also have the potential to further fuel tensions. The UN should therefore consider creative ways to improve the visibility of its impartial actions to protect civilians, and potentially plan on deploying mixed units of contingents from different countries in the same area where possible.

In addition, strengthening MINUSCA’s police mandate with more units, to secure IDP camps and ensure their civilian character, facilitate interaction with communities, and complement the action of military contingents, is essential to ensure continued security provision in line with the evolution of threats on the ground.

The operationalization of CAR’s armed forces, currently led by the European Union training mission deployed in Bangui, could also benefit from a more active MINUSCA. The UN could support the deployment of the first battalions trained by the EU to the west of the country, help with their continued operationalization, and build confidence measures with the population through a thorough monitoring and joint activities.

Second, the extension of state authority and rule of law is crucial to establishing a durable solution in CAR. National institutions remain unable, and sometimes appear unwilling, to address the deterioration of inter-ethnic and inter-confessional relations, which is critically damaging the social fabric in the country. The state is the only actor that can ensure a viable social contract for the country, but MINUSCA can certainly support it in this regard.

The UN first needs to address the difficult question of what “restoration and extension of state authority” means in a context like CAR. MINUSCA should go beyond the administrative and technical aspects of state authority (including training of public officials and logistical support for their deployment), as well as simple “support” to the policies of host states. The UN can better contribute to the definition of such policies in order to ensure they encourage the peace process and oppose exclusionary and sectarian ideologies, and that the national political strategy is relevant for sustaining peace. Notably, MINUSCA should adopt a strong stance against cases of local authorities encouraging violence and exclusion and contributing to the escalation of tensions. It should support the government in identifying and arresting spoilers of the peace process, removing state officials with radical viewpoints from public office, shutting down media conveying hate speech, and promoting an inclusive dialogue to prevent further radicalization.

Third, the UN mission needs to become more intimately involved in mediation processes. Mediation is the biggest weakness of MINUSCA, particularly as momentum was lost after the elections when the newly elected Touadera decided not to negotiate with armed groups before they disarm. The UN failed to sell a political vision for the peace process to the new administration, and to encourage a more compromising stance to safeguard the peace dividends of the Bangui Forum. Since then, and while armed groups have run out of patience and readopted a confrontational approach, MINUSCA has proven to be too little involved, or effective, in the mediation attempts.

The UN has remained distant from the African Initiative—a mediation effort led by the AU, Economic Community of Central African States, and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, with the support of Angola, Chad and the Republic of the Congo. It should urgently seek to regain a place as an essential facilitator coordinating all regional, national, and local mediation efforts.

The mission has also been quite sidelined during the Rome mediation process facilitated by the Sant’Egidio community, which managed to gather 13 armed groups around the table for a short-lived ceasefire agreement on June 20 this year. A lack of representativeness and influence among the political appointees who went to Rome partly explains the failure of the process, with clashes resuming in Bria and attacks by anti-Balaka against Muslims and MINUSCA in Bangassou the day after the agreement was signed.

The disconnection between ground-level dynamics and political mediation needs to be bridged by an integrated approach led by the UN, which can facilitate closer work between political advocacy and civil affairs, in an overall vision for enabling the advancement of peace. As seen with the Rome process, the loose structure of armed groups imperils any political or mediation process that does not build on a deeper social dialogue and community work, especially in a context like CAR, where violence is increasingly engrained in inter-communal relations.

A proactive public information and confidence building plan should also be linked to any community engagement, mediation, and reconciliation process to counter disinformation campaigns calling for a popular uprising against Muslims and MINUSCA.

The UN mission is in a unique position to explore all the relevant tracks of diplomacy and mediation, from negotiations with government officials and armed groups leaders, to community dialogue at all levels. The Security Council will, however, need to give MINUSCA the authority and means to defend a solid political position. From a robust military posture to a frank dialogue with government, and a deeper connection between community engagement and political negotiation, MINUSCA will need to define a thorough, multilayered, and sustainable strategy to step up its action to restore peace, protect civilians, and reverse violent trends that have the potential to spark genocidal acts.

Namie Di Razza is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute.