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U.N. Abandoning Central Africa, Charges Docs Without Borders

U.N. Abandoning Central Africa, Charges Docs Without Borders

The premiere French aid organization Doctors Without Borders issued a stinging indictment Thursday of the U.N.’s relief effort in the Central African Republic. The world’s leading aid agency has abandoned tens of thousands of needy civilians, according to the doctors’ group. And it’s ignored repeated appeals to deliver food, tents and other essentials to thousands in most desperate need of help.

Dr. Joanne Liu, the international president of the aid agency, known by its French name Médecins Sans Frontieres, wrote an open letter to Valerie Amos, the U.N.’s emergency relief coordinator, expressing "deep concern about the unacceptable performance of the U.N. humanitarian system" in CAR over the past year, citing U.N. failing in the capital city, Bangui, and Bossongoa, a site of intensive fighting.  

Liu said her agency over and over again issued appeals to U.N. relief agencies to "deliver food, tents and soap to more than 15,000 people displaced in the vicinity of Bangui’s airport, without any reaction."

During a recent outbreak of fighting in Bossangoa, a rebel stronghold nearly 200 miles from the capital, U.N. relief sought shelter in a compound occupied by African peacekeepers, but failed to provide assistance to displaced civilians seeking safety in the same facility, leaving it to the French aid group to attend to civilian needs.

"Following the fighting in Bossangoa, the U.N. remained on security lock-down for days, abandoning the more than 30,000 displaced persons in the main Bossangoa camps, while MSF and ACF [Action Contra la Faim] teams moved through the city to provide emergency assistance," Liu wrote.

Other western sources confirmed some aspects of MSF’s claims. One source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the French relief agency recently took out time from its medical work in the midst of fighting in Bossangoa to build latrines at the African peacekeepers camp in response to the needs of thousands of displaced seeking protection there. The source, who was present at the site, said that a UNICEF water and sanitation team, having fled their own compound, drank beers and watched the MSF team dig their latrines. It was 10 AM in the morning.

In a statement, UNICEF Press Officer Rita Ann Wallace said the organization is "not aware of any formal complaints from other humanitarian organizations in the Central African Republic regarding UNICEF’s work. Should any organization have concerns regarding our operations, we would encourage them to raise these officially with us."

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), insisted in a statement that the U.N. was responding its best to the humanitarian crisis, given the extremely dangerous security breakdown, and suggested that it was not the right time to point the finger.

"U.N. agencies, funds and programs have been deploying to the field as security conditions permitted, sending mobile teams to locations including Bossangoa," it said. "As this crisis worsens it is important that all efforts and resources are focused on delivering aid to people in desperate need. There will be time for evaluation of the humanitarian response, but now is the time for action."

The Central African Republic, a former French colony of 4.6 million, has been the site of deepening security crisis since last December, when rebel forces launched an offensive against the government of President Francois Bozize. In March, a rebel coalition known as Seleka, comprised largely of fighters from the country’s minority Muslim population, toppled Bozize. That unleashed a bloody spree of killing, looting and the destruction of villages in Christian communities.

In response, former military elements loyal to Bozize and mostly-Christian "anti-balaka" militias have carried out a series of blood reprisals against the country’s Muslim communities. In recent months, U.N. officials have warned that the country is facing a potential genocide, setting the stage for a French led military intervention in CAR. The United States, Britain and Germany have provided logistical support to the French.

MSF’s letter said that despite growing international awareness of the scale of suffering in central Africa, the U.N. has failed to scale up their aid effort, sentencing civilians to a life without even the most basic needs, including clean water and sanitation.  It implied that the U.N. had acknowledged that its efforts suffered from poor humanitarian leadership in the field, and lack of responsiveness. But it said the U.N. has failed to urgently and adequately address those shortcomings, or to deploy more experienced aid workers in CAR. Instead, the U.N. relief agencies have devoted their attention to developing a "time-consuming" new humanitarian response plan that could take weeks or months to implement.

Liu also faulted what she considered an excessively "risk averse" response to the crisis, saying that UN aid workers wear "military helmets and flak jackets in an environment that does not require such protective gear…While not playing down residual risks, MSF considers current U.N. agencies security concerns disproportionate to field realities."

Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, who today concluded a tour of CAR’s conflict zones, confirmed MSF’s concerns.

"The U.N. humanitarian response in CAR is deeply flawed, and is not reaching tens of thousands of displaced who are living in the bush after their villages were burned by Seleka," he told The Cable in an email. "People are needlessly dying as a result, at least partly because of the severe restrictions placed on U.N. humanitarians by their own security advisors… The U.N. needs to urgently reassess its humanitarian response in CAR, and work out mechanisms that allow them to better meet the urgent and massive humanitarian needs on the ground."

"A broader humanitarian response is not possible without increased security for the humanitarians themselves, who do face real threats in many areas," he added. "The biggest reason for the massive humanitarian crisis in CAR is the reign of terror imposed by Seleka, and increasingly also by the anti-balaka militias. The humanitarian needs of the displaced must be met, but we should not forget that they would all be much better off if the indiscriminate killings and village burnings stop, and people can return to their homes and live in peace."