A new U.N. report reveals that peacekeepers sent to the Central African Republic took sides in the conflict.
- By Rebecca HamiltonRebecca Hamilton, an Australian, is an assistant professor of law at American University, Washington College of Law. She previously worked at the International Criminal Court.
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 down.
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.
The Séléka 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 relatively quickly.
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 atrocities."
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 forward.
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.