Why the Central African Republic Needs a Robust UN Peace Operation

When the UN Security Council adopted its latest resolution on the Central African Republic (CAR), it authorized an African Union (AU)-led peacekeeping force to quell the spreading violence, and mandated an independent French operation to support the AU mission. Resolution S/RES/2127 was passed as a follow-up to a November report by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in which he had laid out five options for international action in CAR. While the Council chose the most feasible arrangement for immediate engagement, it did not make a decision on the option the Secretary General (SG) had clearly recommended: the eventual transformation of the African force MISCA into a robust peacekeeping mission under UN command. Instead, resolution 2127 calls for a review of MISCA after six months, and requests the SG to further explore the option of a “re-hatting” and extension of the African mission into a UN mission down the road. His report is due in March 2014.

A task more difficult than expected

The French intervention has not come a day too early. The situation has been escalating for months. A small UN political mission in CAR has been reporting to the Security Council about the dangerous transformation of what began as a political crisis into an inter-communal conflict. So have human rights organizations. However, the past two weeks have clearly shown that the current arrangement of 6,000 African peacekeepers, backed by a temporary French force of 1,600, will not be enough to restore security in CAR. Despite immediate successes in the disarmament and demobilization of former rebels and armed Christian communities, violence between the Muslim ex-Séléka and Christian ‘anti-balaka’ militias has continued. According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an estimated 210,000 people have fled the fighting, which has been mostly concentrated in the capital Bangui, in the past two weeks alone. More than 500 people have been killed, including two French soldiers. Confronting the militias and restoring order has not been as easy as hoped by the French and the international community

While no clear date is set for a French exit, France’s President Hollande has already stated that his country‘s deployment would be short-term and not exceed six months. French support for MISCA is however crucial if the force is to restore security in a way that will stop mass displacement, and allow humanitarian actors to do their jobs. The AU has had trouble assembling enough troops to boost MISCA’s troop ceiling to 6,000 in time for the mission to fully take over command from a smaller African contingent that had been deployed to CAR in 2008. Moreover, there is a lack of clarity about how cooperation between the two forces will look like on the ground. Without French assistance, MISCA will be much less capable to fulfill its protection mandate, and to prevent further outbreaks of violence between communities. The AU forces are ill-equipped and ill-trained to effectively protect civilians in a country as large and remote as CAR. They lack guidance, preparation and experience. The United States has already provided its airlift capabilities to transport reinforcements from Burundi and other contributing countries to bring MISCA to full force as quickly as possible.

Over the past days, France has been approaching fellow EU Member States in search of additional ground troops to reinforce its own humanitarian intervention in CAR. With the 2013 European Security and Defense Council currently being held, the timing seems promising. Belgium and Poland are now traded as potential allies, while Germany and the UK have openly considered the option of financial and logistical assistance. However, it remains to be seen if other European countries will indeed be willing to send soldiers into the kind of highly volatile and unpredictable environment the Central African Republic currently represents. And more soldiers is what is most urgently needed right now. Memories about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, during which ten Belgian peacekeepers were brutally mutilated and killed by Hutu extremists, are still very present in Brussels when it comes to sending Belgian soldiers to troubled African countries. Moreover, the long-term engagement of many European states as part of ISAF in Afghanistan has led to a certain kind of ‘intervention fatigue’. It is unlikely that France’s calls will translate into much action from other EU members.

The case for a robust peace operation under UN-command

It seems clear that the window of opportunity that the French intervention has opened is already closing again. The next weeks will be crucial for averting a full-blown civil war, and pulling CAR back from the “verge of genocide“ that French Foreign Minister Fabius referred to in a TV interview in early November. Much will depend on MISCA’s ability to quell the violence, and disarm militias on both sides with the help of the French. But what are the prospects for success?

Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration is a long-term task in CAR. There are secret weapons caches spread all over the country. Communities as well as former rebels must be convinced to hand in all of their arms, which means they must be convinced that their security will be provided by someone else. Local presence and visibility of peacekeepers, and their communication with the local population, are crucial to this. In addition, foreign fighters must be resettled to their countries of origin, an incredibly difficult task in a region like Central Africa, where militias and organized criminals have been crossing borders largely unhindered by law enforcement agencies. It is also a task that will require close cooperation with neighboring governments as well as existing peace operations in the region. And then there is reconciliation. In the light of the atrocities that are currently being committed, CAR’s communities will not be able to simply return to a state of peaceful coexistence.

MISCA does not have the capacities and the experience to do all these things. In fact, it is highly questionable that the force will be enough to stop the killing, and to maintain security after a French exit. There is no quick fix to CAR’s many problems. In the short term, security and relief are key. In the long term, the country’s structural problems must be addressed if a relapse into violence is to be averted. All this suggests that there is no obvious alternative to an integrated UN peace operation with a robust protection mandate under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

Of course, a UN mission is no silver bullet and the UN Secretariat, as always, will have difficulties to find countries that are willing to deploy soldiers to an environment as dangerous as CAR. However, a UN mission would come with more resources, and the UN is better equipped to command a force in such a complex environment. The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations has learned from previous failures, of which, unfortunately, there are many. The protection of civilians has become a central aspect of almost all UN operations. While there is still a lack of guidance on how civilian protection can be operationalized, especially in situations of sectarian violence, the UN has made significant progress in terms of training and implementation of protection mandates. Moreover, the UN has much more experience in managing integration between the military, rule of law and development components of multidimensional missions, and a multidimensional mission is what CAR will need down the road. The country lacks functional state structures and institutions. Even if elections will be held in 2015 as planned, this will not change.

The UN should prepare for a long-term commitment in CAR. With the authorization of MISCA and a French intervention, the members of the Security Council bought themselves some time, and the current arrangement was the only viable short-term option. However, waiting and counting on MISCA to spare the UN another complex peace operation is kicking the can down the road. These past two weeks have made that fairly clear. In his next report, the Secretary General will likely recommend a transformation of MISCA into a UN mission, as he has done before. This should not happen in twelve months. In fact, if things continue to go as badly, even six months seem too long. With political will inside the Security Council, it can and should happen much sooner.

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About Katharina Nachbar

Katharina is a second-year Master’s Candidate in International Peace & Conflict Resolution at American University in Washington DC. Her professional and research interests include the interaction of ‘the international’ and ‘the local’ in international peacebuilding contexts, concepts of the everyday in post-conflict environments and the future of UN peacekeeping and crisis response with a special focus on civilian protection. Originally from Germany, Katharina has received her Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, Economics and Business Administration from the University of Munich and Westminster University in London. She is currently a research intern with the Henry L. Stimson Center’s Future of Peace Operations program and a Research Assistant at AU’ School of International Service. While a fan of DC, she misses climbing rocky peaks and lonely backcountry skiing in the Alps, where she grew up.
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