NEW YORK — The UN Security Council has voted to send almost 12,000 peacekeeping troops to the Central African Republic (CAR) to stop a two-year-old conflict that the United Nations fears could become a genocide. The UN force would supplement French and African Union troops already on the ground.
Peacekeeping may be the key to ending the violence, but advocates such as Human Rights Watch and the Enough Project acknowledge that a UN effort offers no guarantees for peace – or for building long-term stability in the troubled country.
Pessimism centers on the volatility of the Central African Republic’s post-independence history and the sheer complexity of the current conflict. The country, rich in precious minerals, has survived three military coups and a series of failed revolutions since it gained independence from France in 1960.
The latest conflict began in 2012, when the Séléka, an alliance of domestic rebel militia and mercenaries from Chad and Sudan, invaded parts of the country, claiming to fight against the corruption and abuses of President François Bozizé’s government. A year ago, the rebels ousted Bozizé’s forces and installed Séléka leader Michel Djotodia of CAR as the country’s first Muslim president.
But the new Séléka leaders replaced Bozize’s abuses with their own, reported Human Rights Watch, which documented looting, rape and civilian massacres carried out by the Séléka.
Within months, militias called the anti-balaka (anti-machete) formed around the country to strike back at those they believed to be Séléka supporters. Many of those attacked were part of the Muslim minority, which makes up about 15 percent of the population. Since December, the violence claimed more than 2,000 lives, and 950,000 – more than five percent of CAR’s population – have fled or been displaced, according to HRW.
The cycle of violence and retribution has overwhelmed the peacekeeping ability of the 6,000 African Union troops and 2,000 French troops deployed to CAR in December 2013. Human rights groups also say these troops do not have enough training to initiate reconciliation dialogues between the factions.
Much of the media coverage, as well as reports by the UN and other groups, see the conflict from “the very simplistic view that it’s religious warfare between Christians and Muslims,” said Kasper Agger, a Uganda-based field researcher for the Enough Project, who recently returned to Uganda after a trip to the Central African Republic.
“I don’t think that narrative brings us any closer to an understanding of what’s going on or an understanding of what the solutions are.”
Agger said the Séléka rebellion was sparked initially by poverty and lack of development in the northern part of the country. If the conflict is seen in religious terms, rather than as having its roots in poverty, he said, the frustrations of the Séléka will remain.
Human rights groups also fear that a lack of neutrality among peacekeeping troops could exacerbate the situation. HRW has reported that some Chadian African Union troops failed to prevent Séléka attacks despite knowing the attacks would occur.
After the militias killed 21 union soldiers, the African Union declared the anti-balaka as enemies.
UN peacekeeping troops might be viewed as more professional, but they, too, have been accused of abandoning neutrality in some other recent conflicts. In 2009, HRW reported that UN peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo had killed and raped hundreds of the civilians whom they were supposed to be protecting; a year earlier, reports circulated that the same peacekeeping mission had failed to prevent the massacre of 150 civilians in eastern Congo.
Despite these issues, human rights groups say that a sizeable UN peacekeeping mission remains the best hope for stopping the killing and enabling aid to reach victims.
“A peacekeeping force by the UN is better than what is there now,” said Rona Peligal, deputy director of the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch.
Manon Verchot is a graduate student in journalism at Columbia University who has lived in Kenya for 9 years where she focused on issues in central and eastern Africa.