The Central African Republic (CAR) has been plunged into chaos by sectarian violence in the nine months since a coalition of Muslim rebels called Seleka ousted the country’s president, François Bozizé – the latest in a series of coups since the nation gained independence from France in 1962. Atrocities have proliferated, with rival militias – Muslim Seleka and Christian anti-balaka – carrying out vicious attacks.
Now, some hope may be on the horizon, with the resignation of Seleka-appointed interim President Michel Djotodia and a recent French military-brokered truce between Muslim and Christian rebel groups in the southern district of Bangui, the CAR’s capital. But unrest threatens reconciliation, and fighting continues in much of the country. As the provisional parliament begins talks on the CAR’s political future, hopes for peace remain fragile, and the United Nations warns of an impending humanitarian crisis.
In this context, the UN Security Council must increase its efforts to authorize greater military action to protect civilians, restore humanitarian access, and stabilize the country.
The list of atrocities committed by warring Muslim and Christian groups in the CAR is devastating: parents forced to watch their children murdered; gruesome, public executions, with victims thrown into mass graves; and the forcible recruitment of child soldiers. Since the start of the conflict, Muslim rebels have raped, pillaged, burned, and killed, proving particularly merciless toward Christians and churches. When President Bozizé fled the country, Mr. Djotodia became the first Muslim leader of the majority Christian country.
A conflict that had more to do with power and a fight for control of the CAR’s rich natural resources than with religion took a sectarian turn in September when Christian vigilante groups formed and began retaliating against Muslim communities, at times announcing their intent to kill all the Muslims.
Amnesty International describes the human rights violations in the CAR as having reached “an unprecedented scale.” More than 1 million have been internally displaced and 2.2 million, about half the population, need humanitarian aid. Tens of thousands are seeking shelter in Bangui, with more than 100,000 camped at the airport. More than 1,000 people have been killed just since December. In November, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and John Ging, director of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, warned of the threat of genocide.
With Djotodia’s agreement to step down, citing frustration with his failure to quell religious violence, political stabilization and transition are imperative. The Council must take further action under the “responsibility to protect” doctrine. Adopted unanimously at the 2005 UN World Summit, the doctrine authorizes international collective action if a country fails “to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”
The Council took a step in the right direction Dec. 5, when it unanimously adopted a resolution imposing an arms embargo on the CAR and expanding international troop deployment there, which is expected to reach 6,000 African and 1,600 French forces. This resolution also called for a Commission of Inquiry to investigate violations of international human rights law.
While the resolution is a strong start, without a better equipped, larger UN peacekeeping mission, it may not be sufficient to increase stability and security in the CAR. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has advised that a mission with as many as 9,000 troops would be required to do the job, and the Council has authorized him to start preparing for that option. But many Council members, including the United States, appear to be bristling at the potential cost and prefer to see how an enhanced African Union presence performs first.
But under their presence, sectarian violence has turned the CAR into an ethnoreligious combat zone. To prevent the escalation of violence and preserve what progress has been made, an intervention that is up to the challenge is required. The UN must act now.
Jared Genser is an international human rights lawyer and co-editor of “The UN Security Council in the Age of Human Rights” (Cambridge University Press, coming April 2014).