The sectarian tensions in the Central African Republic (CAR) are ready to explode; we are just waiting for someone - or something - to strike a match.
Over 395,000 people are internally displaced in the CAR, with over 67,000 seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reported that "indescribable atrocities" are taking place through what are increasingly sectarian attacks and reprisals between Muslim and Christian groups. Human Rights Watch's recent report, gruesomely entitled "I can still smell the dead", details the deliberate and brutal slaughter of civilians, including women and children, the possible recruitment of child soldiers and instances of mass rape and sexual violence.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has stated that "there is a chance to work together to reverse the downward spiral in the Central African Republic (CAR) and to set the country on a path toward peace and stability. Time is of the essence. We cannot let the people of the CAR down at this moment of pressing need."
The Secretary-General's call to action is not just moral - it's pragmatic. A landlocked country bordered by unstable neighbours - the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and South Sudan - the CAR has the misfortune of being low on the international priority list of 'places to save'. The US Ambassador to the United States recently described the situation as "the worst crisis people have never heard of".
Then again, being extremely high on that list does not necessarily do much for solving conflict either, as Syrians can attest to. What matters in the CAR is that we have the chance to succeed in dousing the flames before the conflict rages.
The current situation is spiralling out of control. Since orchestrating a military coup in March 2013, the leader of the Séléka rebels has lost authority over offshoots of the militia that helped him to overthrow the government. In the vacuum of security and the rule of law, the predominantly Muslim Séléka forces have been targeting the majority Christian population. Without a national police force to turn to, the Christians are forming "anti-machete" self-defence groups to protect themselves and retaliate against the Séléka rebels. Within this, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a group with 20 years of experience in wreaking havoc and destruction, is active in the east of the country, notwithstanding rumours that the government is in peace talks with LRA's leader, Joseph Kony.
The international community is largely absent at this juncture. The African Union (AU) has launched an International Support Mission for the CAR (MISCA) with the endorsement of the UN Security Council, but it lacks the numbers and the mandate to allow the use of force to protect civilians, demobilise and disarm groups and establish security throughout the country. Sending in a small group of AU peacekeepers might appear to be a proactive move, but their job is essentially impossible if there is no peace to keep.
Politically, there is on-going international support for a implementing a roadmap for a peaceful political resolution after military coup. However, there is also a need to be flexible to the changing conditions on the ground. Lest we forget, the 1994 Rwandan Genocide - ethnically motivated and popularly driven massacres - happened whilst the international community was apparently working to enforce a peaceful settlement for a different but interlinked conflict.
More must be done to control this crisis and to resolve it. The original plan for political resolution is not necessarily the only or most effective plan. The legal responsibility for preventing the crime of genocide was established in the Genocide Convention, which is coming up to its 65th anniversary in December. There also exists a normative international responsibility to protect populations from mass atrocities, including genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes. A more offensive form of peacekeeping - currently being trialed through the Force Intervention Brigade in the DRC - has had some success and is a worthy model for a case such as this. The legal and political frameworks to facilitate robust action are there. But what are we, the international community, doing?
We are watching the situation unfold. Incitement to popular violence, explicit targeting of people based on identity and beliefs, mass rape, killings, the recruitment of child soldiers, retaliation by popular self-defence militias - horrendous activities in their own right - lead to a darker road. Inaction, or feeble semblances of action, will help pave this road towards the worst case scenario. The region surrounding the CAR is fragile. Allowing a void to form in the centre of Africa has the potential to obliterate efforts to reign in conflict and violence in the DRC, South Sudan and elsewhere.
Time is of the essence. Early action could make the difference between dampening an escalating sectarian conflict and allowing it to blaze unbound. If the international community is unmoved by moral arguments, then surely the security consequences of this situation persuade. The collapse of a state and the descent of a geographic lynch-pin into chaos is not in our national interests. Not doing enough when we have a chance to extinguish the fire is strategically unsound.