Trucking Instead of Protecting: How International Militaries and Aid Agencies Are Failing Civilians in CAR

In a show of pragmatism seemingly incompatible with their stated mandate, international forces in CAR have been providing protection to convoys of Muslims trying to leave towns and villages in fear of certain death, instead of stopping attacks against them.

In a show of pragmatism seemingly incompatible with their stated mandate, international forces in CAR have been providing protection to convoys of Muslims trying to leave towns and villages in fear of certain death, instead of stopping attacks against them.

While this protection is clearly preferable to allowing these people to be killed, the convoys are a clear symbol of the international community's failure to protect at-risk groups of civilians, and could be seen as directly facilitating the "cleansing" of areas where Muslim communities have lived for generations.

Caught unprepared by the extent of hatred and fear generated by months of tit-for-tat killings between the ex-Séléka and the anti-Balaka, peace-keeping troops have sometimes stood by and watched horrors unfold in front of their very eyes, quickly becoming a stark reminder of other ineffective international military interventions of the past. International forces which are meant to protect civilians and enable the provision of humanitarian aid have on numerous occasions, passively witnessed brutal killings without intervening for fear of affecting their perceived neutrality.

Two months after the deployment of additional French and African military troops to the Central African Republic (CAR), the tragic cycle of violence that has torn the country apart, shows no signs of stopping. Worse still, towns across the north and west of the country are being emptied of their minority Muslim populations. This new reality - witnessed with anguish and a sense of powerlessness by Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) teams - leaves many questions in its wake.

Notwithstanding the increased military presence of French and African troops, violence has turned parts of the CAR's capital into Muslim enclaves. Not a day goes by without incidents of public lynching, while the country's leadership vacuum and atmosphere of impunity has seen a massive rise in opportunistic looting.

Following the Bosnian and Rwandan conflicts of the 1990s, some in academic and policy circles insisted that the separation of ethnic groups in the midst of such conflicts was the most appropriate solution to stop targeted violence. Instead of reducing the worst impact of identity-based conflicts and to protect civilians in situ, international military forces were to facilitate displacement in order to save lives. And so it goes in CAR right now, where protecting civilians has turned into trucking them away from places that have been their homes for generations, without any guarantees that they will be able to return.

This clearly underlines the failure of the CAR response, both at the highest possible international political levels as well as by the humanitarian community. When MSF wrote an open letter to UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos on 12 December 2013, there was still cautious hope that the presence of aid workers would afford some protection, just as it was hoped the presence of foreign military actors would prove a game-changer for the fighting parties. It is sadly evident now that neither has been provided in enough quantity and quality to hold off the violence or to alleviate the terrible suffering that the people of CAR are now enduring.

The CAR crisis has continued to challenge international indifference and the glacial pace of the political and humanitarian responses as the crisis developed through 2013. The hope of December - that a foreign military intervention and a scale-up in the provision of humanitarian aid would reduce the violence and lead to better protection for traumatised civilians - has been wiped away by the realities of the last two months: violence levels remain high and have increasingly shown traits of ethnic cleansing.

The present situation should make CAR stakeholders, particularly the UN Security Council and the African Union, critically examine their own action - or lack thereof - when civilians need protection. They need to ask themselves whether more timely action could have prevented needless deaths and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.

The fact that the situation deteriorated to the point of needing to bring people to safety, should not mask the failure of those responsible to bring safety to people. It seems the window of opportunity when increased political and humanitarian mobilisation could make a positive impact in CAR has been and gone. At this critical juncture, there needs to be a clear recognition that the efforts put in place these last months have not succeeded in their stated objectives and that decisions to move populations away from their homes will have detrimental long-term effects on the people of CAR.

Based on current form, the CAR crisis looks to be heading in the worst possible direction, and may end up as the latest on a long list of international failures to prevent to human suffering and mass atrocities.


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