Not on our watch

27 11 2013

On Monday, as part of the Security Council, Australia was briefed by UN deputy secretary-general, Jan Eliasson on a complex emergency allowed to unfold on our watch in the Central African Republic (CAR). “Some call this a forgotten crisis,” Eliasson said. “The world is haunted by the horrors of crises spiralling into atrocities.” He presented the Security Council with five options, but made clear that there is only one choice: UN intervention.

Eliasson labeled the suffering as ‘beyond the imagination’, and referred to human rights violations including the escalating use of child soldiers (estimated by UNICEF to number 6,000), sexual violence and widespread reports of looting, illegal checkpoints, extortion, arbitrary arrests, torture and summary executions. Both the previous government of François Bozizé and the current regime of interim President Michel Djotodia (who overthrew Bozizé in a coup in March), are accused of serious human rights abuses by groups including Human Rights Watch.

France yesterday announced it would deploy further troops to the CAR, as well as circulating a draft Security Council resolution that would create a UN peacekeeping force to augment, and transform the 3,000-strong African Union-led International Support Mission to the CAR (MISCA). UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has put the peacekeeping force required at 6,000, together with 1,700 police personnel and a contingency plan for 3,000 extra troops ready to enter the country if the situation further deteriorates.

The nightmare scenario is spiralling inter-communal violence between Muslims in the north, and the majority Christian population. Djotodia relies on the Séléka, an alliance of guerrillas from the CAR and surrounding countries, as his de facto security force. The rule of the gun takes precedence over the rule of law, with Christian armed groups known as the ‘anti-balaka’ (anti-machetes), responding in kind. The number of internally displaced is estimated at 400,000, however information flows from within the country of 4.6 million people are scant, with few non-government organisations on the ground. Religious tolerance, previously a hallmark of the country, is foundering. Reports emerging of mosques and churches straining to provide safe havens for civilians are a chilling echo of the Rwandan genocide.

The CAR government is delinquent, the country increasingly the preserve of groups such as the Séléka and anti-balaka. This is hardly surprising when the Small Arms Survey puts the number of illicit arms in the hands of civilians and non-state actors at approximately 50,000 with just over 8,500 small arms and light weapons in the control of the military and law enforcement agencies. Some 7,000 government troops (the Forces armées centrafricaines) have retreated to the capital, Bangui, and are no longer operational, their place largely assumed by the Séléka. Armed gangs are free to act ruthlessly in an environment where small arms are a source of advantage and children are easily manipulated in what security scholar William Hartung describes as ‘the business of war’. Sanctions and support for the African Union are on the table (supported by the US), but if Eliasson is to taken at his word, and he should, it won’t work.

Under the principles of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the international community has a collective duty to step in to prevent mass atrocities when a state lacks the ability or will to protect its population from harm. While R2P has largely fallen out of favour, its emphasis on prevention and support, with the underlying promise that there are situations where the use of force is right and necessary and a long-term commitment to restoring a secure, well-governed and just society is appropriate to the escalating crisis in the CAR.

Australia could sit by, war-weary and let other nations bear the burden, or it could live up to the promise that genocide, and mass atrocity crimes require more of us than humanitarian aid. The spectre of Rwanda hangs over those who watched as 800,000 people were slaughtered. Australia has international peacekeeping and policing experience and the people of the CAR need our help. We should support the French resolution with more than the words ‘never again’.

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