Imagine that, at the start of last year, a group of armed men ravaged your community, killing your family and destroying your town. And imagine that, once they reached the capital of your country, this group installed their leader with the support of even more armed men. Now imagine that a year later, after they lost power, you witnessed some of those same men don the uniform of peacekeepers, as world leaders informed you that these men would now be responsible for your protection.
It sounds like a nightmare, but according to the draft findings of a United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI), it is exactly what has taken place in the Central African Republic (CAR). If the report is right, it means the one operation that Central Africans should be able to trust in the midst of the horror unfolding around them has had its neutrality fundamentally compromised. The UN report finds that Chadian officers who operated as part of the Seleka movement — a predominantly Muslim coalition of militias responsible for atrocities against Central Africans before, during and after its leader, Michel Djotodia, seized the CAR presidency last year — returned to CAR as peacekeepers after Djotodia was forced to step down. The Chadian officers went back to CAR as part of an African Union-led peacekeeping operation, the International Mission for Support to the Central African Republic (Misca). The mission was deployed under the auspices of the UN in December, following more than a year of political and sectarian violence that began with the Seleka’s brutal campaign to remove president Francois Bozize from power in late 2012.
The Seleka installed Djotodia as President in March 2013, making him the first Muslim to lead the predominantly Christian nation. But under pressure from the international community that September, Djotodia tried to disband the militias. Soon after, Christian self-defence “anti-Balaka” (meaning “anti-machete” in the local Sango and Mandja languages) groups, which had formed to defend against Seleka attacks on their communities, began a campaign of revenge attacks against Muslims. At the height of the sectarian clashes in early December 2013, an estimated 300 people were killed in just two days. By the end of 2013, nearly one million Central Africans had been displaced.
In an attempt to stanch the violence, the UN Security Council tasked Misca with intervening to contribute to “the protection of civilians and the restoration of security and public order”. Segments of the Central African population were vocally sceptical of the plan. In late December, less than a month after the Security Council’s authorisation, scores of people crowded into the streets of the capital to protest the deployment, accusing Chadian peacekeepers of siding with the Seleka. The Chadians shot at the crowd, killing one of the protesters. Then, in late March, Chadian soldiers again fired at a crowd of unarmed civilians, this time killing around 30 people, according to findings by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. After publicity about the incident, the Chadian Foreign Ministry decided to withdraw its soldiers from the peacekeeping operation, stating that “Chad and Chadians have been targeted in a gratuitous and malicious campaign”.
The problems with Misca, however, go deeper than the Chadian peacekeepers who were once part of the Seleka. In March, Congolese peacekeepers from Misca took 11 people from a home north of the capital, Bangui, after a fellow peacekeeper was killed in the area. The group of captives, including four women, has not been heard from since. “The African Union needs to say what happened to the group that was detained and taken by the Congolese peacekeepers,” says Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “The peacekeepers are there to protect the civilian population, not to abuse them.”
Yet, as much as allegations against the Misca peacekeepers are an African Union problem, they are also a UN problem. After all, the buck stops with the UN. The Security Council authorised Misca’s deployment at the end of last year on the heels of warnings about the risk of genocide in the CAR. With the “g-word” suddenly in play and the crisis finally gaining front-page coverage, council members scrambled for a rapid response. Because a full UN operation takes so long to deploy, outsourcing the protection of civilians to an AU-led mission, with additional support from French troops, was the only time-sensitive option.
In authorising Misca, the Security Council stated that the peacekeeping operation “must be in full compliance with the United Nations Human Rights and Due Diligence Policy on UN support to non-UN Security forces”. That policy exists to counter a systemic problem, extending beyond the CAR crisis, of human rights violations perpetrated by actors to whom the UN has outsourced its operations.
The UN outsources when it cannot do the job itself directly, often because of a lack of political will, or because the urgency of the situation demands a more rapid deployment than the UN can muster. Organisations based in the region where the crisis is occurring tend to have political incentives to respond, because if the crisis escalates, it could spill over into neighbouring states. And being closer to the scene of the action, these groups are also likely to be able to respond relatively quickly.
Yet, these same factors of proximity and associated vested interests that make regional organisations prime first responders can also create a greater propensity for human rights violations. The crises that require the deployment of peacekeepers often occur in regions that are already unstable. The CAR is a case in point. The landlocked nation has porous borders that butt up against the ongoing conflicts in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as continuing unrest in Chad. Soldiers deployed to peacekeeping operations from these neighbouring states do not come from militaries that are well-trained in international humanitarian law. Indeed, as with some of the Chadian soldiers in Misca, they may have already been involved in the crisis as a party to the conflict.
While the UN should be applauded for having a clear policy against sponsoring human rights violators, the policy is only as good as its implementation. And implementation is a challenge because the heads of outsourced operations know that, even if they do nothing to investigate and remedy allegations of abuse, the UN has virtually no choice but to continue to support their efforts. For those needing protection in CAR, however, there is a window of opportunity on the horizon.
In April, the Security Council decided that Misca would transition to a UN-led operation in September this year. Such transitions typically involve minimal personnel changes, with existing peacekeepers simply switching into the UN’s blue helmets. But this does not have to be the case: If the UN wants to show the people of CAR that it is serious about their protection, this transition is the time to do the screening of peacekeepers that clearly has not been done to date. “Properly and very carefully vetting the peacekeepers will be the highest importance for the mission” said Philippe Bolopion, United Nations Director at Human Rights Watch.
Hamilton, who teaches at Columbia Law School, is the author of Fighting for Darfur.