Peacekeepers Will Not Save the Central African Republic

Peacekeeping missions will not succeed when there is no peace to keep, says Josh Scheinert.
By: /
April 22, 2014

It’s happening again. A complex, ongoing crisis in a remote corner of Africa is finally garnering mainstream attention. Ongoing violence is finally destroying the Central African Republic’s (CAR) anonymity.

The CAR’s most recent bout of violence is not that recent—it erupted in late 2012 when a group of rebels, the Séléka, accused the government of disregarding the 2007 and 2011 peace agreements. The fighting that ensued has displaced hundreds of thousands as they fled the violence. The capital, Bangui, and other towns around the country have been reduced to mere ghost towns with residents too fearful to go out.

In March of last year, the rebels seized Bangui and their leader, François Bozizé, became the country’s president.

Religion, though not a direct cause of the unrest, has found a role for itself amid the violence. Displaced persons camps are oftentimes split between Muslims and Christians. Indeed, perhaps it is the easily distillable narrative of Muslim rebels killing Christian civilians followed by Christian militias killing Muslim civilians that awoke our collective public consciousness.

Answering the call of CAR’s desperate civilians, on April 10 the UN Security Council authorized an 11,800-person protection force—of 10,000 peacekeepers and 1,800 police. On paper, it sounds impressive. In principle, it sounds like a good idea.

But, the latest reports out of the CAR don’t suggest there is a peace to keep. The Séléka and the various militia groups are still fighting while civilians are caught in the middle and are often targets. The agreement signed by both sides in January is not holding. If there is to be peace anytime soon, it will have to be the peacekeepers that make it.

If one uses the UN’s existing, equally ambitious peacekeeping operations as a predictor, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) will be a failure.

The UN’s two largest ‘stabilization missions’, as they are now called, to date are MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and UNAMID in Darfur, which is a hybrid mission with the African Union. Both of these missions contain over 20,000 uniformed personnel each and both have, in spite of their size, failed at protecting civilians from armed groups.

The UN’s track record in the DRC is particularly abysmal. Its more robust mandate began in 2002 and as early as May 2003 100,000 civilians fled the city of Bunia with 700 UN soldiers looking on helplessly while the Rwandan-backed Patriotic Union of Congolese militia took over the town. In 2008, with the mission in full force, 150 civilians were massacred half a mile from a UN base. In late 2012, MONUSCO proved unsuccessful at halting a rebel advance into the eastern city of Goma, which sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing.

It took until March 2013 for the UN to face the extent of the disaster, and authorize a smaller, more robust 3,000-person force explicitly authorized to engage rebel forces.

In Darfur, UNAMID has not fared better. Just as in CAR, the UN waited until an agreement was signed before it agreed to send in troops. The parties failed to abide by it and the UN unable to enforce it. Despite Darfur fading from the news, the situation for civilians is still desperate. Many are stuck in internally displaced persons camps because returning home is too dangerous. UNAMID has been unable to neutralize the janjaweed militias or to keep rebel attacks at bay.

A recent investigation into UNAMID reveals that in March of this year, three buses of displaced persons were being escorted to a peace conference by UN troops. Rebels stopped the convoy and, with UN troops watching, diverted the buses to a rebel stronghold, robbed and beat them, and held them for six days before they were released to the Red Cross.

This episode happened almost seven years after the UN first authorized UNAMID, and over a decade since MONUSCO took shape. No one can suggest it was a rookie’s mistake.

Is this the type of “stabilization” CAR civilians can expect from MINUSCA? Little evidence exists to suggest the UN has learned the lessons of its past failures. Changing the names of missions from peacekeeping to stabilization might be an attempt to lower expectations, but expecting stabilization is as fanciful as expecting peace.

Forgetting the fact that the MINUSCA is sure to lack essential resources—the Darfur mission is still short on helicopters that were first requested in 2007—the rush to put blue helmets on the ground is symptomatic of a conflict resolution apparatus that fails to learn from its own mistakes. Unfortunately, any comfort that might be taken by having ‘done something’ will quickly dissipate as civilians continue to find themselves threatened and their UN protectors unable or unwilling to come to their aid.

Sending poorly equipped troops into a conflict zone with an uncertain mandate has proven itself to be poor policy too many times. Until a diplomatic effort can succeed at creating a space for the mission, whereby both sides displayed real commitment to putting their guns down and respecting civilian life, we are unnecessarily sending well-intentioned soldiers into harm’s way, and sending ourselves down another embarrassing and costly road to failure.