Peacekeeping in Central African Republic:
a smart, but not risk-free, choice
When measured against Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo, CAR seems the best option.
Evan Cinq-Mars and A. Walter Dorn
Originally published in The Hill Times (Ottawa), 9 November 2016.
An unexpected candidate has emerged in the guessing game of where Canada will make its much-anticipated contribution to a United Nations peacekeeping mission: Central African Republic (CAR).
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mali have been suggested as potential deployments. However, as John Ivison has reported in The National Post, the government could deploy Canadian personnel to the UN operation in CAR, known as MINUSCA. This might be the main effort or a parallel contribution. In any case, Canadians will need to learn more about this land-locked country in the middle of Africa.
CAR continues to be gripped by the conflict that began in late 2012, which saw the Séléka rebel alliance overthrow the former president, François Bozizé. Séléka attacks against the predominantly Christian population led to the emergence of anti-balaka militias that, in turn, focused their vengeance upon civilians from CAR’s Muslim minority.
The French deployed a military mission in late 2013 to stem the bloodletting, and after a short African Union operation, MINUSCA assumed responsibility to keep the peace in September 2014.
Two years into its mission, MINUSCA is still struggling to respond to the conflict and its underlying tensions. While it has yet to be formally announced, a Canadian contribution to MINUSCA would be smart for three reasons.
First, the environment in CAR appears more conducive to mission success than other options. The DRC, which hosts nearly 20,000 UN peacekeepers, is on the precipice of conflict as its long-serving president, Joseph Kabila, seeks to extend his time in power.
By contrast, CAR concluded successful presidential elections in February. Violence is less widespread than it was in late 2013 and 2014, largely thanks to the progressive deployment of MINUSCA and a desire by the majority of Central Africans for an end to violent conflict.
Second, peacekeepers in CAR are not targeted by armed groups as they are in Mali. Thirty-three UN peacekeepers have been killed in Mali in 2016 alone, making it the deadliest mission for blue helmets in the world today.
Third, MINUSCA is short on Western contributions compared to other UN operations. The UN mission in Mali, for example, has benefited from sizable contributions from Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden. By contrast, the closest thing to a robust Western contributor for MINUSCA is a small Serbian contingent. France has progressively scaled down its national presence in the country and officially ended its military mission on Oct. 31. Portugal, a NATO ally, plans to send 160 special forces to CAR, but there is a need for a solid and more sizable Western contributor.
Canada’s deployment would be a strategic help to the UN in CAR, which has relied mostly on ill-equipped peacekeepers from immediate neighbours (like the two Congos and Cameroon), and traditional peacekeeping contributors (like Bangladesh and Pakistan). Our recent combat experience in Afghanistan and the ability to draw from a bilingual pool of personnel sets us apart from any other potential MINUSCA contributor.
However smart, a deployment to CAR will not come risk-free. Predatory armed groups still control a sizable portion of the country. Post-election gains risk being erased by a recent surge of violence in the capital, Bangui, and the interior during October, which has claimed dozens of lives. MINUSCA struggles to contain these outbursts.
UN peacekeepers have also paid the highest sacrifice in CAR. Twenty-five have died since September 2014; 12 of them were killed in “malicious acts” according to the UN. Many more have been wounded, including at least 12 peacekeepers in the past three weeks.
A few soldiers from the French, African, and UN missions have also been exposed as predators, with serious allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse. They have sullied the UN’s reputation in CAR. All the more reason why a contributor like Canada with strict rules and procedures against sexual exploitation and abuse is needed.
More generally, the root causes of violence in CAR remain unaddressed. Impunity for atrocities and decades of malgouvernance still plague the new government. Significant progress has not yet been made in disarming the spoilers of peace. Standing up CAR’s armed forces is also long way off. Real reconciliation is a distant hope as violence continues.
Canada will confront these issues in a country of vast geographic size, with UN bases stationed in remote areas where there is limited state authority and poor lines of communication. The logistics will be a challenge not unlike Canada’s experience in Afghanistan.
Still, among the options, CAR is a smart choice for Canada’s deployment to a UN peacekeeping mission. It can be made smarter by ensuring our approach is holistic, using bilateral national-building efforts to support CAR’s recovery.
Financial and political support to help restore state authority beyond Bangui is crucial. Investment in the proposed hybrid Special Criminal Court could help to address impunity for atrocities that has contributed to recurring cycles of violence. An upcoming donors conference in Brussels on Nov. 17 presents an opportunity to signal Canada’s commitment to CAR beyond a peacekeeping contribution.
This support will help build a safer environment for Canada’s peacekeepers, and for the citizens of Central African Republic they may be sent to protect.
Evan Cinq-Mars is the United Nations Advocate and Policy Advisor with the Center for Civilians in Conflict in New York.
A. Walter Dorn is a professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College and president of the World Federalist Movement-Canada.