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Central African Republic: genocide in our time

The failure of the international community over events in the CAR reflects a wider retreat from its promises over human rights, says Vicken Cheterian.

Vicken Cheterian
21 April 2014

A press conference hosted at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva on 10 March 2014 went almost unnoticed by the media. After all, many events were crowding the international agenda at the time, the crisis in Crimea and the mysterious disappearance of the Malaysian passenger plane. Bernard Acho Muna's message, though, was truly alarming and deserving of more attention. The renowned judge from Cameroon and head of the International Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic declared that there are fears of “grave human rights violations, including genocide” in the CAR. There are, according to UN reports, 650,000 internally displaced people and 300,000 refugees caused by the conflict; UN sources also talk about “thousands of killed” without specifying a more exact number.

Since November 2013, when the crisis in the country escalated, news of mass atrocities being pepretrated against the Central African Republic's Muslim minority have been circulating. The international community has remained largely inactive. This reinforces a question already raised by events in other regions, such as Syria: are the growing numbers of international organisations capable of defending the basic rights of civilians?

Several months of intercommunal violence has left the Muslim minority in CAR decimated. Their neighbourhoods in the capital Bangui have been attacked and houses looted, their villages burned down; eye-witness accounts speak of hundreds of civilians slain. Even against the background of the CAR's endemic human insecurity, the violence has acquired unprecedented dimensions: “There are no more Muslims left in Bangui”, Sonia Bakar, a UN investigator, told me.

The latest cycle of violence started in December 2012 when Séléka rebels launched a rebellion from the north of the country, where most of its Muslims (around 15% of the Central African Republic’s 5 million inhabitants) are based. In March 2013 the Séléka overthrew the president, François Bozizé (a Christian) and the rebel leader Michel Djotodia, a Muslim, became the CAR's first president.

The political struggle suddenly took on a religious dimension. Djotodia failed to dissolve the Séléka or to bring stability. In fact, things got worse: looters attacked Christian properties and destroyed Christian villages. Soon, clashes with a mainly Christian rebel coalition known as the anti-Balaka - originally militias acting as village self-defence groups, whose name means "anti-sword" - increased in tempo. This fight for power between two armed groups was framed in religious terms.

The anti-Balaka militias attacked not only their rivals, but the entire Muslim population. UN investigations reveal a pattern of violence, whereby anti-Balaka forces targeted Muslim-inhabited villages, killing without distinction between combatants and civilians. The terrified survivors abandon their villages in search of sanctuary, before escaping north in search of safety in neighbouring countries. Human Rights Watch reports a similar pattern in the CAR's north, with Muslim villages being systematically set on fire and their populations massacred or forced to flee to neighbouring Chad or Cameroon. "Séléka militias committed crimes against humanity, says Sonia Bakar, “but what anti-Balaka militias are doing is taking the proportions of genocide”.

Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, visited the CAR and interviewed dozens of eye-witnesses. He describes scenes of desolation, terror, and massacres across entire communities. In Bossemptele, a village north of the capital, some 270 Muslim civilians sought refuge in the Catholic mission; but after eighty of these were killed, the remainder escaped to neighbouring Cameroon, leaving behind the sick, women and children. Bouckaert He reports entire communities without access to food and children dying from hunger, with one woman “thin like a paper.”

After nine-months in power, Djotodia resigned. The new, interim president is Catherine Samba-Panza, a Christian. She has promised to end the sectarian conflict and disarm the militias, but she does not have the means to implement these pledges.

The Central African Republic has been largely unstable since it gained independence from France in 1960. The country is rich in timber and diamond mines. Thousands of people comb the riverbeds in search of diamonds, which are later sold through middlemen to international companies. But the country is also one of the poorest in the world; political instability, inefficient administration and corruption have meant that finances are used to fuel violent conflict rather than economic development. The proceeds from the diamond-export trade have allowed tribal militias to control vast territories in the provinces.

Between words and actions

The international response has been slow and minimal, say critics, with its priority the protection of downtown Bangui and the airport rather than saving lives. Around 2,000 French soldiers have been deployed, mostly in the capital, securing strategic sites; their influence cannot reach the suburbs, even less distant provinces. There are also 2,500 African Union troops. The UN is pondering whether to send peacekeeping troops.

The events in the Central African Republic pose once again fundamental questions about the international political system. In these very days the twentieth anniversary of the genocide of the Tutsis in Ruanda is being commemorated; 2014 is marked by the centenary of the start of the first world war; and 2015 is the centenary of the start of the genocide of the Armenians, Assyrians, and the Pontic Greeks in the Ottoman empire. The 20th century was the century of genocide. Human societies created superior methods of organisation and the modern state accmulated enormous power; when combined with exclusionary and racist ideologies, the result was an enormous capacity to stigmatise and annihilate large social groups.

At the end of the “great war" the League of Nations was created with a basic mission to preserve international peace. It failed. The second world war revealed even greater horrors as the Nazis eliminated millions - from European Jews and Roma to political enemies and Soviet prisoners of war. The allies were not innocent of war crimes neither, as the American and British air force attacks on Japan and Germany, and the deaths of Axis prisoners in Soviet camps, show.

At the end of the second world war, the Organisation of the United Nations was created with the same mandate: to preserve international peace. The world said: “never again!” and vowed not to tolerate any more genocides and crimes against humanity. Today, entire towns and villages in Syria are taken hostage in the conflict there, and in the Central African Republic the Muslim minority is targeted by armed groups. Modern communication technologies do not permit the world to say it does not know. Yet, the international political system seems powerless at best, indifferent at worst to the fate of civilians in modern conflicts. “The UN is spending billions for a police mission in Haiti, but there is no funding for a peacekeeping mission in CAR", says a furious Sonia Bakar. 

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