Last weekend, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres visited the Central African Republic. Just three weeks ago, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights came too, and the country was also discussed when the UN’s chief of Peacekeeping Operations went to neighboring Chad two weeks ago to argue for the extension of the mandate of UN’s forces in the region.
Travellers in the Central African Republic never hitthe road without a yellow jerrycan. The country's mainexport is diamonds; meanwhile, 74% of those in thecountryside have no access to safe drinking water.
The Central African Republic, or CAR, is almost an oxymoron: “the best known forgotten crisis in Africa.” Forgotten yes, but its dire situation is definitely well documented. A few indicators: with less than 45 years of average life expectancy, CAR ranks 187th of 195 countries; it also ranks 179th of 182 in UN’s Human Development Index; 183rd of 183 of “Doing Business” list compiled by the World Bank and it is 8th from the top (“bottom” would be a more illustrative word) on the Index of Failed States promoted by the magazine “Foreign Policy.”
The sectors covered by the three high UN officials touring the region – refugees, human rights and peacekeeping - indicate the nature of the crisis in the CAR: a five year old internal armed conflict in the north that produced massive displacement, widespread abuse of human rights by all sides and repercussions of the regional conflicts involving Uganda’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army and the war in Darfur.
António Guterres went to show his concern for some 200,000 persons displaced by the conflict (roughly half of them inside the country, the other half as refugees in Chad, Cameroon and Sudan); UN’s Undersecretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, Alain Le Roy, went to Chad’s capital N’Djamena to discuss the extension of the mandate for MINURCAT – the UN peace mission in Chad and CAR, which is tasked with helping in humanitarian aid work and promoting the voluntary return of refugees; the Human Rights Commissioner, Ms. Navi Pillay, was there because with the elections scheduled for April 25, respect for human rights is crucial. As she stated rather bluntly during a press conference in CAR’s capital, Bangui “strengthening the rule of law and the justice system, uprooting entrenched impunity within state authorities, including the armed forces, and putting a halt to violence and exploitation are all key to the future well-being of this great country.”
Human rights training for an “armed non-state actor”group in the north of the Central African Republic
This latter aspect of the crisis in CAR is what the International Rescue Committee – the group I work for - is attending to, by organizing training in human rights, rule of law and humanitarian law for a wide range of groups: CAR’s civil and military authorities, one of the so-called “armed non-state actors” operating in CAR, auto-defense groups (which mutated into a party to the armed conflict), community and religious leaders and members of civil society organizations.
A recent tour of a few field offices in Central African Republic revealed both better than anticipated success but also some very unexpected hurdles. When we asked about “Women’s Rights,” the graduates said almost exactly the same things: a gendarme told us with disarming simplicity “at home I used to torture my wife, now I do not do it anymore,” a member of auto-defense unit announced that he “stopped using punishment” against his wife and a community leader confessed that he reluctantly gave up “spanking my wives and my children.”
Two of the 6,721 graduates of a 2009 human rightscourse for soldiers, rebels and elders in CAR.
A member of an “armed non-state actor” group with a very handmade gun (sculpted wood and coarse thick iron barrel) referred obviously to “thou shalt not loot” when he announced “before I used to help myself to things of others, now after the training, I do not do it.” But when we asked his colleagues what they would like to do once the long-expected “disarmament, demobilization and reintegration” happens, a few said they wanted “to have power” or to have “a position of authority.”
Most of these non-state actors speak only Sango, (and not the other official CAR language, French) and they may have difficulties integrating into post-conflict civilian life. There are enormous delays with the disarmament process for adults, whereas the children’s disarmament is progressing almost on schedule.
Judging by these garments from the CAR, Obama'sHealth Plan would be a shoo-in if only itsinhabitants had a say in US politics.
According to a Reuters news report, one of the rebel groups announced that it “will not disarm under a government guns-for-money plan… because it does not like the government's envoy.” The agency adds that “failure of the disarmament scheme could stymie elections by hindering preparations in the north -- the most populated part of the country and still under heavy rebel influence.” Judging by the comments from our “non-state actors” graduates this may indeed be the case. Last year we had a total of 6,721 participants in trainings on human rights and the rule of law principles, but attendance by a gun totting man in a course does not a voter make. There is still a long way to go.
Photos: Anna Husarska. All rights reserved.