The flags flew, the bands played, green African Union (AU) berets were swapped for blue UN ones, and MISCA officially became MINUSCA. As the handover was taking place MINUSCA tweeted: “The key priority of the UN in CAR is to support the political process & conclude the country's transition”, setting off alarm bells among those who thought the new force's number one priority was supposed to be protecting civilians.
Alison Giffen, who heads the Civilians in Conflict Project at the Stimson Center (A Washington-based think-tank), does not think too much should be read into the wording of one tweet, but is concerned that MINUSCA, like other peacekeeping missions, has too many things on its priority list.
“We are currently asking peacekeeping operations to do far too much at the same time,” she told a meeting in London this week. “We are asking them to do protection of civilians, along with elections, the extension of state authority, state-building, and this dilutes resources... The other reason why civilian protection creates a challenge is that the peacekeeping operation has to really partner with the host state government, even when that host state government may itself be involved or implicated in abuses.”
The mandate which MINUSCA received from the Security Council is long and comprehensive. Protection of civilians is indeed at the top of the list, followed by support for the transition process, the facilitation of humanitarian assistance, promotion of human rights, support for the rule of law, disarmament and demobilization, and protection of its own forces. Altogether there are 22 priority tasks, plus another five “additional tasks”, including support for security sector reform, to be tackled when conditions permit.
Giffen is one of the contributors to a special CAR edition of Humanitarian Exchange, published by the London-based Humanitarian Practice Network.
In it she argues in favour of a carefully staged approach, starting by deploying all the people needed for civilian protection - not just military peacekeepers, but police and civilians as well. In particular, there has to be a rapid recruitment of community liaison assistants, ideally CAR nationals, to facilitate communication between the conflict-affected communities and MINUSCA units. They can help the soldiers and police understand the security priorities of the communities and also explain to those communities MINUSCA's activities and its limitations.
This civilian component, and a more comprehensive approach, are among the strengths of UN missions. MINUSCA can draw on much greater resources than its AU predecessor, and a much wider range of expertise. Contingents from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Morocco are joining the force. But many of the African Union troops - from Cameroon, Rwanda, Burundi, Gabon and the two Congos - are staying on, and this may potentially cause problems.
Trust is key
Trust is essential for effective protection of civilians, and some of the components of MISCA were mistrusted by one part or other of the population. The Chadians - the most heavily criticised for allying themselves with the Seleka militias - have gone, but those who remain are not necessarily blameless.
“It's not a new peacekeeping force,” the Humanitarian Policy Group's Veronique Barbelet told IRIN. “It's re-hatting. I know they have gone through some kind of UN vetting process, but what that doesn't do is to deal with the perception issue. So one of the actions which could be undertaken right now is to do a perception survey, to understand what are the current perceptions of the nationalities that are contributing to MINUSCA.” This, she says, is another area where community liaison officers could help clear up misunderstandings.
“Another issue with MISCA,” she adds, “was that the way that the contingents were being deployed around the country was around their border areas - Chadians would have the north and the Cameroonians the west, and so on. And the perception was that they would have some particular interest, some kind of vested interest, in those communities where they were doing peacekeeping, and I think with MINUSCA that will change, and I think that is a very good thing.”
Being neutral, and being perceived as neutral, is going to be a challenge, as they also have to fulfil their mandate to support the transition process, including planned elections. Jenny McAvoy, the director of protection for InterAction (a network of US NGOs and their global partners) says it is a matter of viewing MINUSCA's role as supporting a process, rather than supporting this or that actor.
“If they can establish a facilitating role while local actors take the decision-making role, I think that's absolutely essential. It's an extremely fine line, and every single context is going to be different, and how that balance is going to play out in a particular context is going to shift over time. It's a daily exercise of calibration and re-calibration.”
And all this is happening in a country with deep forests, few roads and a very scattered population. One of the points made by several contributors to this week's meeting is that the threats to civilians in CAR are specific, localized, often even personal. Despite the way the conflict has been portrayed, it is not simply Muslims against Christians, one whole community against another. One of the frightening things about the paroxysm of violence which shook the capital at the end of last year was how personal it was, with individuals being hunted down in revenge attacks. And while the violence in Bangui was clearly visible, similar things were happening far from public view.
Beyond the main roads
Andre Heller Perache recently worked for a time in Bangui as MSF's head of mission. He says the problem with both aid and peacekeeping efforts is that they do not often get beyond the main roads and centres of population.
“CAR is not an urban country,” he says, “it's extremely rural. It's extremely diverse populations, living in small villages - you know, 500, 2,000, 3,000. Ten thousand people would be a big city in CAR. And when things happen out there, a famine or an epidemic, no one's out there to witness it directly. And when a village is burned somewhere outside the main epicentres of violence, no one's around to witness that; no one's around to help reboot things. So our call is to really focus all efforts possible on really getting out there.”
Although things have calmed down, Perache warned that the need for protection is still very real; the violence has not stopped.
“Just recently we had one day, in Bangui alone, where we received 31 victims of violence over about 12 hours. There's still fighting in PK5 neighbourhood down there. There's fighting in PK12 neighbourhood as well; we had a team pinned down there under heavy gunfire for a whole day while they fought it out. Ten days before that we had another massacre take place in the city of Bambari. Prior to that there was a church where there was an attack where there were 17 wounded. Every day there are more villages being burned. It's ongoing, it's still unravelling and it's absolutely chaotic. It's a huge mess.”