The noted eighteenth century Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher, Edmund Burke, once remarked: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Perhaps a lesser known quote from Mr. Burke, yet no less important, was: “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”
Each powerful and equally applicable to the events we all witness transpire around the world on a daily basis. Man’s inhumanity to his fellow man (and woman and children) should strike at the conscience of every good person and silence should not be an option, as Mr. Burke rightly pointed out. Just when the world thinks that man is not capable of anything worse, it watches events spiral out of control in places like Syria. Yet there is another devastating human tragedy that falls below the radar; it is on the continent of Africa and the atrocities being committed here are no less severe. The country is the Central African Republic (CAR).
Appearing before the United Nations Security Council (U.N.S.C.) on 14 February, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (U.N.S.G) indicated that “dark clouds of mass atrocities” hover over the Central African Republic. The leader of the global body continued by saying, “Public [lynching’s], mutilations, and other horrendous acts of violence are spreading mayhem and fear. All Central Africans have been victims, Muslims and Christians alike.” The U.N.S.G. added this point when speaking before the U.N.S.C., “We must live up to the promises made around this table to act swiftly and robustly in the face of such bloodshed. We cannot claim to care about mass atrocity crimes and then shrink from what it means to actually prevent them…Our responsibility is clear: We must stand with the people of the Central African Republic.”
The estimates of those killed because of the violence numbers in the thousands. The civilian population continues to suffer a disproportionate share of the violence, particularly in the capital city of Bangui, and in the northwest portion of this landlocked country. Civilians have been dealing with constant fear and insecurity since December 2012 when the Muslim Seleka rebels precipitated armed rebellion against the prior regime. The Economic Community of Central African States has brokered agreements to end the violence and bloodshed. However, they were fleeting because in March 2013 the Selekas initiated a coup against the sitting President Francois Bozize, and in his place instituted Seleka leader Michel Djotodia and established the National Transitional Council (NTC). On 10 January, he resigned and Catherine Samba-Panza became leader of the NTC.
There have been egregious abuses of human rights perpetrated by the Seleka rebels, specifically targeting the majority Christian population. Compounding the abuses, anti-balaka (anti-machete) groups of Christians have retaliated against the Muslims which has caused an escalation in the violence. What is occurring now is being defined as “ethnic cleansing.” Estimates from the U.N. peg the number of casualties at around 2,000 people, but this number is undoubtedly higher officials contend. Furthermore, what is significantly disturbing are the U.N. Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) figures of 133 children who have been killed or maimed directly as a result of the brutality.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.), Antonio Guterres, places the figure of civilians who have fled the violence, chaos and bloodshed in the C.A.R. at approximately 268,779 people. This figure more than triples to 714,000 when the U.N.H.C.R. refers to the number of internally displaced persons caused as a result of the conflict. These are staggering numbers and certainly signifies a true humanitarian crisis. The U.N. official said this on a recent visit to the war-torn region, “Massive ethno-religious cleansing is continuing. Shocking brutality and inhumanity have characterized this violence.” He went on to say, “The Central African Republic is falling through the cracks of international attention. This cannot be allowed to happen. The country needs the same focus that is being put on Syria and South Sudan.” He is urging for an infusion of troops and police in Bangui to assist in quelling the violence.
Since the coup, the CAR as a state has failed to exist. There is no central government. The NTC cannot exert sovereignty over the CAR; therefore, rebel groups act with impunity. Human rights violations against the civilian population are rampant as a result. To say full-fledged anarchy exists would not be understating the situation.
CAR: A Test Case for the Responsibility to Protect Norm (R2P)
Mr. Ban Ki-moon said, “We should stand with the people of the Central African Republic”- and we should. Should the fact that this African nation, that does not possess any vital strategic interests, preclude a greater response from the international community? No, it should not. The CAR poses a true test case under the Responsibility to Protect norm (R2P), according to Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. Director for Human Rights Watch and a member of the International Coalition for the R2P.
It is for cases like the CAR that R2P was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly at the 2005 World Summit.
Under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm, the state is the ultimate guardian and protector of its people – or at least that is its charge - from mass atrocity crimes as exist in the CAR. But when there is no state or central government, what happens? The argument against R2P is it violates state sovereignty, but when the current ruling authority like the NTC cannot exercise sovereignty over the CAR, doesn’t the international community then have a basis for which to act under R2P? Yes, I believe they do.
The U.N. Security Council did act quickly at the outset by authorizing a peacekeeping force on the ground to protect civilians. In addition, France has close to 2,000 troops to buttress the approximately 6,000 African Union (AU) troops deployed to this nation. However, the violence continues unabated.
The French humanitarian non-governmental organization (NGO) Medecins Sans Frontieres or Doctors Without Borders has recently said that the current international action is insufficient in ending the “extreme violence.”
Donatella Rovera and Joanne Mariner, Senior Crisis Response Advisers at Amnesty International, recently issued a report titled Central African Republic: Ethnic Cleansing and Sectarian Killings that paints a very grim picture of the situation on the ground in the CAR. The two global human rights organization advisers indicate in their report that ethnic cleansing continues, and that the international peacekeepers are not preventing it.
“Anti-balaka militias are carrying out violent attacks in an effort to ethnically cleanse Muslims in the Central African Republic”, Ms. Mariner noted in the report. She added, “The result is a Muslim exodus of historic proportions.”
Ms. Rovera noted that, “International peacekeeping troops have failed to stop the violence….They have acquiesced to violence in some cases by allowing abusive anti-balaka militias to fill the power vacuum created by the Seleka’s departure.”
The two women have provided firsthand accounts from the CAR of the devastation, violence, bloodshed and tragedy caused by this conflict, and have witnessed serious human rights abuses perpetrated by the warring factions upon innocent civilians. Their descriptions are scenes of massacre and slaughter as they report on the crisis daily via their Twitter accounts (@jgmariner, @DRovera).
The Time is Now, Mr. President
When President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, shortly after taking office, he said the following in his speech accepting the prize: “The closer we stand together, the less likely we will be faced with the choice between armed intervention and complicity in oppression.”
U.S. President continued his speech by speaking of how he supported human rights, and how he could envision cases where intervention could occur based solely on humanitarian grounds. It would appear quite evident, based on the words spoken in this speech, that the CAR would be a good example of why the U.S. should be doing more in the CAR to stem the violence and crimes against humanity. The “armed intervention” has been happening for over a year; Mr. President, the time to stop the “oppression” is now because U.S. leadership is needed.
We have all heard the words “never again” uttered many times before when referring to mass atrocity crimes, crimes against humanity and human rights abuses perpetrated by the most unscrupulous amongst us. These words are inscribed on a stone wall memorializing the victims at the Dachau concentration camp. However, as we know, sometimes words are quickly forgotten as we have witnessed the killing fields in Cambodia, the genocide in Rwanda, the massacre at Srebrenica in Bosnia, the plight of those in Darfur, the continuing bloodshed in Syria, the recent report by the U.N. on North Korea cataloguing a list of absolutely horrific abuses committed by the Kim Jong-un regime and the violence and chaos that has permeated the nation of the Central African Republic.
If the words “never again” are to have real meaning, then the political and moral will to respond to such cases must be swift and decisive. If evil is not going to triumph and tyranny cannot “…gain a foothold”, as Edmund Burke pointed out, then people of good conscience must summon the courage to act in these crises to give voice to the silent.