Civilians in Central African Republic (CAR) remain at risk of deadly violence and instability unless serious weaknesses in the United Nation’s peacekeeping mission, MINUSCA, are urgently addressed, Amnesty International said in a new report published today.
With a new president to be elected in less than a week, Amnesty’s report Mandated to protect, equipped to succeed? Strengthening peacekeeping in Central African Republic analyses how major gaps in personnel and equipment resulted in UN peacekeepers failure to prevent and contain a serious outbreak of violence in Bangui in September 2015 that led to the death of over 75 people, including many civilians.
The organisation is calling for a major review of the apparent failure to protect civilians in September 2015, including of MINUSCA’s capacity to carry out its mandate, covering factors such as training, equipment, coordination and the number of operational uniformed and civilian personnel.
“MINUSCA’s presence in CAR has saved many lives and prevented much bloodshed, but the extreme violence that erupted in Bangui in September 2015 exposed the Mission’s weaknesses. However today, it still lacks the resources it needs to adequately protect civilians,” said Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for West and Central Africa
“Ensuring the peacekeeping force is well-equipped to prevent and contain large scale violence, as well as support the government in ensuring justice, must be an absolute priority to help end the cycle of conflict and injustice that has blighted CAR for so much of its history.”
On January 31, 2016, the French Minister of Defence announced that the majority of the country’s 900 troops present in CAR will be withdrawn by the end of the year, adding urgency to such a review.
September’s outbreak of violence
Despite the presence of 2,660 UN police and military personnel in Bangui, MINUSCA forces were unable to adequately contain violence that erupted there on 26 September. At least 75 people, mostly civilians, were killed over a period of three days. Homes were destroyed, 42,000 others were displaced and at least a dozen women were raped in a single district on the first day alone.
One 18 year old women told Amnesty International how she was raped on 26 September: “I went to the market for shopping… I heard gunfire. I ran back home but near the office of the local red cross, I was stopped by six… men wearing military uniforms…They put some cardboard on the ground. A young man and an old man raped me.”
Amnesty International found that MINUSCA were unable to respond to some requests from medical personnel to help transfer casualties on 27 September.
One medic told the organization: “We received 25 wounded, of whom 13 severely so, and we could not take them to the hospital with our vehicle because access was blocked due to insecurity. My staff called MINUSCA for help and MINUSCA said they couldn’t come…The day after we lost six of those severely injured.”
According to witnesses interviewed by Amnesty International, MINUSCA did not intervene in key areas of conflict until the second day of violence, and did not take action to take down roadblocks manned by armed groups until the third day.
Under-equipped to respond
While the weakness of the CAR state was regularly cited as an important factor hindering efforts to protect civilians, key experts interviewed also raised a series of concerns with MINUSCA’s capacity to respond to violence. They identified major gaps in training and equipment and an alleged lack of troops available to peacekeepers.
One senior MINUSCA source told Amnesty International: “When there’s gunfire, we can only send the guys in armored vehicles. But several of these are currently out of service.”
Experts also cited significant coordination problems between different parts of the peacekeeping force. Such problems led to 450 UN troops in Bangui being left unused during the opening days of violence.
Interviews with communities highlighted how suspicion and hostility towards MINUSCA has grown. One 45-year old man from Bangui told Amnesty International: “People expected a lot. MINUSCA told us to wait. That soon they’d be 12,000. But today, with 12,000 men, we don’t see them on the ground…When people wait on them to intervene, they never come. And when they do, it is too late.”
Interviews with leaders of armed groups showed that they use the absence of protection by MINUSCA in many areas as justification of their own continued existence to ‘protect’ populations.
Opportunity to strengthen
Measures taken by MINUSCA following the September 2015 violence, including the arrival of some additional troops to Bangui and a change in command structures, enabled them to react more effectively to a number of violent episodes in October 2015. Major outbreaks of violence have been avoided between October 2015 and January 2016 even during the visit of the Pope, the constitutional referendum and the first round of Presidential elections.
Yet there remains little guarantee that MINUSCA would be able to adequately respond to a further large scale outbreak of violence. The UN Security Council is due to consider the renewal of MINUSCA’s mandate in April.
“Central African Republic has one of the world’s most challenging peacekeeping environments and it is vital that MINUSCA has the means to implement its mandate to protect civilians, ensure justice and support the new government,” said Steve Cockburn.
“There has been a major investment by the international community to try to end decades of instability in CAR, and now is the time for the UN Security Council to redouble its commitment and work with a newly elected government to put the country on a more stable path once and for all.
MINUSCA was deployed in CAR in September 2014, taking over duties from the African Union-led International Support Mission (MISCA).
Between 14 October and 23 November 2015, Amnesty International conducted interviews with 85 people in Bangui and Carnot. These included senior MINUSCA military and civilian staff, government officials, diplomats, international and national NGO staff, members of armed groups, as well as witnesses and victims of crimes under international law and human rights violations and abuses.
In recent months, international forces in CAR, including UN peacekeepers, have been the subject of a number of allegations of sexual abuse. The UN’s response to these investigations was criticized by an expert panel in December 2015, and they have since promised a number of actions to investigate the reports. In August 2015 the head of the UN’s MINUSCA peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic resigned after Amnesty International revealed the rape of a 12-year-old girl and apparent indiscriminate killing of a 16-year-old boy and his father by MINUSCA forces.