Can UN Peacekeepers Stop Ethnic Cleansing in the Central African Republic?

The Security Council today approved a new 12,000 strong UN Peacekeeping mission for the Central African Republic. The resolution calls for this mission, known as the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), to be fully operational by September 15.  It also calls for strengthening the existing African Union mission over the next several months as the UN force prepares to deploy.

This is a key moment in the international community’s response to the crisis. Whether or not member states fully back this mission with the financial resources and political support required to mount a successful peacekeeping operation will be a key measure of how committed they are to stopping ethnic cleansing in the 21st century.

UN officials first sounded the alarm last November about a potential genocide and mass atrocity in CAR. The international community heeded these warnings, but never to a sufficient degree. About a quarter of the population has been displaced by violence and another 2.5 million are in need of some form of humanitarian assistance. About 80,000 Muslims have fled out of fear of brutal Christian vigilante groups that are hunting down vulnerable Muslim populations. Today, tens of thousands of Muslims are stranded in enclaves across the country under the protection of African Union and French peacekeepers. In some cases, the Catholic Church is courageously sheltering their Muslim neighbors, even as Christian vigilantes threaten their lives. The conditions in these enclaves are dire. Food and medicine are in short supply, but people are too fearful to leave their relative safety.

UN Ambassador Samantha Power visited CAR in January, making her the highest-ranking American official to ever set foot in the country. She returned again this week as part of a regional tour that included the twentieth anniversary commemoration of the Rwanda genocide. French President Francois Hollande also paid a visit, and initially dispatched troops to protect the airport, which has since become the site of a massive internally displaced camp of over 100,000 people. In December, the USA, France and the African Union agreed to a stop gap measure: A 6,000 troop African Union peacekeeping force backed by about 2,000 French troops.

Despite these high profile demonstrations of support, traditional donor countries have been relatively stingy when it comes to helping pay for these operations. A pledging conference for the African Union peacekeeping mission, known as MISCA, fell about $100 million short of its $420 million goal. The European Union promised in January to send a battalion of peacekeepers, but that force is only now starting to materialize.  The funding gaps are even starker on the humanitarian side. A $550 million appeal for food, medicine and other forms of humanitarian relief has only been filled to a pitiful 23%.

One month ago, Ban Ki Moon recommended deploying 12,000 blue helmets to CAR. He argued that additional troops under a UN command are desperately needed to protect civilians, establish security so that humanitarian organizations can operate freely, and create the conditions under which Muslim populations can feel safe enough to return home. Eventually, the mission would help rebuild state institutions and set CAR on a path to self-reliance.

These are ambitious goals, but fairly standard for modern UN Peacekeeping operations. The Security Council agreed with this assessment when they passed today’s resolution.

The key question is how fast these troops can be deployed to halt the bloodshed? There is no standing UN Peacekeeping force. Rather, blue helmets must be mustered from UN member states who contribute forces to a mission. This process typically takes several months — but it doesn’t need to. If key UN member states make this mission a priority, it will get off the ground quickly. If they do not, it will languish.

One complication is funding. The mission would likely cost between $800 million to $1 billion. The United States is the largest funder to peacekeeping and would be required to contribute 28% of the cost, which is the rate of its assessed contributions to UN peacekeeping missions. But the USA is facing arrears because the omnibus budget passed by Congress in January cuts US contributions to UN Peacekeeping by about 12% and did not fund at all the most recent UN Peacekeeping mission in Mali. To its credit the White House included a line-item for a potential peacekeeping mission in CAR in its most recent budget request. But it is far from certain that this will survive congress. Without reliable funding, the UN cannot deploy at the pace and scale required to halt the ongoing ethnic cleansing.

Stopping ethnic cleansing in CAR is possible. And from a UN perspective this mission should not be as difficult as others in the region, like the Darfur and DRC missions. Unlike those places, CAR is not awash in weapons and its diverse population has a history of living relatively peacefully with each other. Also, the fledgling government in Bangui is fully supportive of this mission, which is a key determinant of a mission’s success.

A robust UN peacekeeping mission could do the job, but without proper funding and political support, the mission will not be able to deploy before most Muslims have left the country. This is ethnic cleansing in the 21st century. UN Peacekeepers can stop it and help create the conditions in which displaced populations can return home — but only if they are given tools to do so.