The Central African Republic: The politics of protecting

12 Dec

After considerable advocacy from a range of actors[1], the UN Council passed Resolution 2127[2], authorizing a joint French/AU operation in the Central African Republic. This has brought new attention to the country, the conflict, and ways to resolve it. As someone who deals in the broad field of peacekeeping, and not a subject specialist on the CAR, I felt a breakdown of the conflict dynamics in the CAR was beyond me, and best left to many others[3].  Moreover, in terms of the peacekeeping aspects, it will be difficult to note the effects of any operation for some time. Yes questions do exist – such as what will happen when the French wish to leave? Is a mandate predominantly under the headline of civilian protection been matched with necessary resources? What will a UN force look like if it is to deploy? Is this peacekeeping or peace enforcement? These questions though, may need a bit of time to answer.

To start, it is worth pointing out that the decision of the French Government, and contributing states to the AU mission is a welcome development. Conflicts of the most violent sort often require intervention from third parties, more so if the main target of such violence is the civilian population. Calls for rapid deployment of a UN Peacekeeping operation were unrealistic, given the UN’s slow timeframe of deployment (particularly into a landlocked country). Thus through their actions, French and AU forces are providing a critical contribution to the security of the civilian population of the CAR, thus heightening the chances of a cessation of violence.

Nevertheless, there are still areas where questions appear. These may not be so much related to the tough decisions peacekeepers make in a conflict zone, but more about the wider issues in deploying operations. The intention of this post is therefore to interrogate the use of narratives to explain intervention or justify past inaction. By doing so, the post (hopefully) will demonstrate where linkages appear between some of the wider critical assessment of peacekeeping, and the real-time actions of ‘policy world’.

Academic approaches to peacekeeping have, in the past 10 years, looked to apply a far more critical approach to understanding how peacekeeping works in global politics, questioning motivations of the actors in peacekeeping operations[4]. If one only focuses on the technical aspects of operations without questioning overall assumptions of the role that peacekeeping plays in global politics, then, in effect we are all missing the big questions concerning the ways in which ‘peace’ is implemented, and who ‘wins’ and ‘looses’ through such interventions. This line of inquiry is often criticized as moving away from ‘policy relevance’. It may also be open to the accusation of of criticizing an actor who is ‘doing the right thing’. In the case of responding to mass atrocity and civilian protection demands, this may be pervasive. France and the AU are saving lives – who are we to criticize that?

However, no intervention is apolitical – actors in peacekeeping and peace enforcement act for a reason – funders, contributors, those who give equipment, all have complex intentions. Actors also look to control the narrative and explain their actions in the most positive light.  Examples of this can be found in numerous studies (see for example critical reactions to the Tony Blair’s humanitarian rationale for intervention into Iraq[5]).

A more recent example of this can be noted from the Security Council meeting where UNSCR 2127 was adopted, in particular the opening statement by the French Permanent Representative, and Chair of the Council, Mr. Gérard Araud. In it, he stated that:

Hitherto, the Central African Republic had been a forgotten crisis of the sort in which the media were not interested. Given the crisis itself, however, indifference and inaction were not options. France felt it was our collective duty to support action by the African Union and the Economic Community of Central African States to prevent mass atrocities[6].

He went on to say ‘In his statement at the general debate in September, the President of the French Republic was the first to sound the alarm and call for resolute action by the Security Council’.

Here the narrative of the UN action is that France, standing alone against global ambivalence, perpetuated by an indifferent ‘media’ took the initiative and prevented mass atrocities. To an extent, this can be taken at face value – as said, France is indeed deploying forces alongside the AU and ECCAS in a fundamentally dangerous conflict zone to protect civilians. However this is also problematic. In creating a causal link between media ambivalence and global apathy, the statement is excusing the myriad of international actors who have had a presence in the CAR for a considerable time, and had capacities to call attention to (and even do something about) the deteriorating situation. The New York Times report from November outlines the external intervention in the CAR over the past few years:

France has had an almost continuous military presence since the country gained independence in 1960, including the 400 soldiers deployed at the start of the current crisis. The European Union has a delegation in Bangui and has been the main donor for 10 years. United States Army personnel arrived in 2011 as part of efforts to capture Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, who has been indicted on war crimes charges by the International Criminal Court and is believed to be hiding somewhere in Central Africa[7].

Simply explaining that CAR was off the radar until September, until France raised it with the world misses the point at least slightly. A range of actors have been involved in the CAR, and many of those actors had capacities to (and in some cases did) at least monitor the deterioration of the state into the situation it is in now. An argument thus exists that in using this form of narrative, the Security Council has neatly negotiated the ‘history’ of external actors in this conflict. By doing so, any accountability for the failure of external actors has been avoided, and the media has been highlighted as a possible scapegoat if turns out that the deployment is deemed inadequate in one way or another. This highlighting of the media also ignores the myriad of reporting and monitoring from a range of NGO’s, advocacy groups[8], and yes… reports from media outlets[9].

Importantly, this ‘recitation’ of recent history could have serious implications for future actions. Christoph Vogel (who has written extensively about conflict in Africa) highlights this:

Well, now we could argue that at least it made the UN Security Council debate on it and send the French (who have been there anyways, before) in to restore order. However, whose order? The French order? The UN order? The order of a smouldering conflict in which genocide needs to be prevented? The public authority of the Central African State? The City administration of Bangui? The ousted government of a longtime embezzling Bozizé? The remainders of a disintegrated rebel movement running the country? Hard to tell, as a myriad of interests are at stake[10]

Vogel’s words (and article) are pertinent, and link back to the critical assessments outlined above – thus demonstrating that what at first looks like an abstract theoretical critique is in fact a valuable lens through which to see how interveners seek to justify their actions in conflict situations. Narratives of conflict, intervention and protection cannot be left unquestioned. To do so is not healthy for those who intervene, and possibly less healthy in the long term for the ‘end users’ – the most vulnerable members of a population under siege.


[1] Amnesty International, Central African Republic: UN peacekeeping mission needed to avoid mass slaughter, http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/central-african-republic-un-peacekeeping-mission-needed-avoid-mass-slaughter-2013-12-02;

[3] For instance: Human Rights Watch, “I Can Still Smell the Dead” The Forgotten Human Rights Crisis in the Central African Republic, http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/car0913_insert_LOWRES_WITH_COVER.pdf , Sept 2013; Global Centre for the R2P, Central African Republic,

http://www.globalr2p.org/regions/central_african_republic; Good Governance Afria, From Terror to tyranny, http://gga.org/stories/editions/aif-18-fault-lines-africas-separation-anxiety/from-terror-to-tyranny/?utm_source=OpenNetworksCRM&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=OpenNetworksCRM

[4] Bellamy, A. J., & Williams, P. (2004). Introduction: Thinking Anew About Peace Operations. International Peacekeeping, 11(1); Pugh, M. (2012). Reflections on Aggressive Peace. International Peacekeeping, 19(4), 37–41; Cunliffe, P. (2009). The Politics of Global Governance in UN Peacekeeping. International Peacekeeping, 16(3), 323–336.

[5] Cooper, N, Review Article: On the crisis of the Liberal Peace, Conflict Security and Development, 7(4), 605-616; Pugh, M. (2004). Peacekeeping and Critical Theory. International Peacekeeping, 11(1).

[6] 5 December 2013 – CAR / Adoption of resolution 2127 – Explanation of vote by Mr. Gérard Araud, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations, http://www.franceonu.org/france-at-the-united-nations/press-room/statements-at-open-meetings/security-council/article/5-december-2013-car-adoption-of-7657

[8] For Instance, International Crisis Group, Central African Republic: Priorities of the Transition, June 2013, http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/africa/central-africa/central-african-republic/203-central-african-republic-priorities-of-the-transition.aspx

[9] Reuters, Central African Republic’s ex-rebels went on rampage: rights group, 10 May 2010 http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/15/us-centralafrica-crisis-un-idUSBRE94E1CK20130515

Reuters, U.N. calls for sanctions on Central African Republic rights abusers, 15 May 2010, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/10/us-centralafrica-rebels-idUSBRE9490RQ20130510

[10] Gencocide? Religious War? The inflationary use of Buzzwords in CAR’s violent imbroglio, http://christophvogel.net/2013/12/09/genocide-religious-war-the-inflationary-use-of-buzzwords-in-cars-violent-imbroglio/

Dr. David Curran, Peacekeeping Fellow

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