There is increasing evidence of widespread killings in the Central African Republic. The BBC World Service reported live from a convoy seeking to save the lives of a few. Thanks to the African Union peacekeepers the convoy of mainly Muslims successfully negotiated its way through multiple impromptu checkpoints controlled by self-defence Christian militias. But the risks are great. When a young man fell from a lorry a mob quickly surrounded him, hacking him to death in minutes.
As the new interim President seeks to lead the country out of conflict she is having to deal with the downward spiral of violence that has gripped CAR. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees describes the situation as a “humanitarian catastrophe of unspeakable proportions. Massive ethno-religious cleansing is continuing.” The UN Secretary General has called on the international community to deploy more troops within a matter of weeks, recognising that a UN peacekeeping force – even if approved by the Security Council – will take six months to be deployed.
Why is it taking so long to mobilise these urgently needed troops?
International experts will cite complicated international law and regional politics. But as in Rwanda in 1990s the fundamental reason is fear.
Fear of failure is understandable. Syrian peace negotiations have just failed. In the 1990s it was the failure of US Marines in Somalia – immortalised by the film Black Hawk Down – that was fresh in everyone’s mind. But set against these failures there have also been successes such as UK achieved in Sierra Leone. And, after a slow start, the NATO intervention in Bosnia saved many lives.
Fear of the cost remains the final killer. As aid budgets are cut around the world, this not the time to be rattling the tin with a large and uncertain price-tag. The cost of a 10 to 20,000 force will be of the order of $1 billion a year – one per cent of donors’ aid budgets and 0.1 per cent of donors’ military spend.
But if the cost of action is expensive, the cost of inaction will be even greater.
Development agencies know that if this crisis is not solved soon a much more expensive humanitarian crisis looms. Twenty years ago CAR soldiers were about to riot because their wages hadn’t been paid. One donor desperately tried to raise $10 million needed to bridge the gap. When the money wasn’t forthcoming, soldiers torched the capital. Donors spent $100 million in emergency humanitarian assistance to pay for reconstruction.
This time the cost of the humanitarian crisis will be much higher. The killings are causing the vital trade flows of food and seeds to seize up. In a few months the rains will come, much of the country will become impassable, and it will be too late to plant crops. And so inevitably will come a food emergency.
To date the UK has regarded CAR as “not one for us”. But we also have a long and proud tradition of being one of the most generous contributors to humanitarian appeals. And we have unique expertise in peace making and peacekeeping.
So what should the UK do?
First we should offer to help the French. The UK is about to share a French aircraft carrier. A good place to start to learn how to work together to great effect would be to work together in the Central African Republic.
Second, the UK should lead on the issue of funding of troops from other countries. We need to signal our readiness to fund other countries that are willing and able to send troops.
Third, the UK should lead the redesign of the whole international peacekeeping system so it can act with humanitarian style speed and determination. When a flood or earthquake strike teams are dispatched overnight even before donors know the full extent of the catastrophe. The world needs a rapid reaction force that is ready to go and can be deployed with the speed that the UK did in Sierra Leone.
Finally, the UK should be in lead for a global redistribution of development aid. As CAR’s own leaders have noted, the dire poverty indicators are the root cause of the conflict. Yet the country receives just £40 of development aid each year for each person living in extreme poverty. Richer more stable countries receive more than four times that amount. The UK is increasingly focused its development aid on the poorest most fragile states. The rest of the world needs to do the same.
After Rwanda the world said “Never Again”. The international community needs to act now to make that promise true for the Central African Republic.