From the nuclear negotiations with Iran, to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, to the vexed question of Ukraine’s future within (or without) Europe, there was no shortage of topics on the agenda at yesterday’s meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels. For France, however, the priority was the Central African Republic.
There is good reason for Europe – indeed, the world – to pay attention. The CAR has been subject to spasms of instability and violence ever since its independence in 1960. But the fighting between the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels who seized power in March, and the Christian militia that have sprung up to oppose them, now threatens civil war, even genocide.
Last week alone 600 people were killed and 160,000 displaced after gunmen loyal to the ousted President attacked the capital, Bangui. Overall, as many as half a million civilians – one in 10 of the entire population – may be hiding in the bush. More than a million need food aid, say charities. The situation is, in the judgement of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “absolutely catastrophic”.
François Hollande has committed 1,600 troops to try to keep the peace in France’s beleaguered former colony. And, according to the Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, of the five European countries providing logistical support – of which Britain is one – two are considering sending soldiers of their own. His task in Brussels yesterday was to persuade them to do so.
Paris has its own reasons, of course. Battered by France’s poor economic performance, Mr Hollande is now the country’s least popular president ever. Meanwhile, backing for his intervention in CAR is also on the wane, particularly after two soldiers were gunned down while on patrol in Bangui. Some other European boots on the ground might ease the pressure.
Notwithstanding its own domestic concerns, however, the French government is right that CAR needs more help. Even together with an African Union force of 2,500 – set to rise to 6,000 – there are not enough peacekeepers to calm such a big country. Although Bangui may now be largely militia-free, the bloody cycle of attack and counter-attack is on the rise elsewhere. Nor can much store be set by the CAR President’s recent hints about an amnesty in return for disarmament: Michel Djotodia has little control in the capital, let alone beyond.
Even so, the British Government should not be sending soldiers to the CAR. One need look no further than the appalling cost of our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq– in lives lost, in money spent and in moral capital squandered– to see why. Furthermore, what were UN blue helmets created for, if not for this?
Only last week, the charity Médecins Sans Frontières lambasted the UN for its inadequate response to the “grave humanitarian crisis” in the CAR. The same criticism could be levelled at its peacekeepers. True, the AU wanted to take the lead in resolving a problem on its own doorstep. True, too, the UN backed – and will help fund – what troops are there. But the lengthy process of putting together a UN force should have gone ahead in parallel. With the situation rapidly deteriorating, the danger now is that they will be too late. Mr Fabius is right to look for help. But he is looking in the wrong place.