“Many people tell me, ‘never again,’ but still, again and again”: the case of Sudan and the Central African Republic

These words were uttered by a survivor in Darfur, a region where populations are still prey to human rights abuses committed by the Janjaweed militias backed by the government of Sudan. The genocide of 2003, which claimed the lives of 400,000 people, already constitutes a textbook case of the international community’s failure to intervene but the violence also continues to be largely overlooked. The UN/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) fails to fulfill its mandate but this is largely ignored by the Security Council. Not only do violence and human rights violations persist in Darfur, Abyei and South Kordofan but those displaced by conflicts also still lack food, water and shelter.

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On Wednesday, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) accused the UN Security Council of prolonging the conflict in Sudan by failing to arrest Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, who is under an arrest warrant since 2009. Rightfully so, Fatou Bensouda criticized the Security Council for turning its back on Sudan, thereby allowing Al-Bashir and other alleged perpetrators of human rights violations to remain at large and commit more crimes. Since 2005, Al-Bashir has been allowed to travel to several countries without being arrested. Bensouda sees the inaction of the Security Council on Sudan as “a serious indictment on this council” and as an “insult to the plight of Darfur’s victims.”

U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud, the current Security Council president, argued that the “the council is blocked, by some countries.” Particularly under the radar is China, which continues to block any council action. China has repeatedly said that pressing war crimes charges against the Sudanese president would have disastrous effects in Sudan and invited Al-Bashir to China in 2011. China has also long been Sudan’s biggest arms supplier (25% in 2010) and has major economic investments and interests in the country. China purchases more than half of Sudanese oil output!

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Further south west on the African continent is the Central African Republic, another country where the UN’s inaction attracted biting criticism this week.

Looking at the gravity of the conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR), it is clear that most of the world remains indifferent to the plight of CAR’s population. In the past week alone, sectarian violence has killed 600 people and since the beginning of the crisis, tens of thousands of people have had to flee their homes, according to Unicef. Not only has the UN Security Council failed to take preventive actions against foreseeable violence, but the UN humanitarian aid system has failed as well. On Friday, international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) addressed an open letter to the UN Under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs denouncing “the unacceptable performance of the United Nations humanitarian system” in CAR.  This scathing critique is largely justified. Since July NGOs such as MSF have repeatedly urged the UN to provide adequate humanitarian action and resources but food, water, shelter and hygiene technologies still fail to meet minimum standards.

The failure of the UN system to fulfill its responsibilities towards civilians appears even graver in the case of CAR. Although challenging, humanitarian assistance is supposed to be impartial and neutral. Thus, the general expectation is that humanitarian agencies will deliver aid solely based on the needs of populations, whatever the circumstances. With few exceptions, this has not been the case of UN agencies in CAR. If MSF and other NGOs have been able to deliver, why not UN agencies?

The UN Security Council’s inaction in Sudan and Syria already discredited and delegitimized the international community. Now humanitarian inaction of the UN is having the same result.

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Bearing witness in the Central African Republic

If we needed another example of the power of the social media during protests and conflicts, the current conflict in the Central African Republic is yet another proof. Violence was particularly dramatic over the weekend, leading to the death of at 400 people.

We have seen social media being used during the Arab Spring and other anti-government protests around the world. This time, reporters and humanitarians working on the ground used Twitter to inform the world about on-going human rights violations, the impact on civilians and the arrival of the French troops to Bangui and Bossangoa. Among them are Alex Thompson and Stuart Web (Channel 4), Laura Jepson (IMC), Peter Bouckaert (Human Rights Watch), Tristan Redman (Al Jazeera English), Marcus Bleasdale (National Geographic Photographer), Mark Kaye and Justin Forsyth (Save the Children). They took pictures of Bangui airport filled with fleeing civilians, recorded videos of abuses, and reported live from discussions with Seleka. Here are a few examples:

Peter Bouckaert: @bouckap: At #Seleka base we found a Peuhl boy no older than 14 among soldiers, told us whole family had been murdered by anti-balaka, no place 2 go.

@bouckap Just finished briefing French captain in #Bossangoa on our research and recommendations for action. Very attentive and proactive audience.

Alex Thompson: @alextomo: #c4news #CARcrisis. Man with wheelbarrow with coffins of 2 brothers beaten to death by Seleka militia says F soldiers not in hotspots

@alextomo: #c4news #CARcrisis Quartier Combatants, Bangui – gangs with daggers and machetes looking for Muslims to kill. Finding them.

Marcus Bleasdale: @marcusbleasdale We met a 14 year old boy in the #Seleka military camp today. All his family was killed so he wants to be a soldier. Wrong.  #CARcrisis @hrw

Stuart Webb : ‪@Worldwidewebb1 #CARcrisis an all to common sight on the streets of Bangui this week-no doubt they’ll be more tomorrow…

 

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Justin Forsyth: ‪@justinforsyth Hard to tell how many people sheltering in grounds of Catholic mission – over 7000 #CAR

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Without these testimonies, how much would we really known? This is exactly what we mean by the “power of witness.”

In 2009, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said about the power of social media: “You cannot have Rwanda again because information would come out far more quickly about what is actually going on and the public opinion would grow to the point where action would need to be taken.”

While the international community continues to tip toe and hesitate on when, how, if they should intervene, journalists and humanitarian workers on the ground can, with a cellphone only, put pressure on world leaders by bearing witness. As pictures are taken and real-time events reported, perpetrators can be held accountable for their crimes and bystanders for their inaction. They can’t say they didn’t know?

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Image by Marcus Bleasdale

Lessons learned from Nelson Mandela

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As eulogies about Nelson Mandela abound, one thing  they all seem to have in common is the need to remember the great man’s ideals and to learn lessons. But as antagonisms, conflicts and violence continue in several regions of the world, some of these tributes appear meaningless and hypocritical when uttered by individuals who fail to uphold Mandela’s principles in their own country. There are many lessons we should learn from Madiba, I have only selected a few.

 Perseverance

`I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” – Defence statement during the Rivonia Trial, 1964

Perseverance. This one of the lessons we must learn from Mandela. You do what you can do must but do it. At the beginning of his life, he had more losses than victories. He was an ambitious man who was born in system that confined black South Africans to certain roles and areas. On multiple occasions he could have given up to fate and despair. But trapped between four prison walls, dispossessed of almost everything he owned except his freedom to think, he refused to give up on his ideal. He succeeded thanks to his sense of conviction and ambition.

There is only one world: local is global

Although Mandela fought against an apartheid regime specific to South Africa, his movement and ideas are transnational in nature. Fought by local actors against a local system of racism, his struggle was nonetheless about the universalization of basic rights and the recognition that all human being deserve to be treated as equals. Mandela’s fight for freedom, peace and democracy went well beyond South Africa’s borders and could be applied to Canada’s relationship with its Native communities which remains thorny to this day. Because of its timeless and borderless nature, Mandela’s struggle continues to resonate today.

One’s freedom is dependent on the freedom of the other

A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.” – The Long Walk to Freedom, 1994

Mandela’s political philosophy and view of humanity is something that should be pondered on as wars, hatred and hostility continue to divide people and peoples. Humanity and freedom are rights that every human being should enjoy and that the other has the duty to respect. For Mandela, the apartheid system did not only deprive black South Africans of their humanity, but the oppressor himself, blinded by hatred, was dispossessed of his humanity. But nobody was born hating the other, he said. We are all dependent on one another and as long as walls exists between peoples, cultures, religions and societies, we will not thrive. As Mandela stated “Great anger and violence can never build a nation.” He therefore worked with his oppressors and made them allies in order to avoid more tragedy in South Africa. As the Israeli and Palestinian press eulogizes Mandela, perhaps their people and leaders would do best to remember him by reaching out to each other.

Leadership and responsibility

“I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people.” On release from prison, February 11, 1990

Mandela’s death occurred on the eve of the “Africa-France Summit” where nearly 40 African leaders gathered to discuss peace and security. As French President François Hollande said in his introductory speech is symbolic and “it also means that we have to face up to our responsibilities.” Overshadowed by the violence and French intervention in the Central African Republic, the summit suddenly acquired a new message.

With dictatorships and despotic, demagogic leaders still going strong in several parts of the world, Mandela’s idea of responsible leadership is something that many head of states should reflect on. A true leader is someone who understands that he has a responsibility work for and protect his people. In his eulogy of Mandela, former Prime Minister of Canada Brian Mulroney writes: “As we watch communities in Africa and the Middle East struggle to free themselves from decades of despotic leadership, let us hope that their next generation’s leaders are moved by the passion, the dignity and the grace of Nelson Mandela (…).”

African leaders now praising Mandela’s life should perhaps take a look at their own path and the legacy they want to leave behind. South African President Zuma called on his people “to build a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa” but he should focus on the state of the ANC party leadership first. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe may have freed his people from an oppressive white minority but he has become a brutal leader unable to give up power. Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, once a freedom fighter like Mandela, has been in power for 27 years. They failed as liberation heroes.

As world leaders, state representatives and people from across the globe gather in South Africa, they should not simply remember Mandela’s legacy and ideals. They should also implement them. Or else they will remain just that: ideals.

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Central African Republic and the French Intervention – No longer a Bystander

 A year ago, when then President François Bozizé appealed to the US and “French cousins” to help repel Seleka’s advances on Bangui both countries refused. Angry crowds attacked the French embassy and criticized France’s passivity, especially since the former colonial power has a military presence in the former colony since 2003. When French President François Hollande visited Central African Republic (CAR) in late December he made it clear that he would not mingle in internal affairs, insisting that these days were over. Hollande knows the dangers of renewing its ties with its colonial past.

A year later, the CAR is on the brink of collapse. UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, warned that the country is at risk of genocide if nothing is done. Similarly, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that the country is “on the verge of genocide”.

After ousting Bosizé, Seleka leader Michel Djotodia proclaimed himself President. In September, he dissolved Seleka and only integrated some of them into the army, leaving the others unattended to. Since then the country has plunged into chaos as undisciplined rebels commit widespread looting and abuses against those they consider as Bosizé supporters. The deep climate of insecurity has led to the creation of anti-balaka forces (self-defense groups) who have taken up arms against ex-Seleka fighters. The most worrying aspect of the crisis is the rise of sectarian violence between religious communities. Indeed, the majority of the Central Africans is Christian while Séleka fighters are predominantly Muslim, many of them from Chad and Sudan.

So who is going to act now?

In view the gravity of the situation, France has decided to send an additional 800 soldiers to help the 3,600-strong African Union force restore order. France’s decision led an Algerian journalist to state that it signifies a return of “Françafrique” since this new operation comes only ten months after the French intervention in Mali. The debate over France’s reason for intervening is always raised.

Why is France intervening after standing by in March 2013? The main reason cited by Paris is a humanitarian one. The situation is deteriorating badly and grave human rights violations are being committed, including rape and massacres. The self-defense groups are just as bad as Séléka and 460,000 people have already fled. Djotodia is unable to restore order and appears completely lost. For Hollande intervening has now become a question of responsibility. Whether there are real risks of genocide or not, Rwanda still haunts the French political class.

Beyond humanitarian reasons, there are of course security concerns and geo-strategic interests. This is not another Mali where soldiers are dealing with organized jihadists who have taken over a territory. What we are seeing in CAR is a complex social conflagration with, on one side, 15.000 to 20.000 violent Seleka rebels and on the other anti-balaka groups ready to commit massacres against the Muslim population. Nonetheless, there are real concerns that if nothing in done, jihadists who fled Mali and Libya may find refuge in CAR. There are also risks of spillovers and contagion into the two Sudans, the Congo and Chad, none of which are really stable.

Will the belated intervention bring stability to CAR? 1,200 French soldiers are unlikely to restore long-term stability, especially in a country bigger than France. However they will at least support the ill-equipped MISCA in an attempt to restore order. The French also hope that the UN will send additional peacekeepers as quickly as possible. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon recommended 6,000 to 9,000 men.

But what CAR needs is a political solution and France made it clear that it is the role of Central Africans to settle these problems. Since its independence, CAR has never established a strong political structure or arena. Djotodia is clearly unable to deal with the situation. Just a couple of days ago, he denied assertions that the country is at risk of genocide and accused the international community of manipulating public opinion. “For me, there is nothing to show that we can even talk of what is going on as genocide. This is simply vengeance. A regime committed abuses, it is now gone. Its victims are taking revenge, that is all.” “That is all”? Graver still he criticized displaced Christians in the north: “He who wants to drown his dog, accuses it of having rabies, that’s all. Our situation is no less dramatic than that in other countries but it is portrayed as such. It is unfair.” The self-proclaimed President is either blind to the populations’ suffering or he is unwilling to prevent violence.

 As the International Crisis Group states, it’s “better late than never.” The current situation could have been prevented if regional and international organizations had acted early instead of being bystanders. Nobody moved a finger when Seleka staged a coup but the consequences should have been anticipated. The political situation will clearly not be settled through a military intervention but at least some seem to move beyond the bystander role.