L’histoire risque-t-elle de se répéter en Centrafrique?

Because sometimes I write in French.Here is an article of mine that appeared in the Huffington Post QC

 

En 2011, c’était la Libye. En janvier 2013, le Mali. Aujourd’hui c’est la Centrafrique. Pour la seconde fois en un peu plus d’un an le gouvernement Hollande a décidé d’intervenir dans un pays africain, où les violences entre les combattants de la Séléka et les miliciens anti-Balaka entre civils musulmans et chrétiens ont déjà fait des milliers de morts et de déplacés.

Du coup, les questions fustigent. Quel est le but de ces interventions? Que veut la France sur le continent africain? Y a-t-il une «doctrine Hollande»?

Certains taxent la France de néo-colonialisme, de vouloir revigorer la Françafrique malgré les promesses de Hollande que ce temps était révolu. « Le président français doit arrêter de nous pomper l’air », dénonce le quotidien burkinabé Le Pays. D’autres pensent que la France veut contrecarrer les avancées chinoises sur le continent. Finalement, il y a ceux qui suggèrent que Hollande utilise la politique étrangère pour redorer son blason alors que son taux de popularité est au plus bas dans une France en crise économique.

Vu la nature complexe et parfois très douteuse des relations Franco-Africaines, ces interrogations sont légitimes. Il serait naïf de penser que la France n’a pas d’intérêts économiques dans ces pays. Mais il faut aussi rappeler que les Centrafricains, comme les Maliens, il y a un an, font face à une violence inouïe. Avant l’intervention française, 450 personnes avaient été tuées en deux jours, le Président Michel Djotodia étant incapable de faire quoi que ce soit pour protéger son peuple.

Sur le plan diplomatique, on ne peut pas dire que l’Union africaine ait montré beaucoup d’efficacité. Sur le plan militaire, la Mission internationale de Soutien à la Centrafrique sous conduite africaine (MISCA) ne semblait pas en mesure de ramener la sécurité. Après avoir alerté l’ONU et l’Union européenne, seule la France a pris la décision de venir en aide aux forces africaines. Le premier ministre Jean-Marc Ayrault déclarait alors que la France prenait ses responsabilités internationales et que « l’inaction n’était pas une option. » Personne d’autre ne semblait prêt ou capable de prendre l’initiative.

Vu l’ampleur de la tâche et la gravité de la situation, la France et les forces africaines ne peuvent pas agir seules. Catherine Samba-Panza, la présidente intérimaire centrafricaine, est favorable à une intervention de l’ONU. Une action concertée et multilatérale avec les membres de l’Union africaine est donc essentielle. La semaine dernière l’Union européenne a finalement décidé d’envoyer des troupes – une décision qui a d’ailleurs enfin été validée par l’ONU.

Mais certains pays, comme le Canada par ailleurs, semblent croire qu’ils ne doivent pas s’intéresser à ces conflits. Ni le Canada ni les États-Unis ne sont implantés dans la région et la Centrafrique semble si éloignée. C’est une erreur. Quand le Mali ou Centrafrique s’embrasent, c’est toute la région qui est affectée. Ce que cherchent les djihadistes, c’est des territoires instables où s’installer, comme on l’a observé au Mali. La France l’a bien compris : ce n’est pas seulement la sécurité des populations locales qui est en jeux – la sienne aussi.

Faut-il rappeler au gouvernement Harper que le Canada a pris des engagements en adhérant à des normes internationales comme la Responsabilité de protéger. La doctrine n’est certes pas parfaite, mais il est question de protéger des civils et de prévenir une montée de la violence alors que les Nations Unies ainsi que les soldats rwandais sur place s’inquiètent déjà d’un possible génocide.

Si l’ambassadeur canadien pour la liberté de religion, M. Andrew Bennett, se déplace en Ukraine afin de montrer son indignation suite aux menaces contre la liberté religieuse de l’Église grecque catholique ukrainienne, pourquoi ne prend-il pas position sur la Centrafrique ? La communauté ukrainienne étant importante au Canada, il semble que le gouvernement ne pense qu’à l’appui électoral et évite donc de s’engager dans un conflit qui semble lointain. Mais, encore une fois, ne pas comprendre que dans un monde interconnecté, les conflits dans l’Afrique subsahélienne, tout comme dans le Sahel, peuvent éventuellement affecter les intérêts et la sécurité des Canadiens aussi.

Au début du mois, le sénateur Roméo Dallaire se trouvait devant les Nations Unies afin de rappeler à l’assemblée que 20 ans plus tôt, on lui avait tourné le dos tandis que des atrocités de masse se profilaient à l’horizon au Rwanda. Alors que nous entamons les commémorations du génocide rwandais, les atrocités qui se déroulent en ce moment en Centrafrique, les images des machettes et des corps, font resurgir de mauvais souvenirs. Il serait donc plus qu’opportun de montrer que nous savons apprendre de nos erreurs du passé.

 

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The end of “Zurückhaltung”?

Has German foreign policy reached a turning point? Is the country finally ready to leave behind its “culture of restraint”? It certainly seems to be the case. At the Munich Conference last week Bundespräsident Joachim Gauck pronounced an eloquent speech about Germany’s responsibility. Not responsibility for past wrongs but responsibility to stop standing on the sidelines on world issues. For Gauck it is time to move past the “genocide-guilt” and adopt a more robust foreign policy.

This is likely to please Berlin’s partners. European neighbors and the US have been critical of Germany’s poor record in global security and crisis management. Some even claim that Berlin uses the “Nazi past” argument as an excuse not to get involved militarily. It certainly shaped Germany’s decisions on foreign deployments. But as an economic powerhouse in a polyphone Europe, Germany is now expected to do a lot more. Military engagement under Merkel is low and Germany seemed to have no security and foreign policy strategy. While German troops are stationed in Afghanistan and the Balkans, Berlin did not vote on the intervention in Libya and barely contributes to the mission in Mali, leaving crisis-ridden France do the dirty work.

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Most of Berlin’s political class now seems to acknowledge that Germany’s return among the concert of powers must be complemented with more international engagement. Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen told Der Spiegel that given Germany’s capacity and resources, it has the responsibility and obligation to be a bigger player in global crises. “Indifference is not an option,” she said, and announced that Germany plans to send more soldiers to Mali and to the up-coming EU mission in the Central African Republic.

Similarly, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier emphasized that while economic interests and foreign trade are important, it is in the national and moral interest of Germany to engage in other spheres too, especially in security and defense. Like Gauck, he mentioned the principle of the “Responsibility to Protect”, a term that many governments and politicians are reluctant to utter.

Nonetheless, this new rhetoric will not lead to a full revolution in German engagement abroad. Gauck, Steinmeier and von der Leyen made it clear that Germany would never act alone. Responsibility is not simply responsibility to act but also responsibility to abstain, they say. Berlin will continue to rely on multilateralism and partnerships, share military capacities and expertise with its partners, in particular the European Union and NATO. Germany is not ready to be a foreign policy leader yet.

More importantly: what do Germans think? For historic reasons, the question of German military engagement is an old national debate and it is not going away soon. While the political class may more or less agree with Gauck, the German public is a lot more reluctant to see their country commit militarily. Indeed, a new poll suggests that while most of them want Germany to be more engaged internationally, 75% are against military deployments and argue that they are is already doing enough. Skepticism and self-doubt (and fear) remain widespread. Yet, key to mobilizing international support is mobilizing domestic support. Knowing this, would politicians have the courage to move beyond their self-interest and short-term political calculations when the decision must be taken to intervene? Will Gauck’s eloquent rhetoric be translated into action?

Fortunately, Gauck seems to be aware of this. He suggested that municipal and state levels of government, churches, union and parties initiate discussions with civil society in order to define what Germans want – or persuade them that, in a globalized world, it is in their national and moral interests to occasionally contribute to foreign deployments. This is smart. Foreign policy discussions should not be left to the political elite but discussed among Germans. Ultimately, Germans must define their foreign policy values and interests, whether or not they have the courage and will to assume more responsibilities.

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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

These are dark time

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I saw the images and videos soon after the first reports came out. The images are surreal because the victims, a lot of them children, are either already dead or suffering – but there is no blood. People are trying to revive them by throwing water on the victims’ faces yet nothing seems to help. Some of the children just seem delusional or puppet-like.

 Syrian opposition group claims that a chemical attack has killed as many as 1,300 people in government rocket strike that hit Damascus suburbs. The Assad government denies that allegations calling the rebels’ claim a ‘disillusioned and fabricated one whose objective is to deviate and mislead’ the UN mission (A UN team is currently in Syria to investigate the use of poison gas by both the Assad government and the rebels). However, if proven trues the chemical attack would not only be the worst chemical in this civil war but also since 1988 when Saddam Husein launched a chemical-weapon attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja. The Assad government has chemical weapons and has been suspected of using them before, though to a limited extent. This time, it seems very different.

 Though most world leaders condemned the attack they failed to act and, for now, have only called for an investigation. The European Union urged the government to give the UN full access to all sites and reminded that the use of chemical weapons is “unacceptable.” The French government adopted a firmer stand. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that, if proven true, the attack would be “an unprecedented atrocity”. Today he added that outside powers should respond “with force” if the use of chemical weapons is confirmed. He nonetheless ruled out sending troops on the ground and failed to say what “force” means. British Foreign Secretary William Hague meanwhile hopes that the massacre “will wake up some who have supported the Assad regime to realize its murderous and barbaric nature.”

Statements of the U.S. were rather bland, simply stating deep or grave concern. A year ago President Obama said that the US would respond forcefully to any chemical weapons use. However, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that the side the U.S. chooses “must promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.” Obama is against any costly intervention in Syria, especially since the rebels do not represent Washington’s interests. Brushing off a question about his so-called “red line”, Obama said in an interview that, as the biggest power, it does “does not mean that we (the U.S.) have to get involved with everything immediately. We have to think through strategically what’s going to be in our long-term national interests.” I “like” the “we have to get involved with everything immediately” considering the conflict has already lasted two years…Nothing can be expected from the White House.

There was not much from the United Nations Security Council because members failed to agree on a common statement. While Security Council members are seeking “clarity” on the opposition’s claims, China and especially Russia, Assad’s strongest supporter, opposed a strong and formal statement. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appeared more willing to condemn the attack describing reports of the chemical attack as “very alarming and shocking.” He warned the Syrian regime that, if proven true, “such a crime against humanity should result in serious consequences for the perpetrator.”

The Arab League called on UN inspectors currently on the ground to investigate reports. Saudi Arabia in particular urged the UN Security Council to “assume responsibility… By convening immediately to reach a clear deterrent decision that ends the humanitarian tragedy.” Turkey criticized the UN’s reaction stating that “all red lines have been crossed but still the U.N. Security Council has not even been able to take a decision. This is a responsibility for the sides who still set these red lines and for all of us.” Turkey has been supporting the rebels in Syria for some time and says the “use of chemical weapons in Syria is evident from the footage coming from there.”

The Assad regime seems to be playing with the “international community.” Why would it launch a chemical-weapon attack when UN inspectors are in the country? Does the regime want to show what it is capable of while the UN Security Council cannot even agree on a common statement? Assad is testing the West, showing that he has more than one trick up his sleeve. In recent weeks, successes and advances against the rebels have boosted his confidence. The Obama administration remains unwilling to act and ignores the “red line.” While the chemical attack will be a test for Washington, I doubt it will a game change. The White House’s strategy since the beginning of the conflict has been passivity. France, the UK and Turkey may take small steps but how much can they actually do?

In any case, western governments are responsible of failing to act. Whether this is a chemical weapon attack or not, too many people have already died.