Meanwhile, efforts have been continuing - since 25 November 2002 when President Ange-Felix Patasse also called for a national dialogue - to reconcile the country's bitter political rivals. The UN Peace-building Office in the CAR (BONUCA) backs the holding of such a dialogue. Lamine Cisse, the head of BONUCA, who is also the UN secretary-general's representative in the country, talked to IRIN on 1 March about the problem. The following are excerpts from that interview.
QUESTION: Why a national dialogue?
ANSWER: The country's salvation rests on it. The country's sons and daughters must talk among themselves around a table. Dialogue is the only way out for this country.
Q: The UN usually plays a very important role in peace talks in Africa, which is the case in neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo. Will the UN be involved in the CAR national dialogue?
A: Yes. During the last 16 months all the UN Security Council's recommendations have called for national and political dialogue. It was the same case with the statements made by the Security Council's chairman. The UN will play a part in that dialogue, which it called for through political and diplomatic actions. We think that dialogue will lead to peace and stability in the CAR.
Q: What part will the UN play in the dialogue?
A: The UN Peace-building Office has initiated talks between political parties and parliamentarians. So far, two such conferences have taken place, grouping together all the parties and political actors in the CAR. The political parties have asked for this conference to be institutionalised and convened periodically. Recommendations were made and a follow-up committee was set up.
This is only a dialogue between political parties. One must add to them labour unions and civil society to achieve a national forum. The UN has been working within that framework, and when President Patasse announced the dialogue, the UN worked together with all the parties, both presidential and opposition, labour unions and the civil society, until a committee was set up to prepare and manage the dialogue. Thus, the UN has been involved since the beginning.
Q: The dialogue coordination team has recently fixed a provisional budget of 750 million francs CFA [US $1.3 million] but has had difficulties in collecting this amount. Will the UN contribute financially?
A: Something is being done to get the money, and I do not think there will be a problem with the budget. Apart from the UN, donors are also involved. The coordinators have toured Paris, Brussels, the European Union, and the UN. On Thursday [27 February] they were at the UN Political Affairs Department. Yesterday [28 February] they met the CAR Friends' Association. During their meetings, the coordinators briefed their interlocutors on the situation, their working methodology and their objectives. Getting the money will not be difficult. Also, the UN agencies here will certainly contribute financially.
Q: All parties to the conflict are trying to strengthen their positions before entering the dialogue. What bearing does such jockeying for position have on efforts to hold the national dialogue?
A: One goes to negotiations or dialogue with a very specific goal. Certain assailants [rebel spokesmen] have demanded a national dialogue. Now that the country is heading towards this, I think their demand is being met.
Then, when one goes to negotiations, one needs to be in a comfortable military position. What is happening on the ground is quite natural, and we have witnessed the same situation in many countries. Cities are taken and retaken, conquered and reconquered, but that is the military situation.
The most important thing is the political situation and the expected dialogue. It is only the success or failure of the dialogue that can clarify the military situation. The recent and current events [the government counteroffensive launched on 13 February] on the ground cannot put the dialogue into question.
Q: One aspect of the CAR crisis is the conflict with Chad. On 15 February, Chadian President Idriss Deby visited his CAR counterpart. How do you perceive that beginning of reconciliation between the two countries and heads of state?
A: President Deby paid a state and courtesy visit to President Patasse. It was in response to the visit President Patasse had paid him in N'djamena [in February 2002], which is quite normal. Of course, given the evolution of the situation on the ground, the two heads of state expedited things so that they could meet and settle a number of problems. Fortunately, their meeting took place on 15 February. The meeting was very positive, first because both presidents met in front of the population and demanded a meeting of the joint CAR-Chad commission. I recall that all the UN recommendations have called for the reactivation of all CAR-Chad-Sudan cooperation mechanisms. Among them is the joint CAR-Chad commission.
The reconciliation process [between the CAR and Chadian presidents] continued in Paris during the Franco-African Summit.
CEMAC [the Economic and Monetary Community of Central African States] under the chairmanship of [Republic of Congo] President Denis Sassou-Nguesso held a meeting to try and find a way out of the CAR-Chad conflict. The meeting was a huge success.
We think that the joint commission will meet in March. President Deby's visit launched a reconciliation process, and now we think that the two countries are heading towards full reconciliation.
Q: Human rights violations have been reported on both sides during the crisis. What will the UN do about that?
A: One should first concentrate on the situation in zones held either by the assailants or by loyalist troops, where people lack everything. We have first to assess the situation, and this must be strictly in humanitarian terms. Such a mission has already taken place [26 February] in Sibut [184 km northeast of Bangui] and Damara [80 km northeast of Bangui]. The mission did not focus on human rights. It focused on the humanitarian situation. The priority is to see how to assist those people in the humanitarian and health areas. What the UN is currently doing is to send joint UN-humanitarian agencies-government assessment missions.
Later, human rights violations will certainly be dealt with by an international investigative commission. CAR and Chad have agreed to set up that commission. The UN agencies did not focus on human right investigations, but instead on humanitarian assistance. This should be clear. Now when the specialists in human rights investigations come, they will determine who did what. We can say these people have suffered excesses. They need assistance. We are not here to point publicly at those who committed excesses.
Q: Analysts say that another aspect of the CAR conflict is the country's chaotic financial situation. The UN secretary-general recently asked the donors to help the CAR. Has anything been done?
A: The UN secretary-general and the UN Security Council have called on donors and financial institutions to aid the CAR and consider its situation as an exceptional one. The calls received responses to a certain extent, but not fully. The government, together with the UN, is trying to improve the situation. Meetings have recently taken place and others will take place on the payment of the debt to the African Development Bank and on the programme to be signed by the CAR, the IMF and the World Bank.
We all know - and I repeat - that the solution to the CAR problem resides in the signing of an accord with the IMF. So long as this accord is not signed, we will be running around the bush. The country's security, stability and democracy depend on that accord. One cannot have democracy when there is no development, and one cannot have development when there is no security. All these problems are linked and must be settled all at once.
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