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Humanitarian Situation in CAR "Extremely Complex and Volatile": Interview with Abdou Dieng

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“When I left [the country] two weeks ago, the situation was still extremely complex and volatile,” said Abdou Dieng, the former United Nations Senior Humanitarian Coordinator for the Central African Republic (CAR). Mr. Dieng's four-month appointment ended in April.

“There are still a lot of armed groups operating in the country; violence is still extremely high; and the protection of civilians is becoming more and more our main challenge, despite the presence of international forces, who are not yet able to contain the situation,” he reported in this interview with the Global Observatory.

In December, the country was declared a level 3 (L-3) emergency by the global humanitarian coordinating body the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, placing it with Syria and South Sudan as the most urgent humanitarian situations in the world. In April, the L-3 was extended for six months; Mr. Dieng said "no improvement is expected" during the upcoming rainy and lean seasons.

Mr. Dieng said half of the population in the Central African Republic—about 2.5 million people—are in need of assistance, and over half a million have fled their villages. Thousands have been killed in the sectarian violence.

Addressing criticism that, by relocating Muslim communities, the international community is assisting with ethnic cleansing, Mr. Dieng said the communities had asked for the assistance. He said attempts at reconciliation within the community failed. “It's unfortunate, and we know that it's a difficult decision to make, but at that time, the possibility offered to those groups was either to be relocated or being killed.”

Mr. Dieng said his office is in contact with various militia to negotiate access and also “explain what our role is, just in order to avoid all these incidents involving humanitarian workers.” In the past month, a humanitarian convoy was attacked, and three Médecins Sans Frontières staff were killed during a robbery. Mr. Dieng doesn’t know if aid workers are being targeted or not. “This is a moment to ask [the fighting parties] to respect the independence of these aid workers, because they are there only to help, not taking sides on any part of the conflict.”

“We hope that by deploying the UN peacekeepers in the upcoming months, the situation will improve,” Mr. Dieng said. “But we are worried about the vacuum, the period from now until the arrival of those international forces.”

The interview was conducted by Jérémie Labbé, Research Fellow for Humanitarian Affairs at the International Peace Institute. He tweets at @jeremie_labbe.

Q: Since the coup d'état conducted by an alliance of armed groups known as Seleka last March, the situation in the Central African Republic has descended into chaos and increased inter-confessional violence, particularly since December 2013. This deteriorating situation prompted the declaration of a level 3 emergency by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee and your ensuing deployment to the country. Could you give us an update on the security and humanitarian situation in the Central African Republic when you left the country a few weeks back?

A: When I left two weeks ago, the situation was still extremely complex and volatile because there are still 600,000 people who are displaced in their own country. There are more than 300,000 people who seek refuge in neighboring countries , particularly in Cameroon, Chad, and the two Congos. Another 100,000 of what we call third nationals—that is, non-Central African Republicans who used to live in the country—have also left. In addition to that, half of the population in the Central African Republic—we’re talking about 2.5 million people—are in need of assistance in all areas, whether it is food, water, health, education, you name it.

The security situation is deteriorating day by day. There are still a lot of armed groups operating in the country; violence is still extremely high; and the protection of civilians is becoming more and more our main challenge, despite the presence of international forces, who are not yet able to contain the situation. We hope that by deploying the UN peacekeepers in the upcoming months, the situation will improve. But we are worried about the vacuum, the period from now until the arrival of those international forces.

This period, if I understood the situation well, corresponds to the lean and rainy season in the Central African Republic. For that matter, you mentioned just before leaving your position there that you are expecting the situation to further deteriorate due to the lean and rainy season. So what are your expectations for the next few months with respect to the humanitarian situation?

You were referring at the beginning to the level 3 declaration of emergency, which was for 3 months. I stayed there four months, but when we assessed the situation after three months, the international community realized that this situation would not improve in the coming months. This L-3 alert has been extended for another six months taking into account the rainy season, which corresponds also to the lean season. So, we don't foresee any improvement in the next months, meaning that lots of efforts still need to be made to address the needs of the population, hoping that by deploying again the international forces things will improve. But we don't see how the situation can improve over the next six months.

You just mentioned the level three emergency. Can you tell us a bit more about what implications it has and what were the measures taken as part of this level 3 emergency?

First of all, you have to understand that a level 3 is a kind of collective decision that the international community has to make in assessing the situation in a particular part of the world. Today, [we have a level 3 in] the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Syria. This is the highest level. It means [that there] is [a need] to improve the leadership of the response and the coordination of the response. I was asked to step in and provide that leadership. Collectively, we worked very hard because the needs which were assessed and the issues to be addressed were extremely high.

I must say that during the last three months, lots of efforts have been made on the ground with the support of all our principals and all our donors. But there's still a long way to go, because one of the major challenges that we are facing in that area is getting the resources which are required to address the needs of the population, which they are not getting. But I do hope that in the next weeks—with efforts being made both by the emergency relief coordinator and the European Union to reconvene another roundtable with the donors—I do hope that additional funding will be available so that people can address the needs of the population in the Central African Republic.

If I understand well, one of the objectives of the L3 declaration was also to kind of galvanize people and to garner attention, focus, and resources for the Central African Republic. It seems that it hasn't succeeded that well from what you just said.

In addition to the funding aspect, you have to understand that one of the first decisions was to scale-up. Collectively, there was a huge engagement made by UN agencies and NGOs to send on the ground surge capacity, because the efforts which were required to address the needs were extremely high. I think that was done, which has helped the coordination mechanism across all sectors.

But there are still challenges ahead of us when it comes to funding because all this required money, and we are not well funded. So I take the opportunity to ask all these friends, I will call them to make additional efforts for Central Africa; otherwise, the situation may deteriorate in the next weeks or months.

A number of aid workers have lost their lives in the Central African Republic, including recently some staff from Médecins Sans Frontières, who were killed during a recent attack on one of their clinics or health centers. Are humanitarian workers directly targeted in the country, and what is the impact of this insecurity on humanitarian access?

First of all, I want to pay tribute to those people who lost their lives while saving lives in the Central African Republic. Yes, we have seen in the last couple of weeks humanitarian workers killed from the NGO community, the UN community, and, even now, from the press. I must say that this is not acceptable, because these people are there to help. I'm glad to know also that the government is taking care or has taken care by apologizing.

I cannot say that they are directly targeted, but if this is going to be the case, it would become extremely difficult, because organizations would evacuate, and I don't see in this context how the Central African Republic could be helped by the international community. This is a moment to ask them to respect the independence of these aid workers, because they are there only to help, not taking sides on any part of the conflict.

Talking about the independence of aid workers: the UN Security Council has recently created MINUSCA, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic, which is an integrated peacekeeping mission with a broad mandate to stabilize the country, indeed including through a robust military component. You mentioned that it is not deployed yet, but that there are some French forces, some regional forces already present. So, do you see any risk of humanitarian workers being affiliated with those security forces, who, even though they are there to protect the population, might be perceived as partial? Does it have an impact on humanitarian workers?

Well, we are not there yet, but we have seen that happening in other parts of the world. This is why, for the time being, the humanitarian part of this framework has been put apart and not yet integrated within the mission. But, of course, in addition to the mandate given to them of protecting civilians, there is also a component for the protection of humanitarian aiders. And we do hope that by working with the population and by explaining the role and responsibility of different parties, this could be avoided, and we hope that this is not going to happen.

As humanitarian coordinator, you have the responsibility to engage with all relevant authorities to facilitate humanitarian access, including with armed groups and militias. Did you manage to establish some form of dialogue with either the ex-Seleka groups or the anti-balaka militias, particularly taking into account the scattered or diffused character of those militias? Do they have an identifiable leadership that made you able to really have a dialogue with them?

When I left, it was clear that talking to the Seleka was much easier than to the other group because there was a clearly identified president of that movement with whom I was in touch. When it comes to other groups, including the anti-balaka, it was much more difficult because I found that whenever I was talking to that group, later on another group claiming leadership of would come and claim that those leaders do not represent their movement. But yes, we keep on talking to them to negotiate access, to explain what our role is just in order to avoid all these incidents involving humanitarian workers.

Humanitarian actors have recently facilitated the relocation of Muslim populations who were under threat to other parts of the country—I think mostly to the north and the east of the country—with the protection of the African forces and of the French Operation Sangaris forces. This has prompted some criticism, notably from the government, that the international community contributed to some form of ethnic cleansing and to some form of de facto partition of the country. What is your take on it, and specifically, are those populations consulted before such decisions are taken?

We have to remember that thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people, particularly Muslims, have left the country without the support of anybody. Those groups, which we call groups at risk, were mapped out, and we estimate that there are about 20,000 people. Those groups were supposed to get out of the country, but for many reasons they could not make it, and they were trapped in several locations, about fifty locations. They asked the international community for support in being relocated. The relocation was meant to help them move within the country to areas where they clearly identified and where we would also go and ask host communities if those people were welcome. Based on this, we helped them relocate. We are talking about Bossangoa [the capital of one of the 14 prefectures of the CAR]. I remember when the Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos came to visit Bossangoa, they were almost crying in front of her asking to be relocated. I made a commitment, and after several months of trying to reconcile the two groups, it was not possible. So, there was no other choice for them except being relocated, and that was done.

Then there was another group in Bangui in a location called PK12, and that population was estimated to be of less than 2,000 people. They also asked us for help to be relocated within the country, and in both cases, we had to work with international forces. In one case, to relocate people in Bambari, it was the Sangaris; in other cases, for relocations to places like Sido, it was MISCA.

It's unfortunate, and we know that it's a difficult decision to make, but at that time, the possibility offered to those groups was either to be relocated or being killed. So we decided to help them. There are still Muslims remaining in Bangui in the south near the border, and we hope that there will be reconciliation and efforts made to make sure that those communities will stay and live together. If we do not succeed in this case, the solution would be the relocation of those populations.

Originally published on the Global Observatory