The people of the Central African Republic (CAR) have been mired in cycles of violence since the country became independent from France in 1960. These cycles have been driven by overlapping tensions between armed groups, religious and ethnic groups, and herders and farmers. As a result, CAR has endured repeated outbreaks of conflict, population displacement, alarming food insecurity, and limited access to basic services and economic opportunities.
In 2013, the country once again descended into civil war when the Muslim-majority Séléka group staged a coup against the Christian-dominated government. Following the coup, supporters of that government formed the Anti-Balaka coalition. Clashes between the two groups led to vicious cycles of revenge attacks and a quick deterioration of the country’s security infrastructure. Hopes for peace grew when talks brought the civil war to an end in 2014 and elections were held the following year. However, the country remains deeply unstable.
In recent years, armed groups have continued to manipulate religion to incite inter-communal conflict. The most recent cycle of violence has uprooted a quarter of the small country’s population – the highest number since the peak of the civil war. The UN estimates that 2.9 million of the country’s 4.6 million citizens need humanitarian aid. However, the humanitarian response fails to provide for all those in need due to the limited access caused by logistical and security impediments, weak coordination, and gaps in funding.
New armed groups have formed and risen to prominence in the country, alliances are constantly shifting, and factions break off in the struggle for control of land and resources. Although some state authority has been re-established since the end of the civil war, the humanitarian situation has yet to improve significantly. More than 80 percent of the country is under the sole control of armed groups.
Armed factions have repeatedly attacked displacement camps – in many cases, despite the presence of peacekeepers. The failure to protect these camps has fueled the CAR government’s premature push to close some of them and have their populations return to their areas of origin, and this has taken place without determining whether such returns are safe and without monitoring conditions upon return. In late 2018, many densely populated sites were closed without warning.
Despite this bleak picture, the prospects for peace have gradually increased. On February 5, 2019, the CAR government and 14 armed groups signed an African Union-led peace accord, known as the African Initiative. The UN peacekeeping mission, whose mandate has been renewed for the year, has been successful in brokering peace agreements at the local level, thus reducing the levels of violence in key areas and allowing hundreds of thousands to return to their areas of origin.
To better understand CAR’s recurring cycles of violence and displacement, Refugees International (RI) traveled in the country from November to December 2018. The team conducted field research in Bangui, Paoua, and Bangassou. RI found that more locally tailored, coordinated, and robust responses would make the humanitarian response more effective in meeting urgent needs. Specific improvements would allow UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to overcome many of the challenges confronting the humanitarian response and better safeguard human life.
On the ground, UN agencies and aid organizations must strengthen their coordination, ensure that new UN leadership will protect and adhere to humanitarian principles, and increase the transparency of their analyses and programming. At about 4.6 million, the country has a relatively small population compared to other African countries in the throes of displacement crises, and the emergency in CAR presents an opportunity to effect real change. Concerted action now could prevent the further degradation of the humanitarian situation.
THE CENTRAL AFRICAN GOVERNMENT MUST:
- Temporarily suspend organized returns of displaced populations. The government should pause its efforts to return displaced populations through its PARET return initiative. Future returns should be based on a more robust effort to survey the intentions of the displaced and conditions in the areas of return. The findings of these surveys and plans for future returns or camp closures should be coordinated closely with the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator and the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT).
UN LEADERSHIP MUST:
Mobilize critical support through another CAR donor conference. It has been two years since the European Commission held the last donor conference in Brussels. Although that conference focused on stabilization funds, a new one should be hosted with NGO support to mobilize donors to provide more flexible humanitarian funding.
Appoint another strong Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator/Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General (RC/HC/DSRSG). The departure of the current incumbent a well-respected leader in the CAR humanitarian community – appears to be imminent. The appointment of a similarly capable successor must be a top priority.
Review UN participation in the PARET initiative. The Humanitarian Coordinator should convene the HCT to review UN participation in the PARET initiative. As part of that review, the HCT should develop a joint position on the conditions that must be in place for UN agencies to participate in population returns and camp closures. Such conditions should include more robust efforts to survey the intentions of the displaced and conditions in areas of return
Strengthen the UN cluster coordination system. The UN should ensure that all members of the cluster system have access to the findings of their ongoing performance evaluation conducted by each cluster. The Humanitarian Coordinator should work with the leadership of the clusters to develop and oversee a plan to address identified shortcomings, especially as they pertain to protection.
Bolster the UN’s capacity to assess security conditions on the roads used for aid delivery. The United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS), with support from donors and the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), should strengthen its ability to provide up-to-date security assessments of roads to rationalize and minimize the use of armed escorts for humanitarian personnel.
THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT MUST:
- Designate the Central African Republic as a Country of Particular Concern. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom should recommend that CAR be designated as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) in light of the prevalence of religious marginalization – a problem that the CAR government has largely ignored. Samuel D. Brownback, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should then designate CAR as a CPC and create a binding agreement for the United States to assist the CAR government in increasing its capacity to protect its people and their religious freedom.
DONOR GOVERNMENTS AND INSTITUTIONS MUST:
Increase funding. Donor governments must provide longer-term financial support for humanitarian assistance – especially to address food security and child protection – and should coordinate to fully fund the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) 2019 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) request for $430 million to assist those in need.
Strengthen oversight of the implementation of the PARET return initiative. Donors should exercise greater oversight of the conditions surrounding the population returns carried out as part of the CAR government PARET initiative. They should push for more robust intention surveys of the displaced and stronger coordination of future returns or camp closures under the leadership of the Humanitarian Coordinator and across the HCT.
Fund the UN’s Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS). UNHAS has funding to operate only until April 1, 2019. Given the widespread violence and limited road access in CAR, humanitarian groups rely on UNHAS to transport lifesaving material. Donors should provide full coverage of UNHAS’s $13 million budget for 2019.
Encourage the development of locally customized programs. By viewing CAR’s crisis as a series of localized emergencies that require different remedies, donors can better equip humanitarian organizations to address root causes at the local level.
Provide flexible multiyear humanitarian funding. The volatile security context often forces humanitarian organizations to pause operations and slows down the provision of aid; donors should offer multiyear funding to give these organizations more time to work around access issues and security concerns.
Extend and bolster the Bêkou Trust Fund. The Bêkou Trust Fund facilitates the transition from emergency response to longer-term recovery. The European Commission must extend Bêkou beyond 2020, and more donor countries should consider contributing to it.