Q&A: UN rapporteur looks at how to restore stability and peaceful coexistence in CAR
BANGUI, Central African Republic, February 27 (UNHCR) - The violence and suffering in the Central African Republic has faded from world attention, but although the general security situation is not as dire as a year ago, the country remains fragile. People continue to flee their homes every day. An upsurge in violence has forced the displacement of almost 50,000 people since the start of the year. Some 450,000 people are displaced within the Central African Republic, including 36,000 trapped in enclaves like Yaloke, and some 430,000 have found shelter in neighbouring countries. More than 2.7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. Zambian academic Chaloka Beyani recently visited the country to assess conditions and needs in his role as special UN Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons. Beyani, who reports to the Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly, met internally displaced people [IDP] as well as government leaders, UN officials, international aid workers and diplomats from donor nations. He discussed his impressions and his thoughts on the future for the Central African Republic with UNHCR Public Information Officer Dalia Al Achi in Bangui. Excerpts from the interview:
What's the current situation in the Central African Republic?
The country is still in an emergency crisis . . . The country is experiencing new displacement every day, while the situation of current IDPs has not been resolved. We still have the main militia or armed groups - namely the predominantly Muslim Seleka group and the mainly Christian anti-Balaka militia - who have not been dealt with. Some of them are exacting taxes from the population, so they are entrenching their presence and engaging in economic activity to perpetuate their existence. They are known and seem to move freely among the population, including, extremely worryingly, in IDP sites. This means that these armed groups are today the ones controlling the population. That needs dealing with.
It is clear that there is a deep divide between communities that will take some time to mend, but it needs to be attended to. The most significant point is the absence of government authority. I realize there's a transitional government, but it is also quite clear that government is not felt where it matters, at the level of the communities, at the level of the national policies and frameworks, and in just providing plain leadership in terms of what needs to be done and how that should be done.
What do you think are the underlying causes of this conflict?
The primary underlying cause is the lack of development throughout the country. It has not been addressed for years and as a result people in the eastern and north-eastern parts of the country have felt that they are second-class citizens. When we spoke to Muslim communities and youth, they spoke of marginalization. They feel they are not being included in political development processes. They also talk of a lack of equality and respect. So, if we want to promote coexistence, it is important that these perceptions are addressed.
There's a great deal of misinformation in the Central African Republic. It is crucial to put in place methods of collecting and disseminating credible information. While the crisis is being depicted as being between the Christians and the Muslims, this simplification does not reflect dynamics on the ground. The crisis actually has much deeper roots. The labels ex-Seleka and anti-Balaka have acquired a life of their own and need to be demystified. Rather than receiving a label, these militias should be identified as groups that are involved in criminal activities, collecting tax, imposing all kinds of penalties on the civilian population.
What can be done to restore lasting peace and stability?
First of all, there should be measures to help victims of the violence. They are real symbols of suffering. In terms of finding solutions for IDPs, you have to study their patterns of movement; where they ended up and why, what needs to be done in their places of origin to enable them to return home. IDPs cannot be considered in isolation from the broader context. My findings are that IDPs have not been engaged meaningfully so far as part of the preparation for a national dialogue.
They need to be consulted and represented to find out what works for them and how they see themselves as part of the national process of reconciliation. They need to be registered to vote, to participate in the elections. Special voting arrangements have to be made for IDPs, so that they feel part of the process, rather than being excluded as seems to be the case now.
The transition process also has to tackle effectively the outstanding problems of the ex-Seleka and anti-Balaka. We cannot go into an election thinking that these issues will resolve themselves, because they won't. And without proportional representation in that election, the result will only add to the grievances of the Muslim population.
Further on IDPs, the government intends to close the Mpoko site at Bangui airport, which provides shelter to 20,000 people, down from 100,000 in December 2013 at the height of the crisis. What do you think about this plan?
The IDPs have not been consulted about this plan and it is imperative that their voices be heard. An alternative site, Avicom, has been proposed to relocate them, but IDPs I met with told me the site was inappropriate. Development actors have also made the same point. From my experience, governments often identify barren, economically unviable sites out of convenience, without considering whether these sites are suitable and wanted by the IDPs.
Rather than relocating them temporarily, which would lead in effect to secondary displacement, it is it is essential to support a durable solution. The preferred solution would be to rebuild and rehabilitate their places of origin, restoring security there, whether it is through MINUSCA [the UN peace-keeping force in Central African Republic] or other forces. It is only then that you are helping them exercise their freedom of choice about the future.
Many people are trapped in towns like Yaloke, where some 400 Peuhl people are protected by MINUSCA but still unable to escape to safety. What should be done about these nomadic people?
We need to put more emphasis on their right to freedom of movement, so that they have choices on where they want to go ultimately, and on what kind of support they should be given. It's important to understand that these are indigenous people with a distinct lifestyle and way of life based on cattle breeding, and that protecting their way of life is paramount.
They complained [to us] that their children were malnourished and hadn't eaten beef and drunk milk in a long time. Their staple diet is very important to them for their spiritual survival and sustainment. People have to eat the food that is part of their culture. You can't give them food they won't eat.
Secondly, this is a nomadic group on the move in search of pasture for their animals and their freedom of movement needs to be guaranteed. This entails understanding their patterns of movement in order to provide security when they are moving and protect them from possible attacks, whether within the borders of a given state or across to a neighbouring country. We need to make sure that groups undertaking agriculture do not expand their activities across routes used by nomads, because there will be clashes. All actors need to know that durable solutions for nomadic IDPs lie in ensuring that they can exercise their freedom of movement by protecting their traditional routes and having their livelihoods restored - in this case having cattle.
What role can religious leaders play in reconciliation?
The role of religious leaders is essential. At the outset of the crisis, religious leaders on both sides stood up to promote unity between communities and to condemn the violence as unacceptable and a misuse of religion for political purposes. As figures of authority and faith, they can lead their congregations to promote reconciliation and dialogue between the communities. You need to touch the soul of the people. It should get to the grass roots level, where you have peace-building communities. As I discussed with the religious leaders I met, the people are hurting and they need healing.
Do you have a message about the situation in Central African Republic?
The one critical message to give to the world is about the risk of radicalization in the CAR, given the grievances expressed by the Muslim population about being marginalized, the lack of development in their areas for decades, and not being treated as equal citizens and with respect. If this is not dealt with, then we will see another front by Nigeria's Boko Haram or a similar group. That needs attention and it should grab the headlines. We have to take steps now.