Jerome Delay/AP

Honor Mandela by Intervening in the Central African Republic, Lest Genocide

The U.S. is cash-strapped, and unwilling to put boots on the ground: supporting the U.N. and regional forces may be the best way to avert more mass killings. By David Rohde

As South Africans cheered President Barack Obama’s speech at the funeral of Nelson Mandela on Tuesday, a nation of 4.6 million people 2,500 miles north was being torn apart by religious hatred.

Muslim civilians in the Central African Republic, clutching machetes and crude, homemade weapons, prepared to fight off marauding Christians. Christians were forming self-defense militias in other parts of a country the size of Texas, to prevent Muslims from slitting their throats.

“We drove through some villages where every single person has picked up arms,” Peter Bouckaert, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, told me in a telephone interview from the republic on Tuesday. “Children as young as 11 have picked up daggers or have knives or even hunting rifles.”

As world leaders praised Mandela’s legacy of tolerance and reconciliation, the international community was still struggling with how to respond to one of humanity’s most depraved acts—mass killings. Chaos and sectarian killings have steadily spread throughout the Central African Republic since predominantly Muslim Seleka—“Alliance”—rebels ousted the Christian president, Francois Bozize, in March.

Rebel leader Michel Djotodia lost control of his forces, which have carried out atrocities against Christians across the resource-rich, but unstable former French colony. Over time, Christian militias retaliated. Last week shootings, stabbings and lynchings spiraled across the country.

At least 465 people have died since last Thursday, according to the Red Cross. United Nations officials have warned—in unusually blunt terms—that the country contained “the seeds of a genocide.” After failing to halt genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda, the United Nations now faces what the New York Times called a “reckoning” in the Central African Republic.

With the United Nations already carrying out 15 peacekeeping missions worldwide and Western militaries focused on counterterrorism missions, a new approach is unfolding in the Central African Republic. Last week the U.N. Security Council authorized sending 1,600 French peacekeepers to bolster the poorly equipped African Union force of 2,500. The Obama administration has offered $100 million in equipment and assistance.

Wealthy nations are funding a poorly-equipped regional peacekeeping force instead of authorizing more costly United Nations troops. It is still unclear whether the approach will work—but it reflects new political realities in Africa, Europe and the United States.

An increasingly assertive African Union, which has won praise for recent peacekeeping missions in Somalia, said it wanted to deploy forces in the Central African Republic, rather than use U.N. troops.

With the continent now home to several of the fastest-growing economies in the world, African leaders are arguing they can sort out their own problems. Bolstered by economic growth sparked by Chinese investment in the continent, African Union leaders are eager to assert their growing economic and political power and remove all vestiges of Western colonialism.

Given the slow pace and high cost of creating a U.N. force to operate in the landlocked Central African country, American and European diplomats agreed to the joint AU-French intervention. In the United States and Europe, war weariness and fiscal crises have tempered the appetite for costly U.N. interventions.

For years, Western governments demanded the United Nations shrink or eliminate its large, outdated peacekeeping missions in Haiti, Liberia and the Ivory Coast. They also called for the U.N.’s 21,000-troop, $1.5 billion mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to shift to the country’s east. U.N. officials, however, have generally resisted the changes, saying large missions remain necessary.

At the same time, U.S. conservatives have long complained that Washington pays far too much of what they call a bloated U.N. peacekeeping budget. The world body spent $7.5 billion in 2013 on peacekeeping missions. The United States provided 28 percent of this funding—roughly three times the amount paid by each of the next largest contributors, Japan, France, Germany and Britain.

U.N. officials estimated last month that a U.N. peacekeeping force of roughly 6,000 to 9,000 troops would be needed to stabilize the country, largely ruled by autocrats since it gained independence from France in 1960. There were no exact cost estimates, but a similar U.N. mission in South Sudan costs $900 million a year.

Some diplomats at the United Nations speculated that American officials backed the African Union-French force for cost reasons. A senior American official flatly denied this.

“The issue was never one of money,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

It was about efficiency. The official said that quickly strengthening the 2,500-strong African Union force already on the ground was the fastest way to halt the killing. Creating a U.N. peacekeeping mission, the official insisted, could take months.

“We have the $40 million in hand,” the official said, referring to State Department funding provided last month, “and we’re moving to disperse it as quickly as possible. The priority is getting equipment for the AU force and also helping get them there.”

In the next few days, U.S. military cargo planes will ferry up to 850 peacekeepers from Burundi to the Central African Republic. The African Union force is slated to grow from 2,500 to 6,000 soldiers in the weeks ahead. American officials say they will back a U.N. force if it becomes clear a larger effort is required.

(Read more: U.S. Military Intervenes With Airlifts In Central African Republic)

Whether the AU and French forces will be able to disarm the militias remains uncertain. On Monday night, militia members killed two French soldiers in an ambush in the capital, Bangui. That is a far higher casualty rate than France experienced in Mali—where a total of seven French soldiers have died in an 11-month intervention.

Bouckaert, the Human Rights Watch researcher, predicted a U.N. force will be needed to prevent this from becoming another Rwanda. The African Union forces now trying to disarm militias, he said, are too poorly-equipped.

“There is a pretty threadbare African mission,” Bouckaert said by telephone Tuesday. “The U.S. can do a lot more by providing essential equipment like flak jackets, medical kits and communications equipment.”

Some positive signs have emerged, however, since the French arrived. Despite Americans’ widespread cynicism regarding foreign interventions, killings have slowed in areas where French troops are patrolling.

Yet here are also reasons for skepticism over the long-term. The international community has a long history of overpromising and under-delivering when it comes to protecting civilians in conflict. For decades, peacekeeping missions have been short-staffed. Poorly armed peacekeepers have stood by as mass killings occurred.

Religious, ethnic and racial differences continue to divide nations and spark violence, particularly where endemic poverty is present. The best way to honor Mandela is to stop the Central African Republic’s spiral toward genocide.

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