The Security Council has approved my proposal to deploy a United Nations peacekeeping mission to the Central African Republic – opening the way for 10,000 troops and almost 2,000 police to bring a semblance of order to a nation in ruins.
I have just returned from a visit to the country to see the situation first-hand. Desperate is an understatement.
More than half the population of the Texas-sized country need life-saving assistance. One out of four Central Africans has been uprooted from their homes. At makeshift camps I visited at the airport outside the capital city of Bangui, as many as 500 people share one toilet. Conditions will only get worse with the onset of the rainy season.
“Who would accept to live here?” one woman cried out to me. “But we are risking our lives to live where we lived.”
The majority of the country’s Muslim community has fled the country, escaping a brutal wave of sectarian strife that has claimed innocents on all sides. Atrocity crimes continue. The justice system has crumbled. Ethno-religious cleansing is a reality. Whole communities have been dismantled.
Despite the many deprivations, the commodity that the Central African Republic lacks most is time. The peacekeeping mission will take at least six months to get up and running. Meanwhile the country’s people are caught in a daily struggle for survival.
I travelled to the CAR on my way to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide. In Rwanda, I expressed my profound sadness for the international community’s inaction during that country’s hour of need.
But what of crises on our watch?
Will the international community act now instead of apologizing in 20 years for not doing what was needed when we had the chance? Will national leaders heed the lessons of the past and prevent another Rwanda in our time?
In the centre of one of Bangui’s hardest-hit neighborhoods, we drove past block after block of the concrete carcasses of shops and homes. We passed a sea of trucks filled far beyond capacity with pots, pans, water jugs, the last possessions of a population on the run.
Women and men shared harrowing tales of sexual violence, kidnapping and constant threats on their lives. Now they are virtual prisoners desperate only for escape. They told me how schools, hospitals, even cemeteries are off-limits. As one person lamented, “We can’t even help our dead.”
Now is the time to help the living. That requires fast-track action on three fronts.
First, security. African Union and French forces are working hard to restore peace and security. The European Union force that began hitting the ground this week is a welcome addition. But they need reinforcements to contain the violence and protect civilians. I have called for the immediate deployment of 3,000 more troops and police who would lay the groundwork for the future United Nations peacekeeping mission.
Second, the government needs help with the very basics – including getting police, judges and prison guards back on the job. The Head of State of the Transition Catherine Samba-Panza is committed to restoring state authority. But with no budget, her abilities are sharply constrained. Funding for humanitarian aid is also falling short with only 20 per cent of pledges received.
Third, since the new peacekeeping operation can be only part of the solution, establishing an inclusive political process is crucial. Community and religious leaders are fundamental to promoting tolerance, non-violence and dialogue. Accountability for horrendous crimes is central to peace. The people of the CAR must see that the rule of law matters no matter who they are or what they believe, from leaders to individual combatants.
These are essential building blocks for reconciliation and ensuring that refugees and the internally displaced can return to their homes and communities. The alternative is a de facto partition that would lay the seeds of conflict and instability in the fragile heart of Africa for years, perhaps generations.
During my visit, a leader of a women’s peace group said, “Our social fabric is in shreds. The bonds of our communities have broken. There is nothing to connect us. But you represent the world and you are here. Now we know we are a part of the world.”
I appreciated her trust but I know we need action to earn it.
The CAR is blessed with abundant resources and fertile land. For generations, it has been a crossroads of cultures where different communities have lived peacefully.
It is up to the international community to prove through deeds that the people of the Central African Republic are indeed part of our common humanity and shared future. A little help will go a long way. We have a collective responsibility to act now instead of expressing regrets twenty years later.
Ban Ki-moon is Secretary-General of the United Nations.