Nikki Haley, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, bragged on Twitter recently about cuts to UN peacekeeping funding, saying:

Haley’s ill-advised and alarming boast and promise to cut more funds is a serious risk to UN peacekeeping operations. This is especially so in the Central African Republic (CAR), where we have worked in and with NGOs, and with the UN mission (MINUSCA), advancing civilian protection, humanitarian aid, education, and investigations into war crimes and human rights violations. In the CAR, security reinforcements, not funding cuts, are needed—particularly in a context where peacekeepers have also become a target of attacks.

The country’s security situation is deteriorating rapidly, and the prospect of new mass atrocities, ethnic killings, and forced displacement that had been looming for the past few months, is becoming a reality, particularly in the central and eastern provinces.

Around the towns of Bria, Kaga-Bandoro, and Bambari, tensions have been on the rise since mid-2016. Recently, the Fulani people have been forcibly displaced from the sub-prefecture of Bakouma. Muslim internally displaced people in the city of Bangassou are being prevented by the rest of the population from returning to their neighborhoods, and an armed group made up of former Seleka members calling itself the, L’Union pour la Paix en Centrafrique (UPC), is targeting anti-Balaka militias as well as the communities around the towns of Alindao and Kembe. In the town of Zemio, 19,000 people have been displaced amid outbreaks of violence between armed groups in the past weeks, with some fleeing into the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As we drafted this piece, the grandmother of one of the co-authors was burned alive during an attack on her house in Zemio, and his eight-year old son is missing. 

UN peacekeeping is in need of critical reform, but Haley is boasting about cutting a peacekeeping budget that funds an essential mission, MINUSCA, that we have seen save lives. Peacekeepers in the CAR have reduced armed conflict, protected entire villages and homes from destruction, supported civil society and aid workers, helped civilians to access necessary health and education services, rebuilt local administration, including court and prison services, and furthered political, disarmament, and demobilization processes.

The UN peacekeeping mission in the CAR has been instrumental in protecting civilians in the country, particularly through supporting the peace process—key to addressing root causes of the violence and mitigating the threat of mass atrocities. The peacekeeping mission was brought in after violence broke out in early December 2013, when armed groups toppled the government of Michel Djotodia, who had himself violently seized power less than nine months earlier. Between December 2013 and August 2014, at least 3,003 civilians were killed, and hundreds of thousands displaced. As of June 30, 2017, over half a million people remain displaced within the CAR, and 480,000 have sought refuge outside the country. 

In the capital city, Bangui, some of the worst violence took place in or near an area commonly called “PK5,” in which the vast majority of residents are Muslim, and where one of the co-authors of this piece lives and works. Between 2014 and 2016 there were dozens of attacks between armed factions, with civilians caught in the middle. MINUSCA worked with local authorities, and both Christian and Muslim communities to protect and rescue civilians. Peacekeepers patrolled PK5 during periods of heightened insecurity, protecting households, and helped to secure key sites where displaced civilians were living, including the central mosque.

Additionally, MINUSCA played a crucial role in building a protective environment for populations, through supporting transitional authorities to organize popular consultations in the run up to the Bangui Forum in early 2015, negotiate a disarmament agreement with armed groups, and subsequently support peaceful, free, and fair elections.  The electoral processes to decide upon a new President, legislature, and constitution were marred by repeated delays, due to ongoing violence and insecurity. However, the peacekeeping mission partnered with the government, civil society, and the international community to support credible and peaceful elections.

This is not to understate the significant problems with peacekeeping in the CAR and elsewhere. There have been multiple and repeated allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers in the CAR, and violations of international humanitarian law, including extra-judicial killings. Additionally, the mission has struggled in many instances to protect civilians and respond to emergencies when they arise, maintain perceptions of impartiality, and ensure that alleged perpetrators of mass atrocities are held to account. This is partly a result of the varied performance of its police and military components, sometimes lacking the capacity, resources, training, or overall readiness and intent to deter violence and proactively protect populations under threat.

However, there have been steps taken by the mission to support efforts to counter impunity, both by peacekeepers and by perpetrators of the conflict. MINUSCA, for example, has taken measures to prevent further misconduct by its personnel, and worked with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to produce a report mapping the main human rights violations in the CAR over the period 2003-2015. Additionally, the mission has supported the development of forensic expertise in the country, as well as the formation of a Special Criminal Court, to try those responsible for crimes since 2003. A Special Prosecutor was appointed in February this year, and senior members of the court sworn in this month.

On June 30, 2017, the UN General Assembly agreed to slash $600 million from the current peacekeeping budget, bringing the total budget for the 13 missions and one support office around the world down to $7.3 billion. Under the agreement, American contributions to peacekeeping were reduced by 7.5-percent. While some cuts were expected, as the progressive drawdown continues of UN peacekeeping missions in Ivory Coast, Haiti, and Darfur, budget cuts imposed on some of the other missions are concerning. In the CAR, history has taught that withdrawing a peace operation too hastily can prevent the creation of an environment needed to sustainably restore a stable state authority. A four-percent cut for 2017-2018 and additional cuts on peacekeeping budgets overall may further jeopardize the situation of hundreds of thousands of Central Africans.

Nikki Haley and the U.S. administration are wrong to believe that peacekeeping will be fixed through major funding cuts. Instead, missions should be supported, police and military components selected and equipped so as to ensure operational readiness and performance, and individuals held accountable in cases where they commit abuses. We witness how peacekeepers protect civilians and promote democracy in the most dangerous, remote, and inaccessible areas of the world. Major funding cuts risk reducing the effectiveness of peacekeeping missions, resulting in further destabilization, violence, and conflict—in CAR and elsewhere.

Image credit: UN