The United Nations Security Council in the coming weeks will be negotiating a new mandate for the peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic (CAR) – known by its acronym MINUSCA. Since the Security Council adopted the Mission’s current mandate last November, a new armed rebellion has plunged the country into a deeper protection crisis, and fundamentally changed the environment in which MINUSCA operates. On Oct. 15, CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadera announced a ceasefire to halt military operations, but unfortunately, the last 10 months of intense fighting has already further polarized the parties in the conflict, and going back to a viable and effective peace process will take time.
In this context, it is more important than ever that MINUSCA’s new mandate maintains protection of civilians as a priority task; that this task is carried out impartially, irrespective of the actor perpetrating the threat; and that MINUSCA’s support to the host state does not cause harm to civilians.
In December 2020, ahead of elections that month, six armed opposition groups in CAR formed a new alliance called the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) and launched an offensive against the government. Rejecting commitments made with the signature of the 2019 peace agreement (APPR-RCA), members of the CPC significantly expanded their territorial control, taking over major towns and reaching the outskirts of the capital, Bangui, in January 2021. MINUSCA’s ability to respond was limited, leading the government of CAR to seek military reinforcements through bilateral cooperation agreements with Rwanda and the Russian Federation. Their contributions have been decisive in helping the CAR government defend Bangui and mount a counteroffensive against the CPC, retaking major cities previously under the groups’ control.
Now, 10 months after the start of military operations against the CPC, threats to civilians remain incredibly high. Members of armed opposition groups that were driven out of urban centers have increasingly relied on criminal activities for survival and have consistently targeted civilians and conducted reprisals against communities suspected of “collaborating” with national defense and security forces, their international partners, and even with MINUSCA. A growing number of reports — including from investigations by national authorities — also indicate that the national security and defense forces and Russian security partners have committed violations of international humanitarian and human rights law (IHL/IHRL) in the course of their counteroffensive.
The Impact on MINUSCA
MINUSCA was deployed to CAR in 2014 to protect civilians and help stabilize the country by supporting the CAR government in advancing a political peace process. Almost a decade later, the current crisis has profoundly changed the political and threat environment in which MINUSCA operates, impacting the mission’s ability to effectively implement its mandate to protect civilians.
Deterioration of the Peace Process
Between 2014 and 2020, U.N. support to national authorities in CAR was rooted in a shared understanding that dialogue and political solutions were the only viable ways to sustainably address the conflict and reduce the presence of armed groups. But now, following the December 2020 offensive, it is becoming increasingly complex to find a balance between dialogue to reduce the impact of armed groups on civilians and the need for accountability and justice. Presidential and regional initiatives to “reinvigorate” the peace agreement are underway despite severe challenges to rebuild trust among CAR stakeholders, which hampers their ability to genuinely engage in a viable and effective peace process. Over the past year, the standstill has negatively impacted MINUSCA’s efforts to support national reconciliation and local conflict resolution.
Recently, Touadera has taken some positive steps toward peace, including the declaration of a unilateral ceasefire that halted military operations in the country against the CPC. This decision was welcomed by Security Council members, who also stressed the imperative for all parties to respect the cessation of hostilities and start engaging again in a viable peace process to reduce violence affecting civilians. This development can provide an opportunity for national reconciliation and local conflict resolution mechanisms to restart. With the peace process potentially resuming, it is especially important for MINUSCA to play an impartial role in dialogue and mediation to facilitate rapprochement and re-engagement of the parties.
Barriers to Impartial Protection
Additionally, the renewed conflict and active military confrontation between the government of CAR and armed groups have led to a broader spectrum of perpetrators of violence against civilians. MINUSCA’s human rights monitors have reported that the national security and defense forces (and newly arrived bilateral partners) account for nearly half of IHL and IHRL violations documented in the country over the last year.
In stabilization contexts in which peacekeeping missions with a mandate to protect civilians partner with a host state that is unable or unwilling to fulfill its protection obligations, balancing host-state consent and protection-of-civilians mandates can raise tensions. For example, a staggering number of incidents have occurred this year in which CAR’s national defense and security forces blocked MINUSCA’s civilian and uniformed personnel from moving around the country, in violation of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Russian security actors have also constrained U.N. movement through roadblocks and intimidation. These acts against MINUSCA reduced its ability to implement protection activities – such as documenting IHL and IHRL violations and to conduct active patrolling, while also posing severe risks to the security of mission personnel.
MINUSCA’s experience is nothing new, and several peacekeeping missions in the past — including UNOCI (Ivory Coast), UNAMID (Darfur), MONUSCO (Democratic Republic of the Congo), and UNMISS (South Sudan) — have experienced tense political relations with host governments, leading to increased SOFA violations, threats, and sometimes even the withdrawal of host-state consent for the operations to continue. These cases shed light on the complexities faced by mission leadership in navigating relationships with the host state, and also carry important lessons on ways missions can be pressured to compromise impartial protection activities, including through self-censoring, under-reporting, and other potentially egregious protection failures.
Adapting MINUSCA’s Mandate
MINUSCA’s response to these increasing operational challenges should be guided by principled action. The mission’s success or failure will largely depend on its ability to protect civilians and mitigate the harm armed actors pose to vulnerable communities. The Security Council should therefore seize this opportunity during MINUSCA’s mandate renewal to set clear expectations for protection of civilians that are tailored to the evolving threats.
Strengthening Impartial Protection
Given the escalating violence in CAR, the Security Council should not only maintain MINUSCA’s focus on the protection of civilians as its top priority, but it also must send strong messages that MINUSCA’s mandate is to protect civilians from threats posed by all armed actors, stressing that impartiality is not just a core principle of peacekeeping, but a defining element of how peacekeeping missions carry out their protection-of-civilians mandates. The U.N. has developed clear guidance for missions that explicitly details how missions should protect civilians in an impartial manner, including in its Policy on Protection of Civilians in UN Peacekeeping, issued in 2019 by the Department of Peace Operations.
Like other missions, MINUSCA’s legitimacy and credibility among the local population rely on its ability to implement its protection mandate in an impartial manner – making it vital that the mission readjust to ensure it is protecting civilians from all actors, including the host state and its partners, and not just armed opposition groups. Including language in the mandate that reflects this will support the mission’s efforts to carry out the broad range of activities at its disposal to protect civilians in an impartial manner.
Human Rights Due Diligence and Mitigating Civilian Harm
The current conflict context makes it even more urgent for MINUSCA to ensure that actions in CAR to support national security and defense forces are not unintentionally causing harm –direct or indirect — to civilians, lest such harm greatly diminish the mission’s reputation and ability to effectively implement its mandate. Language on conditions for the mission to provide support to non-U.N. forces must be strengthened. The conditions, for example, should stress that all support must fully comply with the U.N.’s Human Rights Due Diligence Policy (HRDDP), a tool used to ensure any support that missions provide to non-U.N. security forces is consistent with the principles of the U.N. Charter and is compliant with and promotes respect for international humanitarian, human rights, and refugee law.
When used effectively, the HRDDP can promote coherence between mandated tasks to protect civilians and support the host state, but research has found that MINUSCA has previously implemented the HRDDP unevenly. One positive step taken this year has been the mission’s adoption of a new standard operating procedure on the implementation of HRDDP. By further strengthening language in the new mandate, the Security Council can signal its support to the mission’s leadership in this area and provide guidance on the need to allocate adequate mission resources to consistently define clear, robust, and quantifiable mitigating measures that both the U.N. and the state authorities are required to implement.
Regrettably, the situation in CAR is one of the Security Council’s agenda items that enjoys little unity due to competing geopolitical interests. Disagreements between permanent members have been on display in Security Council meetings this year, but divisions were deepening even before the current crisis. In particular, the contested status of Russian military personnel — deployed at the invitation of the CAR government — as well as their implication in human rights violations have contributed to polarizing the Security Council and politicizing MINUSCA’s role in CAR.
MINUSCA’s success or failure will largely depend on its ability to protect civilians and to mitigate harm that all armed actors pose to communities. If the Security Council wishes for MINUSCA to be successful, it should redouble efforts to find common ground in order to provide the mission with a mandate that increasingly responds to civilians’ protection needs in a quickly deteriorating context; that stresses the need for impartiality in MINUSCA’s implementation of protection activities; and that lends sufficient political support and guidance to enable the mission to navigate a complex set of challenges, with meaningful results for those civilians most at risk.