At least 34 civilians have been left dead and many more wounded following attacks made by armed groups on villages in the northwest of the Central African Republic on 21st May. The attacks, which took place in villages belonging to the Ouham-Pendé Prefecture, were carried out by the rebel militia known as 3R (Retour, Réclamation et Réhabilitation), according to the United Nations. There is widespread concern that this violence will lead to increased tensions between ethnic and religious groups in the country, challenging the peace legislation signed by militia leaders earlier this year.
According to Médecins Sans Frontières, survivors report of ‘gunmen wearing military fatigues and armed with Kalashnikovs [who] asked to see the community leaders to organize a general meeting.’ Those who gathered in the centre of the village were then tied up, piled together and shot indiscriminately by the armed men. There is particular concern for children caught up in the violence, with UNICEF stating that children ‘have been targeted by armed groups, caught in the crossfire and recruited to the fighting.’ Mankeur Ndiaye, head of the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSCA, condemned the attacks and declared that ‘the authors of crimes such as these will be sought, arrested and brought to justice.’ Similarly, UN Independent Expert Marie-Thérèse Keita Bocoum, underlined that it was ‘the responsibility of the State to set public action in motion in order to prosecute the perpetrators of these acts.’
Action has been taken following the violence, with increased patrols in and around the Ouham-Pendé Prefecture made jointly by MINUSCA and local authorities, and three members of 3R have been handed over to authorities. Yet the UN’s response has focused largely on offering written condemnation of the violence and ambiguous statements concerning how state officials should act. Although the UN has given promises that it will respond to the attacks, it has not detailed how it will do so. Of course, it is not necessary to publish an intricate plan of action, something which might further jeopardize the safety of civilians in the C.A.R., but it would be reassuring to know that there is one. Since the UN has played a role in securing the peace agreement between militia leaders, it has a certain responsibility to make sure that this peace is realized. This would be evidence that the UN has moved beyond its historic misconception that convincing violent groups to sign a piece of legislature is an assured and universally successful mechanism for conflict resolution.
Whilst it holds the leaders of armed groups accountable, this latest peace agreement is problematic in accepting the existence of rebel militias in the Central African Republic. Such a move raises their status to that of local authorities and legitimizes their very presence. Although the UN peacekeeping mission is aimed at reintegrating insurgent elements, it is evident from the rising tensions between opposing militias that reintegration is yet to be achieved. In the last six years, hostilities between militias – which are divided on ethnic and religious lines – have led to the increased vulnerability and victimization of civilians. 3R, the armed group responsible for the latest attacks, claims to protect the minority Muslim Puehl population from Christian Anti-balaka militias. It has been warned that Anti-balaka militias may retaliate against 3R following the attacks.
In the short term, the UN peacebuilding mission to the C.A.R. must fully recognize the fragility of the peace agreement made between militia leaders, which only acts to temporarily resolve the conflict. From this foundation, the UN must take responsibility for finding a longer term solution to the ethnic and religious division rather than integrating, and legitimizing, warring elites.