While the world’s eyes are focusing on events in Ukraine, a small African nation is drawing less attention - despite horrific human rights abuses happening in its territory. In what the UN human rights body and Amnesty International have called “ethnic-religious cleansing” between the country’s Muslim minority (15 percent of the population) and Christian militiamen, more than 2,000 people are dead and nearly a quarter of the country’s population of 4.6 million has been forced to flee the country. In recent weeks, entire neighborhoods in the Central African Republic have been emptied of their Muslim populations and their property and mosques destroyed. An estimated 15,000 Muslims are now trapped in small pockets of territory in Bangui and elsewhere in the country, under international protection. In recent days, French forces engaged Christian militiamen who had been setting up checkpoints on the main exit road linking Bangui to Cameroon.
In a passionate plea for further assistance, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, recently warned that the world’s response to the ethnic-religious cleansing in the Central African Republic was alarmingly slow. At a press conference in Bangui last week, Pillay eluded, “This has become a country where people are not just killed, they are tortured, mutilated, burned and dismembered…Children have been decapitated, and we know of at least four cases where the killers have eaten the flesh of their victims.”
The severity of the situation has not gone completely unnoticed among the international community. Fatou Bensouda, chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, has already opened a preliminary investigation into the crimes against humanity mentioned by Pillay. More than 1,600 French troops and about 6,000 African peacekeepers are now on the ground in this former French colony. More troops have been requested, but with distractions in Ukraine, the French general of a European Union force complained on Wednesday of not having enough soldiers ready for their scheduled deployment this week. Humanitarian aid is also slow to be implemented, with only 20 percent of requirements met so far, according to Pillay.
Ethnic-religious tension between Muslims and Christians exploded in late 2012, when Muslim rebels, supported by Chadian and Sudanese fighters, quickly overran the country’s army. After a series of peace deals with the opposition were not honored, Muslim rebels invaded the capital and overthrew President François Bozizé last March and installed the country’s first Muslim president, Michel Djotodia. Widespread human rights abuses by the Muslim rebels, including the pillaging of neighborhoods, rape and killing of people, prompted the creation of the “anti-balaka” (anti-machete) militias, mainly consisting of the Christian-majority and some animists. The Christian militias attempted a coup early last December, with violence exploding between the two communities in the following days. The forced resignation of Djotodia last month, amid mounting international condemnation, emboldened the attacks of Christian militias on those Muslims, and others it accuses of having collaborated with the government.
With the security and humanitarian situation in the Central African Republic quickly disintegrating, immediate and stronger action is needed from the international community to help combat intolerance and stem the violence — including additional French and African peacekeepers, lest the country become so destabilized as to threaten the peace and stability of neighboring countries. Greater humanitarian efforts will be required to disperse already approved aid to fleeing refugees, many of whom have fled to different provinces of the country and to the neighboring nations of Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan.
The treatment which awaits these Muslim refugees in these neighboring countries, some of whom are or may become radicalized, should be of great concern to the region. Should they become even more marginalized, neglected and treated as unwanted foreigners, the same violence that precipitated the violence in the Central African Republic could easily spill over into neighboring countries and draw in nearby Al Qaeda-inspired groups.