UN genocide warning in Central African Republic reflects powerlessness

12.09.17

Pierre Hazan, JusticeInfo editorial advisor and professor at Neuchâtel University
Young Muslims taking refuge in a Catholic seminary in Bangassou, CAR, to escape communal violence Young Muslims taking refuge in a Catholic seminary in Bangassou, CAR, to escape communal violence ©Alexis Huguet - AFP

When should one warn of genocide? Was the UN right to raise the alarm in recent days about a genocidal pattern in the Central African Republic? Is there not a risk that invoking the “crime of crimes” too quickly could devalue the term “genocide” and reduce its power to raise the alarm?

In August, United Nations aid chief Stephen O’Brien warned the UN Security Council that there were “early signs of a genocide” in the Central African Republic (CAR). He was criticized by nearly all experts on the country for being overly alarmist. “Genocide is a precise concept,” explained Didier Niewiadowski, jurist and former advisor to the French embassy in Bangui, in an interview with JusticeInfo. “Is there currently a plan to systematically eliminate an ethnic or religious group, regardless of age or gender? The answer is no. On the other hand, we should be concerned about rising numbers of massacres of civilians in the extreme east and northwest of the country, which often have an inter-communal character. These crimes remain localized and are not at this point driven by a strategy of ethnic or religious cleansing. All the same, the danger of a national explosion has never been so high.” Stephen O’Brien nevertheless defended his use of the term genocide in a September 9 interview with French newspaper Libération, saying that “if we wait for proof of genocide, it will be too late to act”.

So when should the highest alert be sounded? If the situation is bad, war crimes and massive human rights abuses have been taking place for years but do not fully meet the definition of “genocide” in Article 6 of the International Criminal Court’s Statutes -- i.e. the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such" --, then should we refrain from such alerts?

Analysing from a semantic and legal point of view the use of the word genocide has a rather shocking aspect, as if the “crime of crimes” label is necessary to stir public opinion, the media and finally States. 

Everyone agrees that the situation in the CAR is terrible. In a recent report, the UN meticulously documented war crimes committed between 2003 and December 2015. Today some 15 armed groups reign over four-fifths of a territory bigger than France, terrorizing the population and fighting for control of the country’s rich resources of gold, diamonds and other minerals. The massacres continue without end. To help the UN, France intervened with military operation Sangaris, but pulled out in October 2016. Since April this year the number of displaced people has risen by 50% to over 600,000. The government struggles to control Bangui and only manages to do so with the help of UN peacekeepers. And the UN struggles to fund its 12,000-strong force.

Peace plans have come and gone without ever being implemented, and this has brought growing lassitude and indifference on the part of the international community. The democratic election last year of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra raised high hopes among the population of an end to the interminable civil war, but those hopes have faded as violence has increased.

In the coming weeks the situation in the CAR will be discussed in New York, and the discussions will focus on continuing the presence of MINUSCA, the UN force in the country. Hence the temptation for UN officials to play the ultimate card and cry “genocide”, in the hope of mobilizing States in the run-up to the discussions. And so it is both an admission of powerlessness and a cry for help.

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