CAR situation can get worse than Somalia, warns UN official

Saturday, December 22, 2012
Zainab Hawa Bangura greeting people during her recent
visit to Central African Republic.
[PHOTO: UNifeed] 
New York: Zainab Hawa Bangura, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, has warned that a situation worse than that in Somalia could develop in the Central African Republic (CAR) unless the international community and all stakeholders addressed the serious challenges confronting that country.

There was a need for comprehensive and concerted efforts to help the Central African Republic, she emphasized at a press conference, adding that the Government’s inability to provide security and protection was the result of a “very weak” military.  Unable to cover the sparsely populated but vast country, its control was basically confined to the capital, Bangui, she added.

Briefing on her recent eight-day visit to the Central African Republic, she said the level of helplessness she had heard and seen in the faces of people who had endured more than 20 years of living in a “literally non-existent” country had convinced her of the urgent need for all stakeholders — beginning with the Government itself, armed groups, the international donor community and the United Nations — to step in and turn the situation around.  Having briefed the Deputy Secretary-General earlier, Bangura said, she would now prepare a comprehensive report on her visit for presentation by the Secretary-General to the Security Council in March.

She said the victims of sexual violence had no support because the Government was not in control of the entire country, and there were, therefore, no hospitals or health facilities to help them.  The visit had given her the opportunity to understand the difficulties and challenges the Central African Republic faced; to identify the seriousness of sexual violence in conflict; and to recognize the prevailing denial and culture of silence relating to sexual violence and conflict.

Bangura said she had met all stakeholders and signatories to the June 2008 Libreville Comprehensive Peace Agreement, including the President, armed groups, women parliamentarians, the donor community, international non-governmental organizations, and the United Nations country team.  She had also met the head of the Human Rights Commission and visited two major regional headquarters, where she had met both victims and survivors — women affected by sexual violence, as well as children who had been abducted and then released.

The visit had culminated in the signing of two “communiqués”, she said.  They included one aimed at getting the Government’s commitment to address sexual violence and ensure the success of ongoing security- and justice-sector reforms, and another intended to ensure that the Government actually addressed the issue of conflict-related violence.  The first communiqué was a result of the realization that, in dialogue with the Government, during which more than 100 recommendations had been made, no mention had been made of human rights, accountability for crimes committed, or addressing impunity.

She said that the single common message that all the women she had met wished her to pass on both to the Government and to the international community was their strong desire for peace and the importance of disarming all armed groups, if normal life was to resume.  The conflict in the Central African Republic had continued for more than two decades, she pointed out, adding that it had consequently become “like the forgotten conflict”, despite having dragged the country to its knees.

The Central African Republic’s problems were compounded by the fragmentation of its Armed Forces, which were “very weak”, to the extent that the President had been compelled to turn to neighbouring Chad for protection because his military had neither the capacity nor the resources required.  That sense of helplessness, from the Head of State down, was so pervasive that people believed they had been forgotten.  “There is this attitude of hopelessness, that ‘We have been forgotten, nobody is thinking about us; there is nowhere people are even thinking to help us,’” she said.

Responding to a question, Bangura noted that the biggest challenge for the country’s disarmament, demobilization and reintegration committee was the lack of resources to carry out its functions.  Although it was able to disarm certain areas, the committee was unable to carry out the reintegration portion of its mandate, she noted.  That was so even with the newly pledged support of the World Bank and the release of new funds through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).  To address that weakness, she had asked the President to strengthen the Ministry of Social Welfare and Promotion of Women, having realized that the absence of a gender perspective within the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process was a major weakness.

Asked whether all armed groups in the country were guilty of abusing women and children, and how large the presence of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was, she said that, by all accounts, almost all the armed groups — six that had signed the peace agreement so far — had committed sexual violence.  Regrettably, the Government lacked access to the rest of the country, which made it difficult to determine a concrete number of victims.  That problem was compounded by the “culture of silence”, she added, expressing hope, however, that following her extensive discussions with the Government and all stakeholders, more and more people would be willing to talk.

As for the LRA, she said the best estimate she had been given was that their numbers could be in the range of 200.  Although the group’s presence in the Central African Republic was small and scattered, the Government had been unable to stop the LRA’s activities because it neither trusted nor enjoyed complete control over its own military, and had thus been forced to turn to Chad for help.
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