This piece was originally published by The New York Times on December 18, 2013.
When France decided to send soldiers to the Central African Republic on Nov. 26, it did the right thing for the wrong reason.
France, the United Nations and the African Union dispatched some 4,000 troops soon after the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, warned that the C.A.R. was “on the verge of genocide.” Yet the country doesn’t face genocide; it is experiencing state collapse and limited intercommunal killings after a military takeover by a coalition of undisciplined militiamen known as Seleka.
Last week, flying home from the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, President François Hollande of France stopped in Bangui, C.A.R.’s capital, to visit the newly deployed French peacekeepers. The stopover also served as an implicit act of contrition for events in April 1994, when world leaders congratulated Mr. Mandela for presiding over the peaceful end to apartheid, even as they were pulling their peacekeepers out of Rwanda. Close to one million people died in the genocide that unfolded over the following months.
Nineteen years later, French and African soldiers have fanned out across Bangui and other towns largely unopposed, losing just two soldiers so far. Over the last decade the C.A.R. had become a battleground for sundry marauders, freebooters and proxy forces, especially from Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Lord’s Resistance Army of Joseph Kony, on the run from Uganda, is believed to be hiding out in its thick, lawless forests.
Even by its low standards, C.A.R. slid further into chaos this year at the hands of two political contenders who are little more than aspiring warlords set on plundering for personal gain. François Bozizé, the country’s cruel military leader from 2003 until last March, was eventually abandoned by his sponsors in Chad and Sudan because of his nepotism and incompetence.
Michel Djotodia, who took control of Bangui in March with the support of Seleka, an undisciplined coalition of militia from the C.A.R.’s Muslim minorities, had no political agenda beyond seizing power. But this was not a mere change of guard. The African Union warned that if the Muslim rebels overran the capital there was a high risk of intercommunal pogroms. Muslims constitute about 15 percent of C.A.R.’s population and are concentrated in the northeast, at the borders with Chad and Sudan. They are overrepresented among market traders, but members of the Christian majority have long dominated politics. Discrimination is such that Mr. Djotodia, a Muslim, had to take a Christian name to enroll in school.
People from the country’s southern region, which borders Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, frequently refer to people from the remote and marginalized northeast as foreigners, regardless of their actual citizenship.
Both France and the African Union already had troops in the country as a result of previous peace-maintaining efforts. The African Union urged the French to defend the capital from the Seleka rebels while its own forces would control the northeast, from where Seleka was launching its attacks. But France had no stomach for propping up a discredited dictator who seemed intent on clinging to power solely to enrich his family, and so it let Djotodia take the city.
The African Union’s warning was prescient. Longstanding religious fault lines soon translated into ethnic killing. Communities have armed themselves, and local vigilantes have turned on one another. At least 500 people have been killed, and tens of thousands have been displaced.
Yet neither C.A.R. specialists nor students of genocide would describe this violence as genocide. There haven’t been large-scale and systematic massacres, and the killings are driven by the contingencies of fear, not a deeply nurtured intent to destroy another ethnic group.
France is legitimately worried that the implosion of the country might bring chaos to neighbors like Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which are rich in natural resources and important members of the global Francophone bloc. But the French authorities have been concerned that they could not generate domestic support for a faraway military adventure unless they dramatized the crisis, and so they used the word “genocide.”
The overstatement has also allowed the French to obtain a United Nations Security Council resolution that gives their troops the authority to use “all necessary measures.” The soldiers’ mission is to disarm the militias and hand over security to the African-led International Support Mission in the Central African Republic, which the United Nations Security Council has charged with stabilizing the country over the next 12 months.
This might seem like a fine outcome, but there are serious downsides to treating situations like the current crisis in C.A.R. as a genocide.
Misdiagnosing the problem can mean taking the wrong actions to resolve it. The playbook for an international response operation to mass atrocities calls for neutralizing perpetrators and protecting unarmed civilians; it is not designed to manage a conflict among many armed actors, each with a distinct civilian constituency.
One immediate question facing the French and African troops in C.A.R. is, which forces should they disarm? Were their task to stop a genocide from unfolding the answer would be obvious: the perpetrators of violence. But in C.A.R., there are no clear villains and victims: All parties are armed, and all can plausibly claim to be acting in self-defense.
Most important, if the label “genocide” is readily applied to any situation of ethnic strife and governmental breakdown, it will lose its analytic power and its special moral force. Soon enough it won’t serve any purpose.
Alex de Waal is executive director of the World Peace Foundation.
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